The book on Iowa men's basketball for the last two or three seasons has been this: great on offense, shitty on defense. That's who they were, that's who they are, and -- it's increasingly clear -- that's who they will be, at least in this current iteration. Just look at their current KenPom efficiency rankings: a sparkling #1 on offense and a turgid #135 on defense. Tonight's game, an 89-85 barnburner loss to #7 Ohio State, was almost a note-perfect example of Iowa's identity. They scored 85 points, made 14 three-pointers, and turned the ball over just six times... and they lost.
Iowa lost because, for the seemingly umpteeneth time over the past few years, they could not get stops on defense when they badly needed to get stops. You can point to a late game stretch when Ohio State swished three-pointers on four straight possessions (three of them by former random Hawkeye-killer Justin Ahrens, who you may remember from dropping a career-high 29 points on Iowa back in 2019) and opened up an 88-81 lead with 2:39 to play when Iowa couldn't match the Buckeyes bucket-for-bucket. Ohio State went cold after that, but the damage was done. You could also point to the 12-2 run Ohio State put together after Iowa opened up their biggest lead of the game, 61-50, with 14:29 to play in the second half. Iowa looked like they had a chance to blow the game open and take control of the game at that point; instead their lead vanished in a flash (that 12-2 run lasted just 2:30 of game clock) and the game turned into a back-and-forth shootout.
It seems hilariously telling that when Iowa was desperate to get stops in the final minute of the game they went to an an entirely different lineup. Out came the lineup with four starters (Luka Garza, Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and Connor McCaffery) and Jack Nunge; in came a lineup with Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, Keegan Murray, and Patrick McCaffery. Murray and McCaffery logged four and three minutes apiece in the second half, while Toussaint, Ulis, and Perkins all officially logged zero minutes in the second half. (You can't even really argue that they were subbed in for fouling purposes, since Garza was the only starter with more than two fouls; no one was in danger of fouling out of this game.) Iowa's starting unit is blisteringly good on offense and but lousy on the other end. The reserves often struggle to score, but Iowa's best defensive moments this season have invariably come through their play.
To be clear, I am emphatically not arguing that Fran should make hockey-style line changes earlier in the game (although it might not have been the worst idea to run out the defense-first lineup when Ohio State was going on one of its mini-runs earlier in the game). The answer is not an all-or-nothing lineup. The answer -- or at least a possible solution -- is to try and find better balance. Why did Toussaint, Iowa's best perimeter defender, play less than a minute in the second half, even as Ohio State's guard were finding acres of space on the perimeter and drilling three after three to, alternately, keep the Buckeyes in the game or key their winning run? Perkins and Ulis have been trusted in big moments in the past -- but not tonight. Bohannon was very sharp on offense tonight -- he had 18 points on 5/11 shooting (4/8 from deep) and had six assists against just one turnover. But he struggled mightily on the other end, against Ohio State's bevy of bigger, stronger, and quicker guards. Given his stellar form offensively, the answer may not have been sitting him -- but why not let him share the floor with Joe Toussaint more? Why not find ways to get Ulis or Perkins on the floor for a bit to try and slow down the Buckeyes? If Iowa needs to score 90 points to win a game like this, that's... a high bar to top.
This loss stings because Iowa got good games (offensively, at least) from so many players. This was not The Luka Garza Show -- far from it, in fact. Garza was not bad, of course, but 16 points (on 6/13 shooting) and 7 rebounds does go down as one of his quieter efforts this season. Fortunately, Iowa didn't need Garza to play out of his mind here; they got help from several corners. As noted, Bohannon contributed 18 points and six assists, while Jack Nunge had another superb game off the bench, with 18 points (6/12 shooting, 4/7 from long range), 6 rebounds, and 2 assists. Joe Wieskamp had another strong outing, too, racking up 17 points on 6/14 shooting (4/8 from deep), as well as a team-high 10 rebounds and two assists. Did you know Wieskamp has had 16+ points in five of Iowa's last six games? Or that he's made 3+ three-pointers in four of Iowa's last six games? Patrick McCaffery also gave Iowa a lift off the bench, with 8 points (including three emphatic dunks) and a rebound in eight minutes of action. And, yes, Iowa certainly missed CJ Fredrick's presence in this game, both for his offensive skill and floor-spacing acumen, but even more for his ability to provide defensive competence on the perimeter.
On its face, this is not a bad loss. There's no shame in losing a close game to the #7 team in the country. And this was an absurdly close and evenly-played game by almost any metric. Just look at how even the stats were for both teams:
They shot about the same, percentage-wise. Each team made 14 3-pointers. They shot about the same at the free throw line, and had a roughly similar number of attempts there as well. They each had 11 offensive rebounds leading to 12 second chance points. They each had 20 assists and just six turnovers. And on and on.
These were two very good teams, who played a very good (and very entertaining) game. Ohio State, unfortunately, made just a few more plays than Iowa, especially late. That's why they got the W and Iowa took another L. If these teams played 10 times, they might split them five apiece.
But... that's also not how this works. You only get credit for the wins you actually earn, not the ones you probably would have gotten in a hypothetical scenario. And in terms of actual on-court wins -- particularly actual on-court wins against top competition -- this was another win that Iowa let slip through its grasp. It was Iowa's third loss in their last four games, their second in their last three home games, and their second in a row over a ranked opponent. The Big Ten is still loaded with good teams, so there's no shortage of future opportunities for Iowa to earn big wins -- but it would help if, at some point, they could actually notch a few of those big wins.
This loss also stings because of the damage it inflicts on Iowa's season-long goals. Iowa entered this season with two main goals: win a regular season Big Ten championship (their first since 1979) and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament (their first since 1987). Every league loss pushes that first goal further and further into the distance; at 7-4 in Big Ten play Iowa's hopes may not be entirely dead, but they're certainly on life support. And any hope of a Big Ten championship likely requires Iowa to do something like run the table over their final eight games (nine, if the Nebraska game gets rescheduled), an outcome which seems decidedly unlikely with the state of Iowa's defense. The second goal is still on the table; Iowa's in no danger of missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth at this point. But every loss does damage their eventual seed, which will make it even harder to go on that much-desired deep run in March.
All season long we've seized on even the mildest signs of defensive improvement as evidence that Iowa had turned the corner on that side of the ball; that they could find a way to pair their phenomenal offense with a defense that was at least passable. But with the season two-thirds over, Iowa increasingly looks like they are exactly who we thought they were: a great offensive team whose overall ceiling is kneecapped by its inability on defense.