What A Difference A Month Makes For Iowa Hoops

By RossWB on March 5, 2021 at 12:22 pm
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a month makes. 

Remember where things were for Iowa basketball a month ago? Iowa was fresh off a frustrating 89-85 home defeat to #7 Ohio State. The game was a thrilling, back-and-forth affair with points aplenty but precious few stops for Iowa on the defensive end -- especially late in the game, when the Hawkeyes badly needed them. That loss was Iowa's third in four games and seemed indicative of the Hawkeyes' true identity this season: brilliant on offense, brutal on defense.

Three days later Iowa followed the OSU defeat with a far more grating loss, a sleepy 67-65 road meltdown against a mediocre Indiana squad. The glittering Top-5 ranking? Gone. The big dreams Iowa hoops had? Dashed. The lofty goals? Doomed. The dreaded "February Fade" was back to destroy another Iowa season.  

That loss was the fourth in five games over a two-and-a-half week span, a stretch book-ended by defeats to Indiana that plunged Iowa's season from ecstasy to agony. But here's the thing: virtually everything Iowa seemed to lose during that tailspin has been regained. With one exception, Iowa's in so many of the same positions they found themselves in before they took a ride on the strugglebus for a few weeks. 

* Iowa was ranked #4 in the AP Top 25 heading into that first Indiana game. They dropped down to #15 after the second Indiana game, but six wins in seven games since then (and the only loss being to #3-ranked Michigan) has seen them climb back to #5 in the current poll

* Iowa was also in prime position for a top-four seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament before the season went sideways for a few weeks. After their current run of form, they're looking at possible #3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. In other words: a top-four seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. 

* Iowa was penciled in for a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament by the bracketologists prior to the first Indiana defeat. Iowa never fell too far in the eyes of the bracket experts during their bad spell -- I don't think I ever saw them lower than a 4-seed in a mock bracket -- but they were certainly no longer getting discussed as a possible 1-seed and even the chance at a 2-seed seemed to be slipping through their grasp them as the losses piled up for a few weeks. Now? Iowa is once again in excellent shape to earn a 2-seed and might even still have a glimmer of a shot at a 1-seed (albeit only if a lot of things go right).

Everything old is new again, including early season expectations and the potential for a majestic March for Iowa hoops. Well, with one exception: that ever-elusive Big Ten regular season championship. Along with a deep run in March, the other goal we had for Iowa basketball was to see them earn their first regular season title since 1979 and end a 40+ year drought. Losing four out of five games won't cripple your poll standing or your bracket seeding potential -- but it will doom your regular season championship hopes. Those losses gave Iowa five Big Ten losses on the season, which is simply too many to have and realistically hope to win a league title. But our Big Ten title dreams didn't factor in a team as good as this year's Michigan squad, either. The Wolverines have been outstanding throughout league play this year (minus a pair of hiccups against Minnesota and Illinois) and keeping pace with them would have required an almost flawless season from Iowa. The fact that Iowa's painfully long regular season title drought is going to extend for another year really sucks, but it stings a little bit less knowing what Iowa would have needed to do to get that prize this year. 

Everything else is still in front of Iowa, though. They're ranked in the Top-5. They have a chance to be well-rested for the Big Ten Tournament and to get a favorable draw. They're well-positioned to earn their best seed in the NCAA Tournament in year and make their deepest run in decades. 

Well, I lied -- there's one other exception to Iowa basketball managing to regain so many of the things that they had prior to their losing skid: this team is playing defense. Like, good defense. Really good defense. 

Remember this after the Ohio State game? 

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.

Or this? 

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. 

What a dumbass. Whoever runs this site should definitely not let that guy write anything. 

It turns out the book on Iowa basketball still had a few chapters left to write -- and these newest chapters have the potential to dramatically change things for this team. That overall ceiling is no longer being "kneecapped" by inability on defense. Iowa had sunk to 135th in the nation in defensive efficiency after that Ohio State. They've currently risen all the way to 56th in the nation in defensive efficiency. That's not just a high-water mark for Iowa this season, it's a high-water mark for the Bohannon-Garza Hawkeyes. Those teams have never had trouble scoring the ball, but they've also struggled to crack the Top 90 in defensive efficiency nationally. 

Even that #56 ranking kind of undersells just how good Iowa's defense has been during their recent winning surge. Over their last five games, Iowa's defensive efficiency ranking is 85.6. The two best defensive teams in the nation -- Loyola Chicago and Memphis -- have defensive efficiency rankings of 86.3 this season. Iowa doesn't really have one of the very best defenses in the country... but they are playing at a really high level right now. And they've been doing it over multiple games, too. There are tough tests to come -- like possible Big Ten Tournament matchups with Michigan and Illinois, both of whom rank in the Top 10 in offensive efficiency -- but this is still something very much worth getting excited about. 

Iowa's improvement on defense hasn't come through big structural or personnel changes. They've seemed to play more man-to-man than zone during this stretch, but Iowa has always switched defenses under Fran. And the players who were playing big minutes when the defense was struggling are still playing big minutes now -- if anything the rotation has just gotten shorter, even after the season-ending injury to Jack Nunge. Iowa seems to have settled on Keegan Murray, Joe Toussaint, and Patrick McCaffery as the three main contributors off the bench. The biggest change in Iowa defensively during this winning surge? It seems like a ridiculously trite cliché, but it really seems like a lot of it is effort. Iowa's been showing more energy on defense over the last few games -- guys are getting out faster on rotations, they're contesting shots more emphatically, they're blocking out more forcefully. 

Seeing Iowa play hard -- and play so much better -- on defense has been great to see over these past few weeks. It makes it easier to win games, it makes their games more fun to watch, and it just makes them a better team. An Iowa team that play can defense well is one that forces us to recalibrate our expectations for this team -- in a good way! Those preseason dreams of deep runs in the NCAA Tournament don't seem quite so fanciful when Iowa isn't just a one-trick pony of a killer offense married to a middling defense. This season has always been about enjoying the ride with a very special collection of players -- but it's never been more exciting to see where that ride might end up going. 

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