What's Wrong With Iowa's Offense?

By Matthew Lundeen on December 6, 2017 at 9:30 am
Iowa's offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this year. What is going on?
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa's offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this year. What is going on?

Entering this season, the biggest talking point for the Iowa men's basketball team was defense. The offense was good last year, and it returned almost completely intact, but the quality of the defense, it was thought, would determine the success of this team. 

Through nine games, that is still largely true. Iowa probably would not be 4-5 today if their defense was improved from last year's squad. On the other hand, they also probably would not be 4-5 today if the offense was not so completely boom-or-bust right now. Here are some of those bipolar numbers:

Points Per Possession UL-Lafayette SDSU Virginia Tech Indiana
First Half 0.48 0.88 1.13 0.68
Second Half 1.39 1.21 0.45 1.12

This hasn't been an every game thing so far, but four games is still damn near half of the sample size we are working with. And if we ignore games against Kenpom 300-level competition, this has now happened four times in the last six games. It's certainly an alarming trend.

So what is wrong with this offense? Isn't offensive basketball supposed to be McCaffery's forte? After all, his worst offense at Iowa ranked 161st in the country by Kenpom, and that was his first year on the job. Aside from that, he has never coached an Iowa offense that finished lower than #58. This offense, however, is currently 75th in the country, and it has been dropping after nearly every game. 

So, again, I ask you: What is wrong with this offense?


The first, and most obvious, answer is turnovers. This team is giving the ball away on every fifth possession this year, which is bad enough for 225th in the country. And through two Big Ten games, that turnover rate has increased to one in every four possessions, which puts Iowa at the bottom of the league. 

Some of these mistakes are unforced errors, but mostly, Iowa is struggling to handle aggressive defenses. Over half of Iowa's turnovers this year have come on steals, and that 11% steal rate puts Iowa at 310th in the nation. That number has also increased to 13% through two Big Ten games. 

Needless to say, handing the ball to your opponent is a bad idea. And doing it on 20-25% of your possessions is an even worse idea. The point of basketball is to score more points than your opponent, and you can't score if you don't put up a shot. And far too often, Iowa's opponents are ending up with huge advantages in scoring opportunities. 

Scoring Opportunities (FGA+0.475*FTA) Iowa Opponent Difference
Wins 70.5 71.8 -1.3
Losses 67.7 71.8 -4.1
All 68.9 71.8 -2.9

Getting more scoring attempts up isn't a surefire way to victory, as you can see from the fact that Iowa's opponents are still getting one more scoring attempt per game even in Hawkeye victories. Hot shooting can be a way to overcome such a disparity, but I don't think any coach would advocate a plan that let his opponent have more scoring attempts than his own team. Part of this has also been Iowa's troubles with defensive rebounding at times this season (UAB had 11 more scoring attempts than Iowa, largely thanks to rebounding), but the biggest issue has been possessions where Iowa has failed to get a shot up.

And the crazy thing about these turnovers is that they are coming on things that Iowa was pretty good at. For instance, throwing a pass into the post.

I don't have specific numbers, but I ran out of fingers long ago trying to count how many times Iowa has either thrown the ball out of bounds or had it stolen away on an entry pass this year. This is something that the Hawkeyes were good at last year, but it has become a real gamble this season.

In addition to entry passes, transition possessions have also become more of a crapshoot this season. There have been too many instances where Iowa has tried to get out on the break, only to have the ball poked away from them while running down the court.

There have also been way too many charges called on Iowa in transition.

Again, transition was something Iowa excelled at last year, and it was probably the best part of Isaiah Moss' game last season. Lately, though, Moss has struggled in transition. And, even though I point out Moss here, Tyler Cook has also had his share of charges in transition lately, as well.

All too often, turnovers have given opponents easy baskets in transition, and allowed them to start to pull away. 10 first half turnovers coupled with awful shooting allowed Louisiana-Lafayette to build a 20-point lead at halftime, while 13 first half turnovers again coupled with awful shooting led to a 15-point Iowa deficit against Indiana heading into intermission.

No Ball Movement

In addition to turnovers, Iowa's half-court motion offense tends to lack meaningful movement for large stretches of play. This has played a large role in some of the awful shooting stretches by the Hawkeyes this year. (28% first half eFG% vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 20% in second half at Virginia Tech, and 39% in first half at Indiana.) This has led to an increased reliance on Tyler Cook going to work in the post, which has worked alright, but has led to an increased amount of turnovers on travels and charges by Iowa's star player.

The point of Iowa's motion offense is to let the players read the defense and react, according to their skillset. This kind of offense can be lethal when guys have played with each other for years and they aren't having to do so much thinking on the court. But with an offense that leaves so much open to the players, there can also be a lot of standing around or movement that doesn't really have a purpose. 

In the video above, there is not a whole lot of purposeful movement. Guys are setting screens for Brady Ellingson, but he curls back into the lane and nothing comes of it. Nunge ends up holding the ball so long, he eventually decides to just take it himself. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but his game is just not there yet and he can't finish at the rim. Moreover, this play also highlights the fact that Iowa doesn't really have anybody who can penetrate and put pressure on the defense and get to the rim with any real consistency. That puts more pressure on guys to create off the ball, and when you are playing with a number of younger players, the offense can get stagnant.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it was Brady Ellingson -- a redshirt junior -- who put on a clinic at the beginning of the second half in Bloomington on how create off the ball. Everyone knows Ellingson to be a shooter, and he is. But he also has a knack for reading the defense and cutting to the basket.

But, yes, he can also shoot the ball.

Nunge and Wagner set great screens and Ellingson uses them to knock down an open look from distance. This is how Iowa's motion offense is supposed to look. Sadly, this has become less frequent as Iowa's level of competition has stiffened.

Youth and Player Development

All of this boils down to two things: Youth and player development.

First of all, this is a really young team. Iowa is 336th in the country in experience, according to Kenpom. And his experience metric doesn't just take the average year of each player, it also accounts for the amount of playing time they see. Thus, it takes into account the fact that most of Iowa's upperclassmen play 14 minutes or fewer per game. And when you have freshmen and sophomores playing the majority of your team's minutes, turnovers and offensive breakdowns are to be expected. And as much as we may not like it, there will be times (at least early in the season) where guys don't know what they are supposed to do.

This play was actually a set play that Iowa runs pretty regularly, so this isn't even the motion offense. But Maishe Dailey was unsure of what to do, and Ahmad Wagner had to direct him on where to go. And this wasn't the only time in the Indiana game where players weren't sure of what they were supposed to be doing.

Aside from just youth, this is also a player development issue. This is the first time in a long while that Fran has not had a star player that wasn't a junior or senior. There are some solid role players on this squad who are upperclassmen, but so far they all have severe limitations. Dom Uhl is Iowa's lone senior, and he is only in front of non-scholarship guys in Fran's rotation. Brady Ellingson is a heady player who can shoot, but who can also disappear for long stretches of time. (Before the Indiana game, he had been scoreless over his last five appearances.) Ahmad Wagner is a solid defender and rebounder, but his offensive game has not really developed the way we all hoped it would. Christian Williams transferred, but his offensive game also never came together at Iowa. 

Essentially, those 2014-2015 recruiting classes have not really panned out. We've seen attrition (which is completely normal nowadays), and no real stars emerge. Nicholas Baer was the real steal, considering he was a walk-on in that 2014 class. But he's never going to be the go-to guy on offense. (And that's totally fine.) Isaiah Moss has shown flashes of real talent, but he's still way too inconsistent against legitimate competition. 

Fran and his staff have shown a knack for player development in their seven previous seasons in Iowa City, but when you run a program that so heavily depends on finding underrated three star recruits and developing them into First Team All-Big Ten players as seniors, you are bound to strike out on some occasions. And while I'm not calling those classes a complete fail, I am saying that they are the reason why Iowa is currently in a position where they are playing most of their veteran player 14 minutes per game or less.

Luckily, there are legitimate reasons to still be excited for the future of this program. That excitement not only stems from the guys who came from the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes, but it also comes from the highly rated recruits that are in the pipeline for 2018 and 2019. (Which will hopefully include a point guard as well.) Recruiting under Fran has picked up lately, and the Hawkeyes are securing commitments from fewer diamond in the rough guys, who need two-three years to develop. Those guys aren't necessarily bad, but when you build entire recruiting classes out of them, you are bound to have some duds. (Ask Kirk Ferentz.) But when you can surround one or two of those guys with highly-rated recruits, you minimize the risk of getting hurt if one or two of those developmental guys never really work out.

For now, though, this is the team we will watch for the next four months. There will be highs and there will be lows, and it may feel like we have hit rock bottom now, but don't listen to anybody who says this is like the Lickliter years. There is a lot of talent on this roster, but it just needs some more time to gel together. The team may be a year behind schedule from where we wanted it to be right now, but it still seems to be on the right path.

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