Let's Take a Look at Iowa's Defense

By Matthew Lundeen on January 10, 2018 at 8:54 am
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Let's break down the tape from the last two games, and see what's wrong with Iowa's defense.

We are now five games into the conference schedule, and, so far, Iowa has yet to win a game against a Big Ten team. And, really, they haven't even been particularly close to doing so, either. (The Penn State game was settled by four points, but that final score is extremely deceiving.) Part of the problem has come on offense. Yet, for as bad as they have looked at times this season, they are still the 59th best unit in the nation, according to Kenpom. And while having the #8 offense in the Big Ten during conference play is nothing to write home about, possessing the absolute worst defense in conference play is an even bigger issue.

I've talked about the defense a little this year, but I've mostly focused on the offense for a couple of reasons. First, offense is the part of this team that we have seen be successful in the past. Peter Jok was a shell of himself for the second half of last season, and Iowa had to rely almost solely on their freshman to win down the stretch. And they were successful. Thus, it was pretty easy to think they could do it again this year. Of course, that hasn't happened yet.

Second, and I'll be honest, offense is much easier to write about than defense. Offensive statistics for individual players are much more straightforward, and you usually have to watch less game tape. Most of the time when I'm writing about this basketball team, I have to wait until the game is over, put stats into a spreadsheet, and then sit down and actually write a post. That is a lengthy process that takes a few hours, and finding time to go back and watch video and break things down properly adds another hour or two that I just don't have. However, after watching yet another painful loss on Sunday evening, I decided it was time to invest more time in my analysis, and so I decided to really look at the defense.

Half-Court Defense

Defense Possessions eFG% TO% Off. Reb% FT Rate PPP
Man 51% 53.7% 10.7% 31.3% 31.3% 1.18
Zone 22% 51.6% 9.7% 35.3% 19.4% 1.16
Total 73% 53.1% 10.4% 32.7% 27.6% 1.17

*Note: These numbers are from the Ohio State and Maryland games only.

Over the last few games, Iowa's half-court defense has struggled pretty evenly, no matter whether they have played straight up man-to-man defense or if they have gone with a zone. Nothing has changed strategically during that time. Fran has continued to do what he has largely done in the past on defense: play man defense a majority of the time, and throw in a decent amount of zone in hopes of catching the offense off guard and forcing them into making mistakes. 

So far, though, mistakes aren't happening for Iowa's opponents this year. Instead, they are happening for Iowa. 

The most glaring weakness this defense has right now is on the perimeter. Depending on the night, they are either leaving opponents wide open from three-point range (i.e. against Michigan) or they are letting opposing guards and wings attack the basket at will (i.e. Ohio State and Maryland). Keeping opposing players out of the middle of the defense has been especially difficult lately, as is evidenced by the fact that the Hawkeyes have been outscored 98-48 in the paint in the last two contests. Both Ohio State and Maryland utilized a ton of ball screens for their guards, but Iowa's defensive futility was more than just being unable to defend the pick-and-roll. Really, there were too many times when Iowa's perimeter defenders straight up couldn't stay in front of their men. Perhaps the most memorable example of this came against Ohio State when Andrew Dakich--yes, that Andrew Dakich--put Maishe Dailey on skates.

Iowa's help defense was non-existent there (we will see plenty more of that as we go along), but the fact that Dakich was able to blow by Dailey is an indictment in itself. And it's not like that was a freak play, Iowa's perimeter defenders have allowed guys to beat them off the dribble a number of times this year and over the last few games.

Isaiah Moss? Check.

Jordan Bohannon? Check. (Although, I do want to point out that he played what I thought was a great defensive game for the first 30 minutes against Maryland.)

Jack Nunge? Oh, you better believe it.

If you want to know why Nunge has played a total of 11 minutes in the last two games, look no further than his defense. It's probably not fair to expect him to be able to guard Keita Bates-Diop at this point in his career, but even against Maryland Nunge struggled to stick with freshman Darryl Morsell on multiple possessions. And, not to pour salt in the wound, but Nunge was also beaten backdoor in both games when he overplayed the passing lane and, at one point was even confused about which defense Iowa was running in his three minutes against the Terps.

Now, when teams struggle with man-to-man defense, it's pretty usual to try a zone to help keep the opposing offense out of the paint. Unfortunately, even when Iowa goes into their zone, teams are easily beating them with ball movement and having little difficulty getting in the middle of the zone. 

Here, Morsell catches the ball and quickly finds a hole in the zone. Nicholas Baer starts to try and cut off his drive, but then quickly retreats because he doesn't want to leave the corner three open. With Morsell effectively in the lane, Pemsl is forced to step up and that leaves Cekovsky open for the lob. After a terrible stretch of zone defense that surrendered 1.15 PPP against Maryland, it should probably come as no surprise that Iowa abandoned their zone against the Terps not long after this play. 

All too often this year, teams are getting into the middle of Iowa's zone defense way too easily, and it has led to wide open shots from distance and at the rim. Sometimes it's the result of good offense, and you just have to tip your cap to the other team. For instance, Ohio State brilliantly moved Keita Bates-Diop to the five position and allowed him to roam the middle of the zone where he could knock down his mid-range jumper from the elbow. That's good coaching.

Of course, the failures of Iowa's zone defense have been a product of more than just good offense by the other team. It has also been a product of flat out lazy defense at times.

This play above was just plain awful defense by Wagner and Moss there. Both guys were more turnstyles than actual defenders, and Iowa's help defense was again non-existent. 

That leads me to my next point: rim protection. Iowa doesn't have it. Well, sometimes they do, but not nearly as consistently as they need it. The perimeter defense is bad right now, but it could be mitigated to an extent by the big guys contesting shots on the inside. Unfortunately, that's not always happening. And until one or both of those things happen on a consistent basis, Iowa's defense is going to continue to have large stretches of play where they cannot get a stop when they need it.

Transition Defense

Transition Defense Possessions eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate PPP
Non-Press Transition 17% 92.1% 4.2% 25.0% 52.6% 1.75
1-2-2 Press Transition 10% 71.4% 43.3% 100.0% 85.7% 0.50
Total 27% 83.3% 18.1% 42.9% 59.3% 1.44

For as bad as Iowa's half-court defense has looked, their transition defense has been just as bad and actually even worse. For instance, against Maryland, Iowa's half-court defense (man and zone possessions) allowed a very respectable 1.04 PPP, while their transition defense (defensive possessions in which Iowa was never able to get their half-court defense set) gave up an insane 2.18 PPP. To break down their defensive transition possessions further, I separated these possessions into "press" and "non-press transition."

Really, Iowa's biggest problem lately has been the non-press transition. When opponents haven't faced the 1-2-2 press in transition, they are shooting a blazing 92.1% and scoring a whopping 1.75 points per possession over the last two games. Some of those are easy fast break buckets off a steal, but a ton of them are also teams getting the defensive rebound and beating Iowa down the court. 

The frustrating part of this defensive weakness for Iowa right now, is this is something that they are supposed to be doing to other teams. After all, I still remember the 2012 season when Iowa beat Wisconsin on New Year's Eve, largely by getting out on the secondary break and beating the Badgers down the court for easy buckets. It was something of a novel basketball philosophy in the Big Ten back then, but less so nowadays. Just about every team attacks early in the shot clock now, and Iowa needs to find a better way to defend it. Because this is just too easy for other teams right now.

When we look at Iowa's 1-2-2 three-quarter court press, we see some decent success over the past two games. Maryland did beat it a couple of times early in the game on Sunday, and Fran (and later his assistants) completely shelved it until there was only about three minutes left in the game. However, Iowa had a lot of success against Ohio State by running the 1-2-2 three-quarter court press.

As you can see by the numbers, in possessions defined as transition, Iowa's 1-2-2 three quarter-court press is boom or bust. On one hand, when opponents are able to avoid turning the ball over in transition, they are shooting 71% against it. That's not great, but Iowa has forced a turnover on damn near half of those possessions lately, which has meant that they are only surrendering 0.50 PPP in these transition situations. In essence, the 1-2-2 has been pretty successful when it has been able to hurry Iowa's opponents, and it was especially effective against Ohio State.

What wasn't been particularly effective, though, was at the end of the Ohio State game when Iowa extended their press to full-court. When that happened, Iowa frequently overplayed taking away the inbound pass, and gave up the easy layup over the top of the defense. 

Again, though, don't take that out on Iowa's normal 1-2-2 three quarter-court press. Instead, that's a result of the Hawkeyes being in a hole and desperately turning to a full-court press that is even more boom and bust than their three quarter-court press is. 


After focusing specifically on the defense over the last two games, the keyword that continues to pop in my head is "consistency." Sure, I admit this probably sounds like coach speak. After all, the word is often one of the first things out Fran and the players' mouths when asked what they need to improve on. But the more I watch, the more I really think it is true.

It's not like these guys can't play defense. The Ohio State game was truly brutal and there were very few glimpses of good things on that end of the floor, but if you go back and watch the Maryland game, Iowa's half-court defense wasn't that bad. The zone sucked and gave up 1.15 PPP, I guess, but the man-to-man defense they played for 60% of the game gave up only one PPP. And it wasn't until that horrible final 10 minutes of the game where Iowa's man-to-man defense started to leak on the perimeter again. Up until then, Maryland was succeeding mostly out on the primary and secondary break. But in the half-court, guys like Bohannon, Moss, and Dailey were actually having pretty good defensive games.

Of course, it all went to shit in the final 10 minutes and that's where consistency comes in. Just like the players frequently say in their post-game interviews, they need to find a way to play with defensive intensity for all 40 minutes. This whole thing of playing good defense for stretches and then letting their opponents go on huge runs cannot continue to happen every game. And that is where the transition defense has to get better because it has been instrumental in helping other teams put points on the board in quick succession and put Iowa in a hole in a matter of minutes.

But we've seen them play good defense before, and we know they can do it. While this may be the team that gave up 1.34 PPP in the first half against Michigan last week, this is also the team that held that same Michigan squad to 0.90 PPP after halftime. And while this is the same team that gave up 1.41 PPP when they played man-to-man defense against Ohio State at home, this also the same team that allowed just one PPP in man defense on the road vs. Maryland.

For as much as nobody wants to acknowledge it, this team is still really young. The mistakes that they are making right now can hopefully be corrected with more experience. Unfortunately, that means there is probably plenty of ugly basketball ahead of us this year, but hopefully we can see some gradual improvement as the season draws to a close.

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