Iowa has many problems this season, but none are more confusing than the difference between their play in the first and second half of games.
The 2018 Iowa men's basketball season has been a disappointment. So much so, that it's been difficult to figure out what to write about anymore since it seems like most games are just a replay of the last disappointing loss: stay competitive for about five or eight minutes, watch the other team pull away, make a small run right after halftime, and then watch other team pull away again. There have been deviations from that model, but still, there is a general formula whenever Iowa plays anybody with a pulse. And when you dive into the numbers, you can see a clear pattern.
The numbers show the story I told above. Against Big Ten teams, Iowa stays competitive for about five-to-eight minutes, watches the other team pull away, makes a small run right after halftime, and then watches the other team pull away again at the end.
This is certainly a new problem for Fran McCaffery, considering his past teams have often been criticized for starting fast, failing to show up right after halftime and possessing an inability to close out a game. But this year, the issue is that this Hawkeye team digs such a large hole in the first half that they basically have to play a perfect second half of basketball to come away with a victory.
So what exactly is going wrong in the first half of games? Well, let's look at Iowa's average four factors in the first half of Big Ten games this season.
Defense is obviously a huge issue for this team (they are ranked 242nd in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom as of this writing), and allowing conference foes to shoot a 62% eFG%, on average, in the first 20 minutes of play is obviously the biggest problem. But even on offense (34th in the nation in offensive efficiency as of this writing), this team hasn't shot the ball well in the first half of Big Ten games either, making the defensive issues that much harder to overcome. By my count, Iowa is being out-shot in the first half by a mean average of 75-63% at the rim and 47-35% from three-point range. That's sub-optimal.
Aside from shooting, turnovers are another huge issue for this team. This obviously passes the eye test, considering that two things stick out from Iowa's performances in the fist half of games this year: wide open three-pointers for the other team and plagues of turnovers for Iowa. And "plagues" is not an exaggeration, since the Hawkeyes are giving up the ball on 22% of their possessions in the first 20 minutes of play. The Division I average is just shy of 19% for those of you wondering, and 22% would be good for 329th in the country if this continued for a whole game.
And the real issue with these turnovers is not that they are just empty possessions for Iowa, but that the other team is usually taking advantage of them on the other end of the floor. So far this conference schedule, Iowa is heading into the locker room at half being outscored on points off turnovers 11-5, on average, a number that increases to 12-4 when they are on the road. And often those turnovers lead to easy transition baskets and fast break attempts for the other side. Fast break points is one of my least favorite stats because it doesn't really capture a team's tempo or transition shots, but even by this limited measurement, Iowa trails at half 6-1 and 7-1 away from Carver in the first half.
Finally, Iowa's ability to get to the free throw line is also lacking in the first half of games. The national average for free throw rate (free throws attempted per field goals attempted) is approximately 34%, and the Hawkeyes are at 24% overall in the and only 20% on the road in the initial 20 minutes of Big Ten games. Getting to the free throw line isn't the best way to win a game necessarily, but when you can't shoot or hold onto the ball, it is one way of staying competitive. Of course, it's also hard to get to the free throw line when you give away the ball so much. And with this confluence of issues, it's no wonder that the Hawkeyes, on average, are trailing by 11 points at halftime against conference foes. (A total that goes up to 13 on the road.)
Now, let's look at the second half because Iowa is outscoring their Big Ten opponents by two points, on average, in the final 20 minutes this year. And they are only being outscored by two on the road.
The first thing that comes to mind--and logically so--is that these numbers are skewed because teams are emptying their benches against Iowa because they lead by so much. However, I don't believe that is the case, or at least I don't believe the impact on the numbers is that huge. First, Iowa is outscoring their opponents in the first ten minutes of the second half no matter if the game is played in Iowa City or anywhere else in the conference. Second, teams are still mostly playing their starters a good 30+ minutes against the Hawkeyes. Even Penn State played four of their five starters for at least 30 minutes in Saturday's obliteration, and bench mob guys John Harrar and Devidas Zemgulis played a combined total of three minutes. Basically, Iowa is performing better in the second half, and they are doing it mostly against the other team's best guys.
As for the actual performance, the first noticeable difference is that Iowa's shooting jumps to 58% after the break. The defense also improves, but it still gives up an abysmal 54%. Really though, Iowa completely reverses their first half luck on offense by out-shooting their opponents 76-67% near the rim and 42-34% from deep. It's also worth noting, however, that Iowa's free throw shooting has been just 66% in the last half of Big Ten games this season,while their opponents are making 72%, on average.
Turnovers are also an important part of why the second half tends to go better for the Hawkeyes. That 22% rate in the first half drops to about 17% in the second half and largely matches their opponent's 16%. Iowa also closes the gap on points off turnovers and fast break points.
Iowa's offensive rebounding also jumps in the second half. It moves from an above average 31% (Division I average is 29%) to an even better 35%. The only issue is that their defensive rebounding tends to get worse. Opponents haul in an average amount of offensive boards in the first half, but manage an improved 33% after the half. That allows both teams to come out nearly even in the second chance points category in both halves.
As for free throws, Iowa gets to the line a lot more in the second half, but again, they only make 66% of them. That tends to limit the impact of getting to the line a bit. On defense, their free throw rate also goes up. However, that number has the potential to be skewed by the fact that Iowa is always trailing at the end of games, putting themselves in the position to foul their opponents and force them to make free throws.
So the big question that comes from all of this is: why is Iowa so bad in the first half and usually so much better in the second? And, well, I don't really have an answer for that.
One thing that comes to mind is that the second half tends to be when Iowa's rotations are solidified, after Fran spends the first half looking for the group of players that are playing the best that night. We saw this happen in the Minnesota game when Fran cut the rotation to the starting five plus Cordell Pemsl and Jack Nunge off the bench, instead of running out lineups with Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer at shooting guard. (Which, to be fair, was the product of Isaiah Moss being in foul trouble and Brady Ellingson being injured.) Maybe Iowa's coaching staff is making good halftime adjustments this year. If that is the case, though, then what is wrong with Iowa's preparation for games?
Really, though, this is a problem with no clear answer. This is like trying to answer why some of Fran's early teams were so bad coming out of the gate at halftime or why they were so bad down the stretch (although, I think we have the offensive portion of that pinpointed down to the awful half-court sets they run at the end of games). Last year's team was composed of mostly the same guys, and they were outscored by an average of two points in the first ten minutes, but were then able to stay even with their Big Ten foes for the remaining three quarters of play. So if your explanation is that this team just isn't mentally tough enough, why were they mentally tough enough last year? Surely two new players to the rotation can't be enough to impact things that much, right? Maybe this is just a compounding issue. Just like us, this team can feel when the game is about to shift in favor of the other team, and now that it's happened so many times, maybe they mentally just can't overcome it. Again, I don't know, but something is clearly different between the first half and the second with this team.
So there you have it. I haven't really told you anything you didn't already know: Iowa sucks in the first half and is much better in the second. The offense is boom-or-bust with very little in between, while the defense sucks in both halves, but is a smidge better after halftime. Why? I don't really know, but maybe you do. Feel free to leave your explanations in the comments section.