Iowa really needed a signature win coming into its home game against #17 Indiana. Thus far the Hawkeyes have played ranked opponents tough, but were 0-4 in those games, including home losses to Ohio State and Northwestern. Those tight losses show that Iowa is a good team, but do little to build Iowa’s NCAA Tournament resume. Unfortunately, they weren't able to add a resume-building win on Sunday, either.
Iowa started the game hot offensively, as Caitlin Clark was attacking and hitting most of her shots. But towards the end of the quarter, Iowa cooled off and started turning the ball over. Defensively, meanwhile, Iowa allowed too much penetration for most of the quarter, and that helped Indiana take a 20-18 lead after one.
The second quarter started about as well as it could for Iowa. Clark started to take over offensively again, and Iowa’s defense started forcing a few turnovers. That combination led to big Iowa run, and Iowa took a 31-22 lead with just under 6 minutes to go in the quarter.
But then we saw the worst of Iowa. Over the next five minutes, Iowa didn’t score a single point. The Hawkeye offense turned the ball over several times, and when they did get shots up, they weren’t good ones. During that stretch, Indiana went on a run of its own, and briefly took a 34-31 lead, before the teams traded baskets to end the half. Indiana led 36-33 at halftime, and Clark had 19 of Iowa’s 33 points.
The third quarter started just as badly for Iowa. In the first five minutes of the quarter, Indiana went on another run and extended its lead to 53-43 thanks mostly to their offense. The Hawkeyes were in man defense, and Indiana targeted Monica Czinano defensively with their two strong post offense. Indiana made 8 of its first 9 shots in the quarter.
In the remainder of the quarter, Iowa battled back, switching back to zone defenses and managing to get a few stops. Cfzinano and McKenna Warnock also got more involved offensively to take some of the load off Clark. Two Clark free throws late in the quarter cut Indiana’s lead to 58-56 heading to the fourth quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, a Clark basket tied the game at 60. But she was unable to convert the and-1, and it was all downhill from there. Iowa started playing too fast and forcing bad shots that they mostly missed. Indiana took advantage of Iowa’s bad transition defense, and started rebuilding their lead. The Hoosiers pushed the lead to 10 with just under six minutes left, and Indiana ultimately closed out an 85-72 victory.
Clark led Iowa with 30 points on 12/27 shooting. Though she was great in the first half, she had only one assist in the game and started missing more of her shots at the crucial stretch in the 4th quarter. Czinano had 16 points, but was just 7/15 from the floor. 7/15 would be good for most players, but it’s rare for Czinano to shoot below 50% in a game. Warnock was the last player in double-figures with 10 points and 15 rebounds. A box score for the game is here.
Iowa has been an elite offensive team thus far this season, but Clark, Warnock, and Czinano have carried much of that offensive load. Iowa’s other starters and role players can have good scoring nights occasionally, but can’t take the place of Iowa’s big three. The second quarter showed well how each of those three are needed for Iowa’s offense to be elite. Clark was on fire in the first half, but Czinano got into foul trouble, and Warnock was largely absent from the score sheet. And because of that, Iowa struggled during a 5-minute scoreless stretch that turned a 9-point lead into a halftime deficit.
“This is a young team” is an excuse that’s been thrown around for a lot of Iowa’s struggles this season, but I think it was especially true in the fourth quarter of this loss. Iowa, and Clark in particular, started forcing shots in the 4th quarter, and they missed most of them. The bad shots helped Indiana get running in transition, where Iowa’s defense is particularly bad. A more veteran squad likely would’ve taken more time to get better shots offensively.
As good as Czinano’s offense is, her defense is a big issue for Iowa, both this year and moving forward. When Iowa was in man defense today, the Hoosiers targeted Czinano and the player she was defending largely dominated the game. When Iowa switched to its 2-3 zone or triangle-and-2 defenses things were slightly better, but Czinano still struggled to defend the area right around the basket.
Unless Czinano improves defensively, I’m not sure man defense is a good option for Iowa moving forward. It’s too easily to isolate Czinano in the low block if Iowa’s opponent has a good post, or to make her run all over the court if the opponent’s post is mobile with range. Iowa’s other defenders aren’t great at stopping penetration in man defense, either.
The 2-3 zone has also been a struggle so far. The biggest problem in the zone is that Iowa’s guards and forwards aren’t great at rotations. Too often they give up penetration because of it, or allow wide open threes. And when they do allow penetration, Czinano isn’t much of a block threat that would make opposing guards hesitate to drive all the way to the basket. I think the 2-3 zone is still Iowa’s best long-term defensive option, but the team will need to improve significantly in it.
Thus far, Iowa’s best defense has been a triangle-and-2. At its best, the defense has shut down the opposing team’s best two shooters, and has simplified the zone responsibilities for the remaining three players (often Czinano, Warnock, and Clark). The triangle-and-2 can be a good situational defense, but it’s not one that most teams would look to use primarily for an entire season. That's because triangle-and-2 can be fairly easy to exploit schematically, especially if your opponent has a number of good shooters.
Where Iowa’s latest loss to a ranked team will hurt most is with its NCAA Tournament resume. On Tuesday, ESPN still had Iowa as an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In today’s game, however, ESPN graphics showed Iowa as a 9 seed. It looks like Iowa is creeping closer to the bubble, and another loss won’t help that trend.
Each loss to a ranked team on its own doesn’t hurt Iowa’s resume all that much. The problem is the Big Ten is very deep this year, and constantly losing to ranked teams results in a far from great win-loss record.
For the rest of the season, Iowa will either need to either get a signature win or win out against opponents near or below them in the Big Ten standings to feel comfortable about its NCAA Tournament standing. If they fail to do both, things could get dicey in March.
Iowa returns to action on Wednesday, February 10 at 7 PM CT at Nebraska. The game will be streamed on BTN Plus. The Huskers are 9-6 on the season and 7-5 in the Big Ten not counting today’s results.