In ESPN’s latest bracketology, Iowa was a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Teams considered in the “Last 4 In” category were all 11-seeds in that bracket. Assuming the bracketology tracks similar to the Selection Committee’s thinking, that means Iowa has an 8 to 11 team cushion between it and not making the NCAA Tournament. Practically speaking, that likely means that Iowa doesn’t need any upsets over ranked teams to make the NCAA Tournament. They just need to take care of business against the teams they should beat.
Penn State at home is definitely a team Iowa should beat. The Nittany Lions are better this year, 8-9 overall and 5-8 in the Big Ten, but still towards the bottom of the conference.
At the beginning of this game, however, it looked like Penn State was the better team. The Nittany Lions jumped out to an 11-2 lead early on, and kept momentum to take a 23-17 lead into the second quarter. Penn State kept playing well in the 2nd quarter, and led 52-41 at halftime.
Iowa’s biggest problem in the first half was defense. The Hawks played 2-3 zone for most of the half, and it was largely terrible. Penn State got a ton of wide open three-point opportunities, and converted several of them, particularly in the second quarter. Even worse, Iowa couldn’t rebound out of the zone, surrendering 17 offensive rebounds in the half.
In the second half, Iowa adjusted. The Hawks came out in man defense and played it the rest of the game. The defense surrendered just 15 points and two offensive rebounds in the third quarter. Iowa’s offense, meanwhile, started to roll. The Hawkeyes scored 28 points in the quarter, thanks to a mixture of good shooting from the guards and good work down low from Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock. A Caitlin Clark three with just over two minutes to play gave Iowa its first lead of the quarter, and the Hawks took a 69-67 lead into the fourth quarter.
That fourth quarter was all Iowa. The Hawkeyes played good defense in man, and their offense kept rolling. Iowa extended the lead to 10 early in the quarter, and it got as high as 20 late in the game. Iowa ultimately won 96-78. Clark had 17 points on her own in the fourth quarter.
For the game Clark led Iowa with 32 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists. She shot 12/21 from the floor and 6/11 from three-point range. Kate Martin had by far her best game as a Hawkeye with 19 points, 11 assists, and 5 rebounds. She was a perfect 5/5 from deep. Monika Czinano had a typically good game with 17 points and 8 rebounds. McKenna Warnock was the final Hawkeye in double figures with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. A box score for the game is here.
Rebounding and 2-3 Zone Issues
Part of Iowa’s issues in the 2-3 zone are on the players. Iowa’s guards and forwards are slow in their rotations, in anticipating when the next pass is coming, and in guessing where the next pass will go. They also aren’t great at closing out shooters, making it fairly easy for opposing teams to shoot over the top of the zone.
Rebounding out of the zone is another glaring issue. There are several reasons for that. Part of the problem is that blocking out is much tougher in a zone where you don’t have a set player to block out. Another issue is that three-pointers often result in long rebounds that Warnock or Czinano can’t grab. A third problem is that the zone often gets extended, taking good rebounders like Warnock and Martin far away from where the rebound will come.
Past Iowa teams have struggled with rebounding in 2-3 zones, but not to this extent against an inferior opponent. Even more baffling, this team is generally pretty good at rebounding out of its man or triangle-and-two defenses.
2-3 Zone Tactical Analysis
Another part of Iowa’s issues in the 2-3 zone are tactical in my opinion. In many 2-3 zones, the top two guards have a side of defensive responsibility. The guard on the left will play the left side, while the guard on the right handles the right side. If the ball is directly in the middle of the court, one or the other will be designated to guard the ball.
There are some issues with assigning areas for defense, but one glaring strength is that the two top guards should always know what their responsibility is.
Iowa’s 2-3 zone often looks a little different.
Often in Iowa’s 2-3 zone, player 1 starts guarding the ball, and player 2 guards the high post. Best I can tell, the players don’t have any left or right defensive responsibility. Instead, they attempt to shift responsibilities. If player 1 follows the ball over to a side and the ball swings to the other wing, player 2 then shifts over to that side, and player 1 to the high post.
Then problem comes when the shifts aren’t so easy. What if the wing player 1 is guarding instead passes to another guard at the top of the arc? Should player 2 move up to guard her, or let player 1 chase her and stay with the high post? Or what if the player with the ball dribbles back to the top of the arc and then passes to the wing. Does player 2 chase over to the ball or let player 1 do it?
Several times today and throughout the year, I’ve seen the top 2 guards not know who should chase, and it often leads to wide open threes or penetration opportunities. If the players had committed sides instead, those moments of confusion wouldn’t happen.
The second issues I see is much more glaring. Often when the ball is entered deeper to the wing, or when the ball is swung around by the opposing offense, the two players on the outside bottom of the zone (players 3 and 4 from the first image) end up taking the ball initially.
In most 2-3 zones, players 3 and 4 just cover for players 1 and 2 in this scenario. They rotate to the ball, before handing off that player to players 1 or 2 once they have rotated over defensively. The intent of the zone is to have players 1 or 2 guard the wing when possible.
In Iowa’s 2-3 zone, however, players 3 and 4 end up guarding the wing for most if not all of a possession. It ends up looking something like this:
This causes massive problems when Iowa’s opponents overload a wing and put an offensive player in the corner.
In the second image above, a player in the corner would technically be player 3’s responsibility. But if that player is ready to shoot or drive upon catching a ball from the wing, player 3 will never get there in time to stop either.
Many times in today’s game Penn State caused Iowa issues with that exact alignment. The player in the corner was wide open for an easy shot or had a driving opportunity along the baseline. And if Iowa did manage to stop the initial shot, the wing that player 3 left was often open for the same shot or drive.
The solution, I think, is to play the wing more like a normal 2-3 zone. To have the 3 and 4 players help on the wing until player 1 or 2 gets there, then rotate back so it can cover a player in the corner or help on a post entry.
I kept track of points against today, but because of the tactical issues covered above, I don’t think it was particularly useful. Players in the 3 and 4 positions today were asked to cover too much ground in my opinion, and gave up more points as a result.
If Iowa plays 2-3 zone in the future, I think I will start marking corner threes as “team” points against rather than assigning points to a particular player when it is clear that Iowa’s choices in the zone are resulting in the points.
Due to a schedule change, Iowa next plays at Maryland on Tuesday, February 23rd at 1 PM CT. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Maryland is 15-2 on the season, 11-1 in the Big Ten, and is ranked #9 in the AP Poll.