I’m an optimist at heart. Before last season, I told myself that Iowa’s defensive issues from the 2020-21 season were in part due to the inexperience of its key players. I thought that Iowa would commit to improving its defense and would make major strides in 2021-22.
Iowa’s defense did improve, but not nearly as much as I hoped. Instead, last year Iowa played in shootout after shootout and won a fair number of them. But the fatal flaw of always relying on your offense is that if it’s off in a game, you’re in serious trouble. We saw that all too well against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament last year.
But despite a second consecutive year of fatally flawed defense, I convinced myself that this year would be different. Iowa would have more depth. One or two really good freshman. An impact transfer. Even with physical limitations I thought this was the year Iowa would finally take that next step on defense and do just enough.
The Drake game really should’ve been the wake-up call that this wasn't the case. But it wasn’t. Even then I told myself that Iowa would have bad games. Iowa State struggled against Northern Iowa. Top 10 Louisville struggled with Belmont. Preseason Top 5 Tennessee lost to both Ohio State and Indiana.
But tonight’s game against Kansas State cemented reality for me. Iowa isn’t going to improve defensively. Not enough to truly matter, anyway.
Iowa will always have an offense that can beat almost anyone. Maybe the stars will align in March and the Hawkeyes will do just that. But Iowa will always be just one shaky offensive performance away from an upset. And that will always make them an underdog to make the Final Four.
The first 6-7 minutes of tonight’s game showed why I was optimistic for so long. Iowa’s defenders sold out to stay in front of their player. Off-ball defenders played decent help defense and even forced a few steals by swiping at the ball as a Kansas State player drove near them.
But all that great effort went to waste in the final few minutes of the quarter, as Kansas State hit a few shots and closed on a big run. All told, Iowa led 21-19 after the first quarter . Iowa led by seven multiple times late in the quarter before K-State’s run.
The second quarter saw extreme runs on both ends. Iowa got the better of the play early on, and held a 7-point lead twice more. But K-State went on another run and cut Iowa’s lead to one.
Iowa then locked in defensively again and limited K-State to long jumpers. That helped Iowa get stops and get out in transition, which helped the offense flourish. Iowa went on its biggest run of the game, and with just under four minutes left in the half, the Hawkeyes led 40-28.
Then Iowa gave Caitlin Clark a breather and things fell apart. Molly Davis moved over to point guard, but had a couple bad turnovers. The turnovers led to defensive breakdowns, and K-State also made a couple three-pointers. In less than two minutes, Iowa’s lead was sliced down to 40-38. Clark came back in, settled things down a bit, and Iowa took a 47-43 lead into halftime.
Kansas State came out on fire offensively in the third quarter, and briefly took a 54-52 lead. Iowa responded by attacking the basket off the dribble. Clark in particular was successful at either getting to the basket or drawing a foul on her shots. And Hannah Stuelke stepped up with big minutes off the bench. Iowa took a 68-63 lead into the game’s final period.
Iowa led for most of the fourth quarter too, but could never get the defensive stop it needed to put the game away. Instead, Kansas State made a late run and tied the game at 78. The two teams battled back and forth, but with less than 10 seconds to play, K-State had the ball in its own end with the score tied at 83.
Much of K-State’s success in the 4th quarter came by spreading the floor then having one of its guards attack the basket off the dribble. More often than not the K-State player either got to the basket or got fouled.
K-State went back to that strategy on its final possession. Kate Martin ended up guarding the K-State player. To Martin’s credit, she played the possession well. She cut off the K-State player’s path to the basket and forced the K-State player to initiate contact.
That contacted knocked Martin to the ground and made the K-State player lose the ball. As she tried to recover it, she tripped over Martin and the referee blew the whistle. K-State went 1/2 from the line.
On the other end, Iowa tried to get the ball to Clark on its final possession, but she rolled her ankle. Somehow she recovered the ball and got it to McKenna Warnock, who passed to Czinano in the post. Czinano went up for a shot and was fouled. Unfortunately for Iowa, the officials determined that replay showed the foul occurred just after the clock hit 0.00. Kansas State pulled off the 84-83 upset.
Clark led Iowa with 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. She shot poorly again (6/17), but made up for it by going 13/16 at the free throw line. Czinano scored 18 points, but didn’t really play much of a role in the offense until the fourth quarter. McKenna Warnock was the last Hawkeye in double-figures with 12. She also had 8 rebounds. A box score for the game is here.
Did Martin Commit a Foul?
After the game, I saw a lot of talk about whether Martin’s foul on Kansas was actually a foul. I’m certainly not a neutral observer, but I’d say no.
First, my general position is that referees should not call fouls in the final few seconds unless they are clear. It’s just too easy to look back and find dozens of examples of harder contact that wasn’t called throughout the game.
Second, the referee obviously determined the initial contact was incidental and allowed play to continue. It’s brutal to call a player for a trip when the other player was at least 50% responsible for that player being on the ground in the first place.
But I also have to acknowledge that the referees called plenty of weak contact as a foul all game. Iowa certainly benefited from that at times throughout the game. The simple truth is Iowa shouldn’t have been in a position to let one call decide the game.
And that’s why my optimism died tonight. Because at least half a dozen times in this game, Iowa was one or two defensive stops away from securing the victory. And each time it just couldn’t get those stops.
Caitlin Clark Injury Status
Clark appeared to roll her ankle on the final play of the game. She had to be helped to the bench by members of the Iowa staff. There was no indication of the severity of her injury after the game, but we'll provide any updates here if and when they become available.
Iowa returns to action on Sunday, November 20 at 2 PM CT at home against Belmont. As mentioned, the Bruins took #6 Louisville down to the wire last Sunday. They are also the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference. The game will be streamed on BTN Plus ($).