Fran-Graphs, Northern Iowa

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It would be a shame if the story of this game becomes: "Refs screw over Iowa, cost Hawks game", because there was so much else positive going on for the team prior to the moment Mount Franitubo went off with 9:45 left in the second half. In almost every area where Iowa had been struggling, they improved:

  • Shooting: whereas Iowa had struggled to even reach Allen Iverson-esque 40% effective field goal percentages in some games, in this game they finished with a 51.8% number, and that includes a fair amount of chucking at the end of the game.
  • Rebounding: keeping opponents off the boards, especially when Iowa was on defense, had been a major problem against teams like Creighton and Campbell. Against the Panthers, Iowa actually won the battle on the glass, rating higher on offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. UNI wound up with only three offensive rebounds in 27 opportunities, so, yeah, Iowa locked things down here.
  • Patience: Iowa had gotten into some bad habits in terms of throwing up shots when they weren't there early in the shot clock, but they displayed remarkable patience in this game, waiting for better shots to develop or teammates to come wide open. This obviously feeds into the improved shooting.
  • Basabe: Melsahn Basabe, previously seen doing his best Claude Rains impression, was at least a recognizable basketball player, especially in the first half. He still only finished with eight points and six rebounds, but his jump shot was on and he was active on defense.
And this was all done without starting point guard Bryce Cartwright (major kudos to Devyn Marble for his play in Cartwright's stead, by the way -- more on this later). It was, despite the final score, a major step forward for this team.
The one area where the Hawks desperately needed to improve and didn't, unfortunately, was defense. Even though the free throw discrepancy may jump out at you when you look at the box score (33 for UNI, 9 for Iowa), the real story of the game was the power of the three-point shot. At first glance, Iowa out-shot UNI in terms of field goal percentage, 50.9% to 45.5%, but that just goes to show why field goal percentage is not the best statistic. If you add the proper weight to the 11 threes UNI made, the Panthers were the much better shooting team, going for an eFG% of 58.0% to Iowa's 51.8%. There are two problems here for Iowa: first, they still do a very poor job sticking with shooters on the perimeter. There seems to be a philosophy for Iowa on defense that if the ball ever enters the post, every nearby defender must sag in and help the post defender. If Iowa were a little longer and faster, that might work, but as it is, you often see three Iowa defenders guarding one man in the post and two men wide open on the perimeter. A simple pass out, or a series of passes, and opponents find themselves looking at wide-open threes. That is, shots worth three points as opposed to two points, which is what shots in the post are worth. It's a balancing act, I know, trying to stop easy post shots versus harder (but more valuable) perimeter shots, but this seems like an area where Fran may have to call off the dogs on defense and allow Brommer, Basabe and Archie to defend one-on-one. The college three is simply too easy a shot for many teams these days.

The second problem is that Iowa is not able, at least so far, to compete in the three-point contest that is college basketball. I'd like to say it's because of some structural aspect of our offense -- no post presence, no movement -- but the simple answer may be that we just don't have the shooters on this team right now. I know several players have improved their three-point shooting overall, but I'm still not convinced that Eric May, Zach McCabe, Aaron White, Bryce Cartwright or Devyn Marble can reliably make a spot-up three with any pressure on them. And to their credit, these players weren't forcing things against UNI, but kept working until they could get shots they were comfortable taking (May in particular seems to have found a go-to shot with his pull-up from the free throw line). But all this mid-range work means that Iowa is going into a gunfight with two-thirds the firepower of their opponents, which means their defense has to be that much better to compensate. When it's not, Iowa can "out-shoot" their opposition in conventional terms and still lose.

But of course the most memorable moments in the game involved the refs and Iowa's coach. You could say Fran's anger started to simmer early on, with some sketchy fouls throughout, but it really started to boil at about the 12 minute mark in the second half, when Marble seemed to get his hands on the ball cleanly, only to have UNI human-ape hybrid Austin Pehl club him to the ground... and the foul went against Marble. I was watching the game on an admittedly crappy internet connection, so I don't claim to have the clearest vantage point on this our any other calls, but it looked like Iowa got the short end of the stick here. Shortly after, Andrew Brommer looked to be in perfect position to grab an offensive rebound, only to have his arm pulled back by a nearby Panther and... no call. Then, in the call that really changed the course of the game, McCabe got the ball on the block with a seemingly clear path to the basket, but at the last second, Pehl stuck his feet (but not the rest of his body) just beyond the protected area circle and drew the charge. Fran exploded, the refs called a T, and that was the start of the deluge. But was it a good call?

Pehl's feet were, I'm pretty sure, outside the restricted area, but that's not the end of the story. According to the NCAA rules (Section 35, Article 4), there are four requirements: 1) the player's feet must be set, 2) "the guard's torso shall face the opponent", 3) "no time and distance shall be required", 4) the defender must attain position before the opponent goes airborne. I'll grant #1 and I don't know what the hell #3 means in our Newtonian universe, but #2 and #4 don't seem to be met. Pehl, in order to get his feet outside the restricted area in time, tilted his body diagonally, with the result that he was a) not in legal guarding position and b) he was off-balance, so the merest contact from McCabe sent him to the ground. And McCabe looked to be already jumping for his shot when it all happened. [Correction: I looked again, and McCabe was still clearly on the ground when he made contact] So, yeah, this was a bad call, the kind of egregious feet-only charge that Nick Collison has gotten so adept at drawing in the NBA. And Fran was right to be mad. But still... am I the only one who was upset with Fran for this outburst?

Look, I enjoy passion as much as anyone else. I certainly prefer it to whatever hypothyroid issue Todd Lickliter presented at games, but my opinion is that Fran's explosion here was just plain stupid, and seriously hurt his team's chances of winning what was, at the time, a very close game.The score prior to McCabe's offensive foul was UNI 47, Iowa 45. Iowa was in this game. There seem to me to be two obvious times when it makes sense for a coach to express fury at the refs and risk a technical foul: 1) early in the game, when it's clear the game is being called unevenly and a coach still has time to shame the refs into calling a more balanced game, 2) very late in the game, after the refs have thoroughly and irrevocably screwed you out of a chance to win, and it really doesn't matter one way or another. The time you don't draw a technical is when the game is close and there is not much time left. In that case, possessions and points are too precious to throw away, and it's more productive to bite your tongue and say nothing. Especially on the road, where a coach can expect that the fans won't back him up. Bobby Knight was angry, but he was angry mostly because it worked (and only partially because he was a high-functioning psychotic).

This assumes, of course, that coach anger is just a kind of strategic pantomime used to mediate the ref-crowd psychological relationship, and not "real." If Fran was just genuinely, truly angry, so angry that thoughts of the strategic situation of his team went out the window, well, that's not good coaching. That's very, very worrying. Imagine that the game was even closer and the clock even further down, that Iowa was tied with 10 seconds left. And imagine that the stakes were higher, like Iowa was playing for a chance to win the Big Ten tournament or something. What if Iowa got a bad call then? Should Fran erupt and draw a technical, giving his opponent two free points and the game? Of course not. So why do it with 9:45 left and the game so close?

And for everyone who points to the free throw discrepancy and sees an obvious bias, I would be very careful about jumping to any conclusions. There were certainly some bad calls, and I would wager that more of the bad calls went against Iowa than Northern Iowa, but even so, the big free throw bulge didn't start until after Fran's ill-timed explosion. At half, Northern Iowa had seven free throw attempts and Iowa had three, but even that's misleading, because Iowa missed the front end on three one-and-ones, so it could have easily been seven to six at half instead of seven to three. And then in the second half, Northern Iowa only got two free throw attempts from the start of the half until the 9:45 mark (Iowa had none over that stretch). After that, UNI had 22 (!) attempts, eight of which were the result of technical fouls. Iowa was getting a little screwed over up until the 9:45 mark, but it didn't seem like anything exceptional, at least for a road game. Iowa will certainly face worse on the road against Illinois or Indiana, I would guess.

Who knows what would have happened if Fran and Iowa had just swallowed their bile and played through the bad calls, but it's clear what happened after they did: they went on tilt. Tilt is a poker term for when a bad break causes someone to lose control of their emotions and play a poor strategic game from that point on, and it's a serious concern for pro players. Iowa seemed to lose all control at that point, lashing out pointlessly (yes, McCabe, refs will call technical fouls on you if you bat the ball into the crowd) and playing desperately to overcome what was suddenly a ten-point lead. What should have been a nail-biter turned very quickly into a blow-out. And it's a shame, because Iowa played their best game of the year for 30 minutes, and then decided to get mad.

Post-script on Marble

I didn't mention it earlier, but Devyn Marble played a fantastic game, on both ends of the court. He played the point for 37 minutes and had only two turnovers to go along with four assists, and created on offense again and again for the Hawks. Most impressive was his defense. He's officially credited with two steals, but seemed to have his hand on several other balls. He not only disrupted Northern Iowa's offense, he got out on the break and finished.

One of the under-reported stories of the year so far is the ineffectiveness of Bryce Cartwright, and I wonder how much his injury has slowed him down. The problem seems to be that Cartwright is effective only when he has the ball, but too often this year he has turned into a by-stander and spot up shooter on offense. That is not his strength. So having Marble in meant that the point guard was both more of a threat to score himself and more of a threat as an off-the-ball shooter, which seemed to free things up for the Hawks. I'm not saying Marble should be the starting point guard, but that Iowa needs Cartwright to be healthy and become the dynamic, creating player he was last year.

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