[Photo credit: Jeff Becker; click to embiggen]
If you would have said before the game that Iowa would shoot 55% from the field, would hold Northwestern to 42.1% and just five three-pointers, and that John Shurna would score in single-digits, I would have said Iowa would win in a walk. In fact, I would have said it would have been almost a mathematical certainty that Iowa would win, unless Northwestern shot some crazy number of free throws. But when you look at the box score and see that Northwestern took 17 (!) more field goal attempts than Iowa, then you glance at the turnover and offensive rebounding totals, you begin to see how the impossible happened. Despite an impressive defensive effort, Iowa lost for three simple reasons: turnovers, offensive rebounds, and just a smidge of help from the referees. Let's look at the reasons, ranked by descending importance.
This is almost the entire story of the game. Iowa was in a very favorable position midway through the first half, up 28-13 with 9:38 left. Shortly thereafter John Shurna was called for an offensive foul (his second) and Bill Carmody was forced to put his star on the bench. This should have been the stretch where Iowa took their already commanding lead and made it insurmountable. Instead, the Hawks commenced on a run of indecisive play and baffling turnovers.
It was no accident that Iowa's struggles coincided almost exactly with Northwestern's more aggressive use of their 1-3-1 zone. The absence of Shurna may have even improved the Wildcat defense, because it allowed Carmody to use his three athletic wings JerShon Cobb, Drew Crawford and Reggie Hearn at the top of the zone and the stouter post defender and rebounder Davide Curletti at the back. Northwestern did a good job of anticipating Iowa's passes and trapping the ball when it got into the post or on the wing. Partially as a result, and partially because Iowa's players seemingly lost their minds, the Hawks committed an astonishing variety of turnovers:
- Andrew Brommer wasn't strong with the ball and got stripped;
- Josh Oglseby allowed an ill-advised Zach McCabe pass to go out of bounds, apparently thinking it had been touched by Northwestern;
- McCabe committed a charge (a call aided by a dramatic Dave Sobolewski flop);
- Aaron White mishandled the ball;
- Bryce Cartwright threw a pass out of bounds (a pass that, to be fair, Eric May should have at least tried to grab);
- Devyn Marble telegraphed two passes, one of which was taken the other way for a layup, and threw a third inexplicably into the Iowa back-court that served almost as an assist on a Cobb layup;
- Melsahn Basabe threw the ball away out of a double team (a pass that, again May should have at least gone toward).
It was one of the most painful sequences of play Iowa has had all year. The really frustrating part is that most of the turnovers were not directly forced. Northwestern's zone put just enough confusion in the minds of Iowa's players that the Hawks voluntarily gave the Wildcats the ball time after time after time. The Iowa players looked like they had no plan of attack and no confidence. Part of the blame has to go to the players, especially Marble, who made three lazy passes during the stretch, but some has to go to the coaches, too. The one thing Iowa needed during this sequence was a steadying hand, say a four-year veteran with the experience, strength and height to handle an aggressive trapping defense; for some reason, however, Matt Gatens was stashed in the corner of the zone during this run and Marble, Oglesby and Cartwright were left to mind the store.
*Another amusing Sobolewski moment: one time the whistle blew just as Aaron White was going to take the ball up for a lay-up while Sobolewski was under the basket; White halted his move abruptly as the whistle blew, never making contact, but Sobolewski's instincts must have been too strong to resist and he flopped anyway. It was actually kind of fascinating to see the flopping mechanism in its pure, isolated form. By the way, if you were wondering who would take over as most-hated Northwestern player, I think this dude is a good choice. Possible nicknames: "SOB", "Soboflopski" and "the Polish Infantry."
This is not a foul.
The really irritating thing, though, was the inconsistent way the refs called contact on rebounds. Northwestern played a very small lineup almost the entire game, and the smaller players seemed to get the benefit of the doubt every time there was a collision under the basket. When a Northwestern player went over an Iowa player's back or used an arm to push off, it was a no-call, but when a taller Iowa player did the same, it was a foul. The best refs establish a standard early of what is and what isn't a foul, call it consistently for both teams, then become invisible. It's not that good refs don't call fouls, it's that they demonstrate to everyone involved -- the fans, the players, the coaches -- what to expect and thus become a predictable and natural constraint in the game, almost like the height of the rim or the length of the court. The refs yesterday were not predictable, and stuck out like a sore thumb.