FALLING SKIES

Michael Hickey

Assembly Hall broke down, and Iowa's season broke down with it.

On February 17, one month before Selection Sunday, the Iowa Hawkeyes were riding high. Iowa had beaten the conference's best team by 18 points at Carver Hawkeye nine days before, followed that with a 12-point road win against Penn State, and was lloking at a stretch of seven games that included six contests against the conference's lower division. The Hawkeyes were a lock for the NCAA Tournament and a possible three or four seed. With a little help, the Hawkeyes could even win a Big Ten regular season championship for the first time in a generation.

And then the ceiling at Assembly Hall fell down.

Nobody is going to say that the postponement of Iowa's game at Indiana on February 18 in and of itself ended Iowa's season. This isn't a butterfly effect situation, where a piece of the metal siding at Indiana's arena flapped its wings and Iowa lost six of its final seven games. But the collapse of this team since that incident is staggering. The weekend after Assembly Hall broke, Iowa lost to Wisconsin. The compressed schedule caused by the postponement meant that the Hawkeyes would play at Minnesota the following Tuesday, where they lost by six, then at Indiana on Thursday, where they lost by seven. A week later, Iowa looked limp and uninterested in a loss at East Lansing, and that was it. By the time that Iowa lost in the Big Ten Tournament to Northwestern, a team that the Hawkeyes had beaten twice by 26 points earlier this season, the season was as good as over.

Both opponents' shooting percentage and free throw rate (the number of times an opponent attempts a free throw for every shot attempt) directly correlate with an Iowa win more than any other factor. In the last few weeks, both exploded. Before February 22, Iowa had conceded an effective shooting percentage higher than 54 percent twice: A win over Notre Dame and a loss to Ohio State. Since that date, six Iowa opponenta have shot 54 percent or higher. Iowa's last six foes all shot at least six percent higher than their season average against the Hawkeyes. Minnesota, Michigan State, and Northwestern were more than 14 percent higher than average. And it wasn't that those opponents had been hot coming into games against Iowa: Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Northwestern did not match their shooting percentage against Iowa in either of the two games prior to playing the Hawkeyes or the two games following.

Iowa's foul rate spiked, as well. Three Hawkeye opponents posted a free throw rate over 50 percent during the last two weeks; in the seven games where Iowa has allowed a rate over 47 percent, they've gone 0-7.

The Hawkeyes' overall defensive efficiency, which had been among the nation's best before the last week of February, has plummeted out of the national top 100. Three opponents -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, and the loss at Michigan -- had posted an offensive efficiency figure above 110 before the Assembly Hall delay. In those seven games since, six opponents have broken 110 (the only one who did not, Purdue, is also the only opponent Iowa defeated).

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The problem is hard to diagnose, but it could be that Iowa's defense has actually been too aggressive. Iowa's defensive efficiency actually has a negative correlation with its turnover production rate. In other words, the more turnovers that Iowa generates, the worse its defense is.

Take a minute to let that sink in. I'll wait.

Like all things tempo-free, Kenpom calculates turnovers as a rate rather than a pure number. In fifteen games this season, Iowa forced a turnover on 19 percent of possessions or more. Iowa is just 8-7 in those games; the Hawkeyes are 13-5 when that number fails to reach 19 percent. The Hawkeyes' turnover production skyrocketed in recent weeks, with opponents turning it over at insane rates. But with those high turnover rates came elevated field goal and free throw rates. The need to force turnovers -- and to generate much-needed transition baskets -- has left Iowa's defense out of position and its opponents with open shots and lanes to the basket. And as good as the turnover rate has been, it's completely negated by the improved shooting and additional trips to the line.

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What did the Indiana incident have to do with that? Perhaps not as much as the game that happened after it. While Iowa's final six games all share the same defensive footprint -- high turnover rate, high field goal percentage allowed -- the Hawkeyes' loss to Wisconsin was a fairly standard Iowa game. Wisconsin turned it over on just 14 percent of possessions, and the Badgers got to the free throw line just 13 times (a 20.6 percent rate). But Iowa also struggled to move the pace into its usual comfort zone, and the loss made it difficult-to-impossible to win the conference title. Iowa's response is less the "sudden chemistry explosion" that Friend of the Pants Eamonn Brennan called it on ESPN and more pressing so hard for turnovers that it left opponents with wide open shots. And with a compressed schedule after the Assembly Hall incident, there was little time for the Hawkeyes to regroup once the slide began. By the time the team got a break before the Big Ten Tournament, the damage was done.

Can Iowa reverse the slide Wednesday night? It did something rather similar, albeit on a far smaller stage, last season, and the play-in game actually gives the Hawkeyes a chance to fix things against an opponent at its own level before getting into the field of 64.

Wednesday night, we learn if we're all just Chicken Littles, or if the sky has truly fallen.

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