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Iowa's Problem Is Their... Defense?

The popular media narrative these days is that Iowa's tactic to staying in the close games is crushing defense. And that seems to make sense, given that the Hawkeyes give up fewer than 60 points a game, ranking third in the Big Ten.

One slight, nagging problem: their defense isn't nearly that good.

Courtesy of John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus (né Big Ten Wonk, if the name's familiar), we have weekly updates on points scored per offensive and defensive possession, which is a far greater judge of scoring and defensive efficiency when adjusted for the pace of the game. If you're not familiar with this statistic, then there's probably a pit forming in your stomach as you read this, because you know exactly where we're headed.

1. Michigan St. 63.3 1.08 0.94 +0.14
2. Purdue 63.6 1.01 0.92 +0.09
3. Wisconsin 58.2 1.07 1.00 +0.07
4. Illinois 60.5 0.99 0.93 +0.06
5. Ohio St. 62.4 1.07 1.04 +0.03
6. Minnesota 63.4 0.99 0.97 +0.02
7. Michigan 61.0 0.99 1.02 -0.03
8. Penn St. 60.8 0.98 1.02 -0.04
9. Northwestern 60.9 1.01 1.09 -0.08
10. Iowa 57.4 0.99 1.08 -0.09
11. Indiana 64.4 0.92 1.10 -0.18

Uh, yeah. And that's strictly conference play, so this far into the season, there's not much room for trying to blame anything on schedule strength anymore.

So here's what to garner from that table:

1) Slowhawks are slooooooow. Only Washington State, coached by Tony Bennett (son of longtime Wisconsin coach and total shot clock vampire Dick Bennett), is a slower BCS conference team. We also suspect that you wouldn't find a slower team in the next 5 conferences, though we assure you we can't be bothered to check. So when you see scores like Purdue 49, Iowa 45, it's not (only) that the Hawkeyes played good defense; it's that each possession took forfuckingever. Sure, neither team broke 50. Neither would your team if they only managed 9 shots from the field.

2) Iowa's offense? Not that bad, all things considered. Iowa is tied for 6th in the conference in offensive efficiency and within scratching distance of 4th place. When you keep in mind the prodigious rate at which the Hawkeyes turn the ball over, their ability to score points at even a middling pace is remarkable.

Now, sure, as near as two weeks ago, even a .01 depression meant Iowa was 2nd worst in the conference and led Gasaway to remark that "Indiana is suddenly within honest-to-goodness striking distance of not being the worst team in the Big Ten," but Iowa was still in the same conversation as plenty of their peers in terms of offensive production. This makes sense; Iowa's problem has (almost) never been shooting the ball, it's getting to the point of an open look that has hounded the good guys all year long.

3) But, um, that defense. Unlike the offense, which meandered around the middle and lower thirds/quadrants/however you draw these types of distinctions with 11 teams but still stayed close to the norm, the defense has been abused all season long. It's a narrative that won't get much light as long as Iowa's final scores resemble random NBA halftime scores, but it's true: Iowa's defense is, as efficiency is concerned, firmly entrenched in the worst 3 of the conference. Their bedfellows, Northwestern and Indiana, are also (not coincidentally) the other two members of the Big Ten basement.

That's not to say the Hawkeyes are particularly unskilled defenders, surprisingly. They appear to be well-drilled for the most part, and the tandem of Jarryd Cole and Aaron Fuller are particularly adept at drawing charges of questionable merit.

So where does the discrepancy come from?

Part of the problem is those prodigious turnovers. While the Hawkeyes have managed to not let them drive their offensive efficiency numbers into Indiana territory, it's hard to do the same for the defense when every fourth or fifth possession ends up in the opponent's hands, often for an easy layup.  And while Iowa's defense is very good, it's rarely good enough to make up for the other half of the game.

4) This is not necessarily a coaching problem. Though we feel at times that Lickliter's offense has a distinctly KOKish odor, especially when the shot clock's running down and they're trying a disastrously ineffective high ball screen with Palmer or Cole for the fifth time in the possession ("they'll never see this coming!!"), the problems are, as we've mentioned before, largely personnel-based. Jeff Peterson, even when healthy, has clearly needed a lot of help at point this year--even as every scoring metric has exploded for the better, his turnovers have actually increased--Davis and Tucker were not serious answers to that question (would Freeman have been that answer? Honestly, we don't know).

Further, on the defensive end, Iowa has struggled mightily without Cyrus Tate. There was a recent local article (and I'm killing myself for not remembering to bookmark it, because now I can't track it down via the googles) that cited the coaches as saying Tate was Iowa's smartest defender. Yes, Healthy Tate is largely the stuff of myth as this season goes anymore, which fucking sucks, but just keep that in mind when you're thinking about how totally disastrous Tate's high sprained ankle was.

5) All things considered, there is considerable improvement. To go from the 2nd worst team in a weeeak conference to the 2nd/3rd worst (depending on how this game goes) team in the second toughest conference, is a positive trajectory. That's to say nothing of a 4 or 5 game improvement in the season standings, all while playing an incredible number of first- and second-year players and suffering the most calamitous talent loss in the entire conference over the course of the season (players missing or severely limited vs. Michigan: Peterson, Davis, Tucker, Tate--only 3 starters and a key backup to two of those guys, is all).For '09-'10, I'm most interested in Tucker's healthy return and Matt Gatens. Yes, the last few freshmen to play as well as Gatens (Jess Settles, Ricky Davis, and Jeff Horner) had bad patterns of improvement. However, they were all victims of outlying circumstances that seem unlikely to befall Gatens; we don't expect Gatens to suffer a bad back for his career, leave after his freshman season for the NBA, or be coached by [NAME REDACTED] for four years. Gatens should be good.

We should expect even more improvement from the Hawkeyes in '09-'10; a 19-12 record sounds about right, especially if Lickliter can land some help at the point. Most importantly--should 19-12 or something similar happen--the fretting, like the disturbing statistical inequity mentioned above, should finally abate.