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Fran-Graphs, Iowa State


Since Iowa has a week off before their next game, I thought now might be a good time to take stock of where the team is overall. After another disappointing loss, this time to the Cyclones, the obvious answer is "nowhere good." There's not really all that much to say about the Iowa State game itself, as the game was decided very early: the Cyclones went up by 10 with 9:52 left in the first half, led by 19 at half, and led by 20 as late as the 2:36 mark in the second half. The final score said ISU won by 10, but make no mistake, this was a blowout. And the cause was nothing new: terrible, terrible defense by Iowa. The Cyclones shot 19-32 on field goals in the first half and 6-11 on three pointers for a ludicrous eFG% of 68.8%. Of their 19 made shots in the first half, 14 were dunks, layups or three-pointers, meaning that Iowa was achieving the remarkable feat of defending neither inside or outside, simultaneously allowing the two kinds of shots that are most valuable on a basketball court. If you can think of a defensive error, Iowa probably made it: poor positioning, lack of help, slow rotation, a failure to challenge at the rim, a porous zone, a porous full-court press. It was bad. Don't take my word for it, look at this:

The two dunks where an Iowa player over-pressured Royce White at the three-point line (thinking, no doubt, "I'm in his face, I'm playing tough defense!") only to allow him to drive down a wide-open lane, are particularly embarrassing. This video is not from the best angle, but it does allow you to see some of the poor positioning and late rotation that led to easy shots for Iowa State. Also, I'll offer this quiz for later: do you notice one Hawkeye who is in the middle of more than a few of these highlights?

As far as the offense goes, it was't fantastic in this game, but it wasn't awful as it has been in some other games. By the end of the game, the Hawks had accumulated a decent eFG% of 49%, made a remarkable 88% of their free throws (and got to the line a healthy 25 times), and committed only 12 turnovers. No, the root of this loss was defense.

And that's where the taking-stock idea comes in. Especially on today of all days, it seems appropriate to talk about the lack of defensive coordination at Iowa. The change from last year's team to this year's on defense has been dramatic. And that's very strange, because it's basically the same team. Yes, Iowa did lose one very significant player, but is that enough to explain the giant step backward the team has taken?

I mean, could Jordan Stoermer have made that much of a difference?

Okay, we all know that Jarryd Cole is the missing player in question, but it's not like Iowa didn't add other players to replace him: Aaron White, Josh Oglesby, Gabe Olaseni, plus another year of maturation for all the remaining players -- that's got to be worth something, right? So far, not so much. But why? To get at the answer, I gathered a few of the relevant statistics from Iowa's first few "real" games last year and this year. For 2010, I looked at Iowa's games against Xavier, Alabama, Wake Forest, UNI and Iowa State, and for 2011, I looked at Creighton, Clemson, UNI and Iowa State. I could have included Campbell, as they certainly seemed like a real team, at least against us, but I, um, forgot. So, with that caveat, here's the comparison: Iowa's 2011 and 2010 stats are on the left, their opponents' stats are on the right, and the color-coded column refers to the percentage change in that statistic:


The surprising thing here is that Iowa's offense, which had struck me as especially putrid this year, is not really that much worse. The effective field goal percentage is just about the same, and the offensive efficiency is only down slightly. There's even a noticeable uptick in Iowa's free throw rate (i.e. free throws made divided by field goal attempts), reflecting how much better this squad is shooting freebies compared with last year's (73% in these games versus 62% in last year's sample). The turnover rate is down, which is a nice achievement, too. The team has regressed quite a bit in terms of offensive rebound rate, and that may explain the decline in overall offensive efficiency. Iowa was actually a pretty good offensive rebounding team last year, 68th overall in the country, and during their early games, they were off-the-charts good, grabbing 18 against Xavier, 18 against Iowa State, 14 against Wake Forest. Their worst total was 9, against Alabama. This year, nine is their highest total. So, offensive rebounding is down. Overall, though, the offense is only slightly worse. Neither last year's offense nor this year's was/is good, but that lack of goodness hasn't changed much from year to year.

The defense, though, has changed completely. The Hawks were downright stingy in terms of opposition shooting efficiency at this point last year, holding their opponent's to a very good 46.1% effective field goal percentage and less than a point per possession. As the year went on and the Big 10 schedule started, the defense got worse, but still finished in the middle of the pack for the league in terms of efficiency (something that couldn't be said of the offense). This year, Iowa is literally one of the worst teams in the country in terms of how well they allow their opponents to shoot the ball, 292 out of 345 in terms of effective field goal percentage. No other team in the Big Ten is below 200 in these rankings (Penn State is 185th). Iowa's block rate is down significantly, although it's not as if it was a block-heavy team last year. The Hawks are actually doing a better job of forcing turnovers, but that effective field goal percentage is so high that it really obliterates any other positive thing the team could potentially be doing. Against this sample of "real" teams, Iowa is giving up a +60 eFG%. That's the kind of gaudy number that should be a rare occurrence of hot shooting, not what you give up on average. And that amazing shooting contributes directly to the bottom-line number: opponents in these games are posting a 1.18 offensive efficiency (points per possession), which would be worth a #4 ranking nationally if it belonged to a single team.

So what is going on? Was Jarryd Cole really that good? Are his replacements that bad? Have some of the other players taken huge steps backwards? Or is there some other explanation? I'd argue a little bit of everything.

Cole really was a tremendous asset on defense, a 6'7" forward with the strength to muscle centers off the block and the speed and agility to trap guards and then recover back in time. He wasn't much of a shot-blocker, but his defensive rebounding was solid. When you add in his skills on offense, which, brick hands or no, were superior to those of Andrew Brommer, Devon Archie or this year's Melsahn Basabe, you begin to see how much Iowa lost when he graduated.

As far as replacements go, it's hard to say whether Brommer and Archie are all that much worse than Cole (although I would wager they are), because both have been limited by injury. Archie didn't play against Iowa State, Brommer only played 12 minutes, and overall, the pair are averaging 23 minutes combined. Going down the roster, that means that Basabe has shifted to the five spot, Zach McCabe has shifted to the four, with a combination of Eric May and Aaron White holding down the three (with White playing some four as well). In short, Iowa has an undersized power forward playing the center and a small forward playing the power forward, and neither with the versatility, strength, or quickness of Jarryd Cole. To say that teams are unafraid of driving the lane on the Hawks would be an understatement.

[Alright, answer to the quiz time: did you notice which player seemed to feature in many of the highlights? If you answered Zach McCabe, you win. I noticed him not helping on Royce White's first dunk, getting absolutely smoked one-on-one on the second, helping unnecessarily on the Ejim dunk, rotating to the corner late on Babb's three, taking a bad angle on a White lay-up (and giving up a foul), and giving up another three-point play to White after getting beat off the dribble. Why he was guarding Iowa State's best offensive player, I have no idea.]

From the interior, the problems just cascade outward. After re-watching a few games, the most glaring weakness of the defense comes from an understandable desire to help toward the interior. This help usually has its intended effect -- the offense doesn't pass to the interior -- but with the result that shooters are wide open at the three point line. And it's not so much that help is bad -- sometimes players need help -- as it is a question of poor judgment. Sometimes, Iowa players help when a player doesn't need help, or help when someone else is simultaneously helping from another angle. The team looks like it doesn't have a set plan on defense right now. It doesn't look like a living organism, where every player knows his responsibility and the combination of players is greater than the sum of their parts, but rather like five guys all sprinting to stop the ball wherever it is at the moment. Smart teams know how to exploit that kind of defense.

Iowa seems to have adopted the strategy of increasing their pressure to compensate for some of these problems, in the hopes that they can force a turnover before the opposition can take the high quality looks they inevitably get. Namely, Iowa is trapping quite a bit and employing a full-court press at times. This has worked to some extent, as evidenced by the higher turnover rate for Iowa's opponents this year, but has often exacerbated the confusion and poor rotation on the defense, leading to open looks whenever a team does beat the pressure. Some teams have the speed and length to press effectively, and others don't, and Iowa seems to fall in the "don't" category this year.

Lastly, Iowa has occasionally gone to a 2-3 zone to prevent the ball from reaching the interior and cover up some of the one-on-one mismatches. I'm no expert in how a zone is supposed to work, but Iowa's simply doesn't. There seem to consistently be gaping holes on the wings, and a simple skip pass from one wing to the other is usually enough to produce a wide-open three-point look. We usually don't stay in zone for long.

So is all lost for Iowa on defense? It looks bleak now, but I'm holding out hope. Oddly enough, one sign of hope is that the team looks so damned disorganized. Disorganization can be fixed. These are not bad athletes out there, but they are being called on to do impossible things, like guard two players at once or defend the three-point line and the rim at the same time. Better organization and a better understanding of responsibilities can be taught. Another flicker of hope is that Brommer and Archie will get healthy and play more, allowing Basabe to shift to his more natural position at the four, and sending McCabe back to his natural position at the three. The Basabe/McCabe Twin Bungalows concept has to end. It's a black hole in the center of the defense, and it's certainly not producing enough on the offensive end to make up for it, so if Iowa can get a different combo in the interior, hopefully the stronger presence there will radiate out and benefit the perimeter guys as well. The final ray of hope is that there are still roster combinations and strategies Fran hasn't tried yet. If the defense is giving up points at an unreal rate, why not try playing Olaseni at center? Or what about Olaseni and Brommer together, for a truly big look? I know Gabe is raw, and his offense is rudimentary, but really, things can't get much worse. Or how about Aaron White at the four? He's not very strong right now, but his defensive positioning, quickness, and instincts seem better than McCabe's right now. Or how about calling off some of the pressure, telling players to lay off on all the interior help, and at the very least cut down on the number of wide open threes?

I know I've probably come across as a herald of doom here, but really I'm just confused. I'm not under any illusions that this collection of players should be contending for the Big 10 title, but last year's team seemed to squeeze so much more performance out of mostly the same players. The most impressive part of Fran's debut year was the fact that he cobbled together a legitimately decent defense out of the unlikeliest materials. The team played cohesive, organized defense, they contested shots on the perimeter, and they rebounded. There were breakdowns last year, too, like against Illinois or Northwestern, but they were once in a while, not every game. I've tried to suggest some answers, but honestly, I don't know what's going on here.