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Fran-Graphs, Purdue


[Video still credit: BTN]

If you wanted to write up a recipe for how Iowa could have upset Purdue in West Lafayette, it might have gone something like this:

  • Get Purdue in foul trouble
  • Take care of the ball
  • Make a few unexpected shots, preferably threes
  • Keep Ryne Smith off the three-point line
  • Make your free throws
Apart from the last item on the list, Iowa followed the recipe very faithfully for the first half. Purdue committed several reach-in fouls early and just as importantly, the refs were willing to endure the boos of thousands of Jimmy Buffett-clad Purdue fans* and call them on it. After that, the Boilermakers' stifling defense loosened up noticeably and Iowa did a good job finding cutters in the lane for easy shots. Meanwhile, Iowa was careful with the ball, made several long jumpers that normally don't go in, and got arguably the best offensive half of Zach McCabe's Iowa career (5-9 FG, 2-2 3PT, 13 points). The defense was solid, keeping the Boilermakers out of the paint while contesting threes, Smith only had one three through the first twenty minutes, and Robbie Hummel was limited to six points on 3-8 shooting. In the first half (or more specifically, the first 17 minutes), Iowa played at pretty near peak efficiency, both on offense and defense. And that was kind of the problem, because it just couldn't last.

* Or were they Purdue-clad Jimmy Buffett fans? In any event, they weren't full human beings.

When Iowa's energy waned, when the long jumpers stopped connecting, when the defense lost a bit of its cohesion, the drop-off was severe. Purdue suddenly found itself able to get in the lane more easily, and took advantage. Melsahn Basabe was a non-presence for most of the game due to foul trouble, and it hurt Iowa. Except for the seven minutes that Archie played, Iowa found itself without a creditable shot-blocker in the post and without much rebounding heft. Purdue took advantage, grabbing nine offensive rebounds in the second half and winning the rebounding battle decisively on both ends of the court.

The interesting thing about this game was that Iowa pretty much sustained its defensive effort throughout. Purdue shot slightly better in the second half, and their free throw totals were inflated by some end of game intentional fouling, but overall, Iowa played well on defense in the second half. Fran McCaffery made a smart adjustment midway through the second half, switching to zone and sending Archie in to anchor it. It worked very well and Purdue went without a score for about three minutes. It was curious, actually, that McCaffery switched away from the Archie zone down the stretch, because it really did seem to cause Purdue difficulty, much in the same way that it stymied Minnesota. But even when Iowa switched back to man-to-man, the defense was good enough to win the game.
The problem, instead, was the offense. Iowa succeeded in the first half by virtue of uncommon accuracy and their use of few new offensive wrinkles. I haven't had a chance to watch the game again, but in the first half at least, Iowa seemed to run a lot of high pick and pops with Marble and McCabe or Cartwright and McCabe, allowing McCabe to get good looks from distance and forcing Purdue to choose between defending the paint and defending the perimeter. Marble also took advantage of his height mismatch with Lewis Jackson, cutting to the basket for easy shots and canning a few jumpers. For a while the Hawks really seemed to have Purdue confused on defense, but that dried up in the second half, so it's possible Matt Painter made some adjustments in the way his team defended Marble and the pick and roll. Some of the shots Iowa made in the first half were just difficult shots that Iowa couldn't expect to make over the long haul -- I'm thinking of McCabe and Marble both making several long jumpers and Cartwright banking a circus shot high off the glass. Their eFG% was a very good 53.7% in the first half, and dropped to a meager 43.1% in the second half, which goes to show how much things changed for Iowa's offense. If the Hawks could have kept that percentage closer to the 50% range, they probably would have won the game. Credit goes to Purdue for stepping up their defensive effort in the second half.

In general, Iowa felt about one player short of making this upset. Gatens was mostly invisible for the first 35 minutes, taking five of his nine shots in the last 4:15. Aaron White and Cartwright both provided some scoring, but the trio of Basabe, May and Oglesby combined for one point on 0-5 shooting. Marble and McCabe played out of their minds for much of the game, but they needed more scoring help, and Purdue did a very good job of making things difficult for them to get it. Ryne Smith in particular did a good job of hounding Gatens, but it also seemed like Gatens didn't assert himself on offense until it was very late in the day. I don't know if that's a strategic decision, fatigue or what, but many times even a bad shot by Gatens is better than some of the other shots Iowa was getting.

It would be easy to point to Iowa's 11 missed free throws and say that is why they lost, but remember, Iowa shoots about 72% from the line as a team. If they had just shot their average, they would have scored about three more points. That would have helped, but it probably wouldn't have tilted the game to the Hawks. And they got to the line 30 times! In West Lafayette! If you group their free throws into two-shot "possessions", then Iowa scored 19 points on 15 free throw possessions for an offensive efficiency of 1.27 points per possession. That's actually a really good figure -- far better than Iowa's overall offensive efficiency for the game of .996. It was frustrating to watch Iowa clank shot after shot off the rim, but getting to the line was actually a key part of their offensive success.

The really worrying thing about the game was the play of Basabe. He got called for a few iffy fouls and sat down, but the frightening thing was that Iowa looked a little better when he wasn't on the court, at least on offense. The rebounding was slightly worse, maybe, and his shot-blocking was missed at times, but that was about it. Purdue is the kind of team that is kryptonite for Basabe -- a strong, physical team that harasses players in the post and forces quick decisions -- so maybe it was bound to be an off game for him. But the ripple effect of Basabe sitting was serious, if only because it forced other players to stay in longer than normal (especially McCabe). White actually did a serviceable job playing as a sort of center, recording two blocks, but he doesn't have the strength to play in the pivot for long stretches of time. Iowa needs someone to hold down the post for long stretches of the game, and there just aren't any great options right now. Basabe, Brommer and Archie all have glaring weaknesses, but of the three, I thought Archie did the best against Purdue. He was a total non-factor on offense, and predictably dribbled the ball out of bounds when someone tried to pass him the ball as he rolled to the basket on the pick and roll, but his defense was good, especially in the zone. He's got a fairly high center of gravity, so he can be pushed around in the post, but he does have long arms and good mobility, and can contest shots. The only problem is that Iowa has to play four on five on offense when he's in the game. It's a conundrum, and Fran will probably just have to muddle along with some mixture of the three, as well as a good dose of McCabe/White small ball. But if Archie's minutes could go up to 15 a game rather than the current 5-7, it might be possible to give McCabe and White the rest they need to be more effective as the game stretches on.

Iowa now has a week off before facing Nebraska at home on the 26th. In spite of the frustration of this game, it did mark a step forward for the team. McCabe is starting to look like a serious offensive threat, and if he can make threes reliably, he will be a very tough match-up. Iowa also started to show some creativity in the face of intense defensive pressure, and while they couldn't sustain it for two halves, they didn't fold either. Winning in West Lafayette is always a tough task, but the Hawks showed a little more maturity and toughness when it came to dealing with the noise, pressure and physical intensity of a Big 10 road game than they did against Michigan State.