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Fran-Graphs, Wisconsin

One of the coolest things, I think, about the sport of basketball is how non-linear it can be. A team with two good players and three stiffs can have trouble even scoring, but replace one of the stiffs with a guy who can shoot or a strong dribbler, and suddenly things start to loosen up in a way that is disproportionate to the individual skill of that player. Suddenly the defense has to worry about making choices, like whether to double the best player and leave someone else competent open, or whether to cover the dribbler in the pick and roll or the man setting the pick, and that slight uncertainty creates freedom and space. And for the first time in a long while, it really felt like an Iowa team forced another team to make some very difficult choices. In addition to the usual suspects of Matt Gatens and Melsahn Basabe, the Badgers also had to think hard going in about how to cover Devyn Marble. And if that had been it, they might have still won, but it quickly became clear that Bryce Cartwright would also require attention. And then, out of nowhere in the second half, like some kind of orange and pasty-white comet, Aaron White burst onto the scene and lit up the Kohl Center. When you add in some woefully poor three-point shooting by the Badgers and a unusually focused defensive effort by the Hawks, it is surprising that Wisconsin only lost by seven.

Wisconsin fans will probably just call it an unusually cold day and move on, and there were certainly some anomalous performances here (38% three-point shooter Jared Berggren going 0-7 from deep, 53% three-point shooter Josh Gasser going 0-3, 41% three-point shooter Ben Brust deliciously going 1-9). Let's not delude ourselves: Wisconsin had open looks, looks that they normally make, and they missed them. By my count they were 2 of 14 on uncontested three-pointers. For the year, Wisconsin is shooting 38.4% on threes, so that's quite a drop off. If we assume that the Badgers had made a more normal percentage (let's say 45%) on uncontested threes, they would have scored about 13 more points than they did, so, yeah, that would have mattered.

But it didn't hurt that Iowa's defense underwent a remarkable transformation from useless to functional. In performances against Creighton, Campbell, and Iowa State, the Hawkeyes have posed a defensive problem for opponents only slightly more difficult than your average layup drill: three-pointers, layups, dunks, fast breaks, whatever teams wanted they got. But in this game, it was as if Fran McCaffery had stuck his players in some sort of Matrix-like device and downloaded the "play competent defense" module, because they looked like a completely different team. For one, they played much more disciplined and active man defense, giving less help and getting fooled less frequently on movement away from the ball (there was one big exception where they did help). Whereas in earlier games, the Hawks often got caught over-helping and leaving wide-open shooters, in this game, they mostly stayed home, and it meant fewer wide-open shots, fewer layups, and more of the 10-15 foot shots that are statistical gold for defenses.

The exception on the helping front was Jordan Taylor, where the Hawks consistently sent extra men to cut off the Badger star from getting into the paint. But Marble spearheaded the defense, giving Taylor all kinds of difficulty with his length and quickness. Taylor couldn't burn past Marble, and he couldn't easily shoot over him, either, forcing him frequently to pass it out to other Badgers who, not used to this concept of "creating offense independently", often just passed it back to Taylor. Taylor resorted on several occasions to pushing Marble away from him, a tactic which backfired in the second half when Marble dramatically (and hilariously) toppled backward after a Taylor push-off and drew an offensive foul. For the most part, though, Taylor kept driving and trying to fake Marble off his feet, but the Iowa sophomore wisely realized that he was about six inches taller and refused to take the bait. Taylor got his points (17) and had some impressive drives, but Marble's defense forced him into a fairly inefficient performance (7-19 on field goals).

When Wisconsin couldn't knock down the shots that resulted from the double teams on Taylor, the Hawks did a decent job keeping the Badgers off the offensive glass (Wisconsin finished with an offensive rebounding percentage of 34.1%; by contrast, Iowa grabbed 35.5% of their offensive rebound chances), and turning their own defensive rebounds into quick transition opportunities (Gatens deserves a ton of credit for his ten defensive rebounds from the guard spot). Iowa didn't force many turnovers (just eight), another sign of their less aggressive, more stay-at-home defense.

As far as the offense went, Iowa benefited from unexpected contributions across the board. In spite of a very quiet night from Gatens (2-9 FG, six points), the Hawks got several baskets that they normally just don't make: Basabe started the game with two 19-foot jumpers, Eric May scored on a rare drive to the hoop, and Zach McCabe had a couple of nice scores in the post. Then Bryce Cartwright came in and took over. Cartwright basically returned to the form of last year, pushing the pace relentlessly and finishing with short pull-ups, layups and pass-offs. Something's been missing with Cartwright all year due to injury, and that something was speed. This game Cartwright got his speed back, and he punished Wisconsin again and again. The Badgers looked very slow getting back on defense, and Cartwright made them pay. Credit here goes to Fran McCaffery, for encouraging the Hawks to get out and run at every opportunity. Iowa usually has trouble scoring in the half court, but got many baskets on fast breaks and secondary breaks off of rebounds and made baskets. Cartwright is the perfect point man for that kind of sneaky offense, and he finished very well in the lane throughout.

Another wise move by Fran was going back to Aaron White in the second half after a quiet first half and playing him big minutes. I noted in the graph above that the Hawks were +16 when White was on the floor, and a lot of that has to do with his outburst early in the second half. He came in at the 16:45 mark in the second half and proceeded to score 11 points in the next five minutes. And he scored in a variety of ways: on a deep three, two foul shots, a dunk off the pick and roll, a fast break layup, and, in my personal favorite play of the game, a tip-in where he was boxed out by two Badgers but managed to get two fingers on the ball and just flick it off the glass at an odd angle. Raw plus-minus is not a perfect stat for basketball, given the many other variables that could also be responsible for the score (i.e. White's teammates/opponents), but it was hard to deny the impact he made on the game. He may not have the endurance to start and play 30 minutes a game, but with more performances like this, he's probably going to be finishing a lot of games for Iowa. Zach McCabe had a decent game (he drew two charges, I think), but his three-point shot is not reliable and he has a nasty tendency to commit unnecessary fouls, especially on the offensive end (he had a couple offensive fouls). He's a big dude, and when he commits screens or runs into guys on the drive, they tend to fall over, and refs notice that.

Thanks to White's outburst and some more scoring from Cartwright, Iowa actually found itself sitting pretty up 12 with 3:52 left. And that's when Melsahn Basabe lost his ever loving mind. After Gasser drove to the hoop and drew a foul on Basabe, Basabe responded to some contact from Gasser with a direct shove after the play. Wisconsin got the two free throws for the foul, two more for the technical, and the ball. When you add in the layup that Wisconsin got on the ensuing possession, that single shove greatly improved Wisconsin's chances of making a comeback. When you consider that it essentially gave Wisconsin two free points and cost the Hawks a possessions (which would be worth, on average, about one point) and took zero seconds off the clock (thus giving Wisconsin an extra possession at the end of the game), the technical at that point probably cost the Hawks three or four points. I can't imagine what was going through Fran McCaffery's head at that moment, but it was probably something like this:


That mistake, combined with a terribly confused in-bound play in the last minute that saw Cartwright and Gatens collide going for the same pass and gave Wisconsin another free basket, almost brought the Badgers back for what would have been a very lame and undeserved win. Thankfully, Devyn Marble didn't let that happen. First he nailed a very difficult baseline jumper over the 6'10" Berggren, followed that up with a deft past to a streaking Cartwright for a layup, then nailed an even higher degree of difficulty floater from about 10 feet out to seal the game with 15 seconds left. There were some unnecessarily tense moments at the end, thanks to a missed free throw by Basabe and the flubbed in-bounds play that looked as if it had been drawn up by Bo Ryan, but the Hawks did enough to survive.

It was really a near perfect effort for the Hawks. They got contributions across the board, Basabe returned to his old form, especially on the glass, where he grabbed five crucial offensive rebounds, Cartwright played like the Cartwright of last year, Marble played outstanding defense all game and finished in the clutch. And Aaron White had just about the most efficient 20 minutes one could imagine. Consider that his effective field goal percentage was 100% thanks to his two made threes and his true shooting percentage (a measure of total shooting efficiency that includes free throws) was 103%. The NCAA leaders for the year last year shot 85% and 87%, respectively, for those two numbers, and an average number for both is around 45-50%, so, yeah, the Great Orange Hope had himself a game.

If you're a Wisconsin fan, how do you explain this calamitous upset? It is somewhat mystifying. Wisconsin has played a legitimately good pre-conference schedule with wins over the #18, #19 [correction: they lost to Marquette], and #21 teams in the KenPom ratings and a three-point loss to #5 North Carolina. They are the #1 team in defensive efficiency even after the Iowa game and are the #20 team in offensive efficiency. That's why they are, even today, the #1 team according to the the KenPom numbers. Their cold shooting was a major deviation against Iowa, but another factor may have been that their early season defensive performance was just too good to last. This edition of the Badgers was legitimately good at defense (unlike some earlier vintages, which played at a slow pace and therefore merely seemed to be good at defense), giving up a ridiculously low .756 points per possession. The Badgers recipe for success was to force their opponents to shoot very low two-point and three-point percentages (37.5% and 24.4%, respectively -- both top three numbers), give up very few foul shots (#13 in FTA/FGA), not gamble going for steals (just #136 in opponent turnovers per game), and secure the defensive rebound (#19 in defensive rebounding percentage). It's a sound defensive philosophy and is basically what the San Antonio Spurs do (or did in their prime). When you combine that kind of defense with the usual efficient Wisconsin offense and a major home free throw advantage*, you have a recipe for a very tough team to beat, especially in Madison.

* Wisconsin had the 10th highest home-road split in free throws per 100 possessions last year, per Team Rankings.

But giving up fewer than 76 points per 100 possessions is just out of this world good, and Wisconsin, from what I saw, doesn't have out of this world good defensive personnel. Berggren is 6'10" but not a particularly strong shot blocker, and they don't have the bruising Nankivil-Stiemsma-Krabbenhoft-Landry front lines of the past, either. Iowa put up an outstanding 1.13 offensive efficiency number up against the Badgers, and did it while making only two threes. Sure, the Hawks played out of their heads, but they didn't do it by making ridiculous shots, just getting to the basket again and again, beating the Badgers down the court on the break, and grabbing a few more offensive rebounds than the Badgers normally give up. It didn't seem like a fluky or unrepeatable performance -- Basabe also happened to mishandle three layups, so Iowa even left some easy points on the board. It could just be that the Badgers got a little lucky with their opponent's shooting to this point, and that number was bound to regress back to the mean. Or maybe they had a little too much eggnog the night before at the team Christmas party. Or maybe, just maybe, the Iowa Hawkeyes have finally put together the necessary pieces to coalesce into an offensive force the likes of which hasn't been seen since the days of the Showtime Lakers, and the Badgers really had no chance in the face of that kind of onslaught. I prefer that interpretation.