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Things Fall Apart: Penn State Beats Iowa, 69-64

[Ed. Note: No Fran-Graphs today, thanks to some technical difficulties that struck the esteemed Mr. Cow. -- Ross]

First half of horrors. It would be tempting to call the first half of last night's game the worst first half of basketball Iowa's played all season. Tempting, but probably not true, if only because there have been a lot of nightmarish first halves this season: Creighton, Campbell, Clemson, Iowa State, Michigan State... Still, this was a really, really bad half and while a spate of missed free throws late in the game were also very costly, the biggest reason Iowa lost this game was probably the godawful first half they played. They allowed the worst-shooting team in the Big Ten to make 44% from the field and jump out to a 38-24 halftime lead, but if their defense was bad (Penn State got far too many second shot opportunities, in particular), their offense was horrendous. Iowa shot just 7/26 (27%) in the first half and went seven minutes (game time, not real time) between field goals at one point, making this the funhouse mirror version of the earlier Iowa-Penn State game, when Iowa got off to a blazing start and essentially blitzed Penn State out of the gym in the first half. But in that game Iowa was the one that came out with a ton of energy that they were able to convert into good shooting, good rebounding, and harrying defense; on Thursday night it was Penn State doing all that (more or less). The basketball gods giveth and the basketball gods taketh.

Backcourt blues. We saw yet another new starting lineup last night as an injury to Bryce Cartwright (reported as a high ankle sprain, so good luck seeing him at anywhere near peak effectiveness before the end of the season) forced a shake-up. Roy Devyn Marble moved back to the point guard spot he ably manned earlier this season in Cartwright's absence and was joined by Matt Gatens, Aaron White, Zach McCabe, and (in a slight surprise) Josh Oglesby. Marble had another solid all-around game: 13 points (albeit on 4/10 shooting), 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Unfortunately, Oglesby did not have a game to remember: he went 1/7 (3 points) in 27 minutes and looked tentative and uncertain for too much of the game (he also went 1/3 from the free throw line, which hurt). Iowa has few enough outside shooters as it is -- they can ill afford to have one of them stinking up the joint. Cartwright claims he'll be ready to play on Sunday against Indiana, but it's hard to believe he won't be pretty limited by the high ankle sprain. With Eric May still hampered by back problems, there may be no option but to give Oglesby another start -- the backcourt is looking pretty thin. Marble played the full 40 minutes last night and Gatens played 38.

Matt Gatens in a losing effort. Speaking of Gatens, it was a tale of two (very, very different) halves for Iowa's senior leader. He was utterly anonymous in the first half, going 0/5 (on some terrible-looking shots) and struggling to contribute elsewhere on the floor, too. But in the second half he went off like a rocket, scoring 19 of his game-high 21 points and making five three pointers in a row (he finished 5/7 from downtown in the second half). It was the best long-range shooting effort I can remember seeing from an Iowa player since Justin Johnson went off against Indiana a few years ago (although Johnson's still ranks higher on the Holy Shit scale by virtue of having done it in the final two minutes of the game). Unfortunately, like Johnson's torrid run, Gatens' efforts came in a losing effort.

My favorite ginger. As has been the case for the last few games, Aaron White was again a bright spot: 16 points (on 6/11 shooting), 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks was a pretty good night of work. (The four turnovers were a bit of a problem, though.) White's development has been one of this season's most enjoyable storylines and it's been a lot of fun to see him continue to put up numbers and good performances even as we get deep into conference play. He's an incredibly fun player to watch and seeing him grow and improve over the next three years will be a blast.

Strategery. There's been some debate about Fran's decision to have Iowa foul Jon Graham late in the game last night when Iowa was down just three. He confirmed that he told the team to foul only Graham; if he had never touched the ball on that possession, Iowa would have just tried to play defense and force a stop. Fran's logic was that Graham was a 35% free throw shooter on the season and sending him to the line to miss a free throw would preserve time on the clock without expanding Iowa's deficit. Unfortunately, it backfired and Graham made both free throws, giving Penn State a basically insurmountable five-point advantage. Oops. It's easy to say, in hindsight, that Iowa should have just stuck with playing defense after the timeout and tried to force a stop. Personally, I can see the logic of Fran's approach, but I would have preferred just playing defense and forcing a stop. Penn State hadn't been especially sharp down the stretch of that game and while expecting the Iowa defense to get a stop is often a fool's errand, they'd done an okay job in the second half.

What now? The loss drops Iowa's record to 13-13, 5-8 in the Big Ten. The good news is that their next two games are at home, where they've generally played much better this season. The bad news is that those games are against Indiana (Sunday), a good team and a terrible match-up for Iowa, and Wisconsin (Thursday), a hot team itching for revenge. Those hopes of a .500 Big Ten record and a winning overall record just got a lot more distant with last night's loss. Sigh.