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Fran-Graphs, Indiana

This should not, by all rights, have happened. Iowa was missing their starting point guard and a key sub, was starting two freshmen, and had gotten absolutely torched by Indiana just two weeks ago. On top of that, the team's starting small forward drew two fouls within the first minute and a half and had to sit for most of the first half. My thought as I sat down to the game was "this could get ugly." It did. Just not for the team I had thought.

The headline for any story about the game will include Matt Gatens, and rightfully so. The senior was in a very Kingsbury-esque place for much of the second half, making five threes and scoring 25 of his 30 points, including one from 25 feet out that very much recalled a certain bowl-cut long bomber of yore. Carver had the same kind of manic, feverish feel that it did in those days, too, with fans standing in anticipation whenever his shot went up. Gatens kept Indiana at bay whenever they attempted to draw closer in the second half, but it's important to remember that Iowa built almost their entire winning margin in the first half. And they did that on the strength of defense and rebounding.

This was, simply put, the most impressive defensive effort the Hawks have put together all year. This wasn't like the Minnesota or Wisconsin games, where Iowa benefited from unusually cold shooting by the opposition. This was a genuine lock-down job, where Iowa imposed their will on defense and forced Indiana into bad shots. Iowa held Indiana to a meager 43.4% effective field goal percentage and .98 points per possession, far below their season averages of 55.6% and 1.13, respectively. Iowa won the battle on the offensive and defensive glass, generated seven steals and nine blocks, and played with more energy than they have all season. And it all started with two players getting in foul trouble.







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Zach McCabe went out after just a minute and a half after drawing his two fouls, which at the time seemed to portend disaster. The bench was already thin, and suddenly Fran McCaffery was faced with filling a starter's minutes for the rest of the first half. It wound up working to Iowa's benefit, however, because it allowed Melsahn Basabe to get in the game. Basabe played like a new man, or rather an old man: the Basabe of last year. On defense, he looked like a completely different player, playing with energy and the hops, blocking five shots and altering several others. On offense, he kept it simple, finishing a couple of decisive post moves and following up two missed shots with layups. Too often he has floated around the perimeter like Amare Stoudemire on a bad day, but against Indiana he just stayed near the basket and worked relentlessly, and the payoff was his best game of the year.

The other adjustment McCabe's foul trouble brought on was a more or less permanent switch to zone defense. Much as it did in the first Minnesota game, Iowa's zone managed to stymie an athletic team and allowed Iowa to control the defensive glass. In man, Iowa tends to send their big men out to hedge the pick and roll very hard, with the result that, even if Iowa forces a bad shot, there is very often no one at home to grab the board. The zone had the virtue of keeping Basabe (or Brommer or Archie) anchored under the basket, allowing Iowa to contest several shots at the rim and grab the rebound when a shot went up from the perimeter. Iowa's zone has been alternately awful and sublime this year, and it all has to do with effort. When Iowa plays the zone with low energy, a couple of passes is usually enough to generate an open three. Last night, however, everyone was working hard enough to contest shots on the perimeter while keeping Indiana out of the paint.

Iowa's pressure also paid dividends. Indiana was somewhat careless with the ball, and that led to several early steals and run-outs by Iowa. Part of the credit goes to the early foul trouble of Jordan Hulls. The Indiana starting point guard got his second foul not long after McCabe and sat for the next ten minutes. Within two minutes of Hulls sitting down, Indiana had three turnovers and their three-point lead had transformed into a six-point deficit. Iowa seemed to gain tremendous confidence from that early success. Hulls wound up with only three fouls, so taking him out of the game for such a long time may not have been worth it for Indiana.

The fact that Indiana's offense was struggling without their leader was crucial in another respect: it allowed Iowa to rest their starters. When McCaffery put in a line-up featuring Gabe Olaseni, Andrew Brommer and Darius Stokes midway through the first half, the Carver crowd seemed to murmur in unison: "is this entirely a good idea?" Likewise when Branden Stubbs went in a few minutes later. These deep-bench lineups didn't do much on offense, but they didn't get shredded apart on defense, either, allowing crucial rests for Basabe, Aaron White, and Josh Oglesby.

In the second half, Iowa held on for dear life, running the clock down on nearly every possession and hoping that time would run out before Indiana could come back. For a while it felt like a comeback was imminent. Indiana cut the lead to 10 on two Oladipo free throws with seven minutes left. Then Matt Gatens proceeded to assassinate their hopes. Gatens made four threes over the next three minutes, including the aforementioned Kingsbury dagger from 25 feet out. The crowd alternated between bouts of mania whenever Gatens put up a shot and intense anger whenever Will Sheehey got away with a foul (the refs seemed to allow Indiana to be very physical on the ball in the last ten minutes), but mania won out and Iowa cruised to their most improbable win of the season.

Stray observations:

  • This game raises an important question: just how much of Iowa's improved defense in this game was due to their exceptional energy and execution, and how much due to their line-up changes? McCabe and Cartwright have their virtues, but strong defense is not one of them. Too often when an offense breaks down Iowa's defense, you can trace the cause back to McCabe over-helping or watching the ball or being a step slow. He's a definite plus on offense, but his defense can be a serious problem. In the past he was still the preferable choice at the four because Basabe looked so listless, but if Melsahn plays like he did last night, this could force a very interesting choice for Fran in terms of assigning minutes.
  • The most heart-warming moment of the game: Darius Stokes grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring on a put-back, and the crowd going nuts for him.
  • I didn't talk too much about the referees, but it must be said that they allowed a lot of contact in the first half, and that this worked to Iowa's benefit. The game took on a very helter-skelter, manic feel, and that seemed to feed the crowd, which fed the team. The officiating seemed pretty consistent both ways, though, and arguably tilted toward Indiana in the second half as I mentioned above.
  • The student section taunted Zeller with the chant "Tyler", which seemed curious to me. Is Cody Zeller supposed to be embarrassed that he has a brother who is also excellent at basketball? Might this not just remind him of his genetic basketball excellence?
  • Speaking of Zeller, he had a very quiet game. He looked tentative in the post, got his shot blocked several times, and was not much of a factor on the defensive end. As I left the game I heard an Indiana fan describe Zeller's personality transformation on the road as "Samsonian", which seems apt.
  • Gatens has been on a real roll the past few games, especially from three, and it raises the question of just where he is on the usage/efficiency trade-off line right now. Most players become much more inefficient when their usage (i.e. shots) goes up, and the few players who can ramp up their shot attempts without such a drop are the ones we call "stars'. In the past, the only flaw I could cite Gatens for was that he was too content to remain a medium-usage player, taking shots only when they were completely open. For whatever reason, he seems to be taking shots with less of a conscience in the past few games, firing away even when he's only half-open. It has paid off in a big way. Given Iowa's alternatives, it seems like the Hawks could benefit from a more selfish Matt Gatens.