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Fran-Graphs, Wisconsin


[Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall, AP]

Maybe it was when Matt Gatens hit a jump shot even as a defender knocked him sideways, or when the crowd grew so loud that Devyn Marble was able to sneak up on a Wisconsin ball-handler and pick his pocket, or when Aaron White dunked off of a sweet no-look Marble bounce pass, or when the packed student section began to rock like the sea after a Melsahn Basabe dunk, but at some point, the Iowa/Wisconsin game began to take on the unreal quality of a dream. Gatens couldn't possibly make another three with a hand in his face, could he? He did. Iowa couldn't dunk on Wisconsin again, could they? They did, again and again and again. Carver couldn't be this loud, could it? It was.

It's hard to express it, but for the first 30 minutes of the game, the arena felt like it was under a magic spell -- for both teams. Wisconsin actually played very well, and I'm sure their fans are asking themselves today what else their team could have done better to win this game. Ryan Evans came out and matched Gatens point for point over the first five minutes, keeping the Badgers close, and at various times Josh Gasser, Ben Brust and Rob Wilson all rose to the occasion and scored tough baskets. The Badgers shot 75% from the field in the first ten minutes of the game, made several very difficult jump shots off the dribble, and were on a pace to score 80 points. But somehow Iowa was even hotter. The Hawks made four threes in the first five minutes of the game, Gatens made his first six shots, and Iowa was on a pace to score 96 points after the first 10 minutes.

In many ways the game felt like an announcement: For Gatens, who surely knows that his chances to impress NBA scouts on national television are running out and has embraced a wonderfully effective "carpe diem" attitude by shooting whenever he is even marginally open; for Melsahn Basabe, who has salvaged a disappointing sophomore season by suddenly controlling the paint like Patrick Ewing; for Aaron White, who won the ginger battle decisively over Mike Bruesewitz and already plays like one of the team's smartest players; and for the program, which was clearly going all out to pack the house and remind the country that Iowa basketball was back.

It felt like a plan coming together. Iowa basketball was in the depths just a few years ago, the crowds were shrinking, the play was slow, and the losses were numerous. The general idea with the hire of Fran McCaffery seemed to be as follows:

  1. If we play fun, fast-paced, aggressive basketball, then
  2. The fans will slowly come back, then
  3. Our home court advantage will come back, then
  4. We will win more and even more fans will come back, then
  5. Matt Gatens will go supernova on bobblehead night and Iowa will beat #15 Wisconsin.
Okay, so maybe that last step wasn't there, but otherwise, last night felt like the realization of the general idea that Iowa has been aiming for. Iowa played with passion, energy, and speed; they forced turnovers and blocked shots, they got out on the break, and they switched up defenses constantly. Here's what McCaffery said at his first press conference:

"We’re going to push the ball, We’re going to run, we’re going to press, we’re going to change defenses. We’re going to disrupt rhythm."

That was the first half in a nutshell. Wisconsin committed an unusually high number of turnovers in the first half -- 11 -- and Iowa's pressure deserves a lot of the credit. The crowd also deserves credit. Noise caused at least three turnovers: two 35-second violations where Wisconsin didn't seem to realize that the clock was running down, and the aforementioned Marble steal, which led to an awesome Basabe dunk and made the crowd go basically batshit crazy.

Of course, the key ingredient that started everything going was Gatens. He was simply unbelievable. He made shot after shot in the teeth of very tight defense. He came off of screens and made shots, he made shots off the dribble, he made shots when he was fouled. I'm sure Bo Ryan was getting a little frustrated, because his defenders were actually doing a fine job. They were on Gatens, they were physical with him, they got a hand in his face. He just elevated and made shots right over them. His performance reminded me a lot of J.J. Redick's play at Duke a few years ago, in the sense that both Gatens and Redick needed almost no time or space to get off a shot and seemed to have unlimited range. I've been fairly skeptical that Gatens could make it in the NBA, but if he can continue to shoot threes off of screens as well as he has the last few games, then he just might find a niche.

As euphoric as the first 30 minutes were, the last 10 were, for me at least, filled with white-knuckle terror. Iowa adopted the "run the clock down to five and then throw up a shot" offense, with predictably miserable results, and the Badgers slowly chipped away at the lead. A few head-scratching calls aided Wisconsin in their comeback (no call when they push Aaron White into the bench? A five-second call on Marble?), and Iowa needed clutch free throws by Marble and Gatens to finally put a stake in the Badgers. Then the students, who had begun to gather on the sidelines in the last minute, poured onto the court and hoisted Gatens and Marble on their shoulders. It's hard to be objective about it, but it was pretty moving to see that. It was just one game and one win, but the ecstatic reaction of the fans felt like a collective expression of joy that Iowa might just matter at basketball going forward.

Stray observations:

  • I didn't mention Marble very much, but he deserves a ton of credit, both for managing the offense, for making those clutch free throws, and for once again locking down Jordan Taylor, who had just nine points (and four turnovers). Wisconsin actually seemed to operate better when Taylor went out with foul trouble and Gasser and Ben Brust took over the ball-handling duties. Marble has the perfect combination of length and quickness to bother Taylor, and he kept him out of the lane all game.
  • White did a little of everything in this game, but had a couple of plays that made me smile. The first was when he got his feet crossed up in an awkward X-type position and didn't seem to know which foot was his pivot foot; instead of taking a step and risking a travel, he just took the shot with his feet tangled up like that, and made it -- very crafty. The second was when he harassed a Wisconsin player who had just grabbed the defensive rebound on the baseline and forced him to take a step out of bounds. They were small plays, but represent just how cleverly White plays the game.
  • Bryce Cartwright and Eric May made brief cameo appearances, and neither looked all the way back. Cartwright had a couple of his customary unforced turnovers, and quickly went back to the bench. May appeared for defensive purposes late in the second half, and was responsible for a SportsCenter highlight when he gambled on a steal and allowed Rob Wilson to get all the way to the basket for a monster dunk.
  • Fran went with Darius Stokes for a couple minutes in the second half and it was pretty disastrous. Iowa was up by 11 at the 15 minute mark and after three minutes the lead was down to 3. Stokes has potential, but he seemed confused on his defensive assignments a couple of times, and added little on offense.
  • I mentioned the "run the clock down" strategy, and I wonder if Iowa went to it a little too early. It all worked out, but the offense did go into the ditch for about the last 10 minutes. Iowa scored 58 points in the first 30 minutes (roughly the first 49 possessions), for an offensive efficiency of 1.18, and 11 points in the last 10 (roughly the last 16 possessions), for an offensive efficiency of .69. That's... a drop-off. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's first-30 offensive efficiency was .98 and their last-10 was 1.13. At those rates, Iowa needed to end the game right when it did. Could they have played better on offense if they had started things earlier? It's hard to say, but the slow-down always makes me queasy. It's like when a football team with a lead goes into a shell on offense and starts playing prevent on defense. You can see the logic, but it just seems to embolden the opposition.
  • Brust got booed whenever he had the ball, but I must say he played very well, making two threes and some tough runners.
  • Zach McCabe had some good moments (the two corner threes were very nice), but he struggled on defense and committed a few bad turnovers. His go-to move is the old shoulder in the sternum bull rush, and teams have obviously scouted that tendency out. Wisconsin's defenders pulled the chair on him a couple of times, and he bull-rushed into thin air and traveled.
  • Basabe almost had the most beautiful dunk of the year in the second half. He went up for the jam, had to draw the ball back to avoid a shot blocker, and almost double-clutched it in a la Dominique. It would have been sweet.
  • The NCAA tournament is probably still a pipe dream for Iowa (barring a Big 10 tournament victory of course). Their RPI is still in the 120s and their KenPom rating is only up to 91. All those losses to Campbell, Clemson, Nebraska and Penn State will haunt Iowa in the eyes of any selection committee. The NIT is looking more and more likely, though, and that seemed like a pipe dream a few weeks ago. An NIT game at Carver would be nuts. I'm looking forward to it.