The end of the 2013-2014 season was extremely depressing. Iowa saw a once promising campaign end with a massive end-of-season defensive collapse. It was absolutely brutal.
Today marks the beginning of a new season, but I bring that up to start this piece because I want to get it out of the way now that I am not going to focus on exactly what went wrong at the end of last season. There were a whole myriad of possible reasons for why the Hawkeyes' defense went splodey: too much gambling, poor communication, bad luck, etc. Instead, I am writing this the same way I wrote about the offense. By that I mean, I am looking to clarify Fran McCaffery's defensive philosophy, while picking out some tendencies that we should probably expect for the upcoming year.
With that being said, let's start with what Fran's defenses have accomplished, on average, since 2005.
Before we start, here's a reminder from last time:
Before we dive too deep into this, I need to explain that these charts are a little different than the four factor charts I use for my game previews. In my game previews, I scale everything so that above 100 is "better than average" and below 100 is "worse than average." For this post, however, everything is scaled so that above 100 simply means "more than average", while below 100 means "less than average." That's because there are some things included in these charts that cannot easily be judged as "better than" or "worse than average." For instance, if a team takes more two point shots than three point shots (as Iowa has been known to do), can we necessarily say that's a bad strategy? Therefore, because I don't want to make value judgements like that, everything is scaled the same, so remember that anything above 100 just means "more than average" and anything less than 100 means "less than average."
Now, let's talk about what really sticks out since 2005. McCaffery's defenses regularly produce high steal and block numbers, while absolutely abstaining from fouling their opponents. As we will talk about below, Fran coaches his players to be aggressive on defense because it helps get easy points when the offense may be having a hard time scoring. Everything that Fran does on defense is meant to keep the opponent from scoring, but his aggressive style is also aimed at creating transition opportunities for the offense. And that shows in the form of 15% more steals than the average Division I team and 8% more blocks. However, it's quite amazing how Fran's teams simply don't foul, despite playing so aggressive on defense. Fran wants his players to play aggressive but under control on offense, and he also wants them to do the same on defense.
Last time I noted how Fran really tends to value long athletes, and how that helps with the type of offense that he likes to run. Well, that length also comes in handy when it comes to getting a hand in passing lanes, blocking shots, and also when it comes to pulling down defensive boards. As you see, McCaffery's teams have, on average, been 5% above the normal Division I team when it comes to crashing the defensive glass.
That's the good stuff, but Fran's aggressive philosophy probably also helps explain something else we see in this chart: opponent shooting tendencies. The chart shows that opponents tend to shoot more threes than is the norm against Fran's defenses. That's interesting to note because Ken Pomeroy has shown that defenses have little control over how many three point shots their opponents make, and actually have more control over how many threes they attempt. Essentially, if you want your opponent to make fewer threes, you should force them to shoot fewer threes. So that may be a bit of a concern with the aggressive nature of his defenses, as it may possibly mean teams are getting more looks at threes if, for instance, Aaron White tries to jump the passing lane, comes up empty, and now his man is uncovered beyond the arc.
What's particularly weird about this tendency is that it's a relatively new thing with McCaffery's defenses since he's come to Iowa. If we separate that 103 rating into his time at Iowa and his time before Iowa, we see that his teams had a rating of 100 (or average) when it came to their opponents rate of shooting from downtown. However, since relocating to Iowa City, that rating has been 107, which means that Iowa's opponents have, on average, taken 7% more of their shots from deep compared to the Division I norm. That may be a byproduct of the personnel that Fran has had over his first four years as coach of the Hawkeyes; it could be a result of just how the Big Ten plays compared to the conferences in which he's previously coached (that would be something interesting to look at, but I currently have little time); or it could just be some weird thing that we never see again. I'm not really sure of the cause, but it is something worth keeping an eye on in future seasons.
So that may be a chink in the armor, but it may not be all that bad. Of course, it would be great if Iowa limited their opponents three point attempts, but Kenpom has a lot of interesting posts on the subject. And besides looking more at three pointers attempted than made, he's also showed that a the percentage of three pointers that fall against a certain team tends to correlate fairly well with the percentage of twos made against them. That's better news for Iowa, because they've been above average in opponent two point field goal percentage the last two seasons. The 2012-2013 defense was by far the best for Iowa because they allowed their fewest three point attempts and also played their best two point field goal defense. And accordingly, the Hawkeyes' foes shot their worst from long range that year. Of course, Iowa's foes also took the fewest number of three point shots (by far) that season, compared to Fran's other three seasons. Eek.
Anyhow, I'm not totally sure as to why teams are taking more threes against Fran's defense since coming to Iowa, but it's probably not a good thing since his offenses tend to favor twos over threes. Simple math shows that 3 > 2, which means that if the opposing team is making their treys, they don't have to make as many shots to keep up with a Hawkeye team that scores most of their points in the paint and at the free throw line. And while opponents aren't necessarily torching the nets against Fran McCaffery's defenses, they do shoot right around the Division I average, and that goes for inside and outside the three point line. Essentially, allowing fewer three pointers that were shot at the league norm rate is more ideal than more three pointers shot at the league norm rate.
At the same time, though, I am not crowning Fran a terrible defensive coach. He's actually had an above average defense three out of his four seasons at Iowa. Altering your opponents' shots and making them miss are not the only ways to play great defense. There are also turnovers (and especially in Fran's case, steals), defensive rebounding, and keeping your opponents off the free throw line. McCaffery's teams tend to do each of these pretty well, and all of those are valuable to playing good defense.
Now, let's go ahead and look at some tape.
1-2-2 Three-Quarter Court Press
This is a staple in the Fran McCaffery defensive playbook. If the Hawkeyes are pressuring the other team coming up the court, they are more than likely using the 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. The name, of course, comes from the formation in which the defensive players take on the court. The guy at the head of the press (the "1") is usually the guy playing small forward. In Iowa's case, this was usually Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff, or Devyn Marble last year. This year it should be Uthoff, White a little less, and then probably Peter Jok. (A wildcard that I would be interested in seeing would be Dominique Uhl, but that's just out of sheer curiosity.) The second part of the press is played by the point guard and the shooting guard, while the back part of the press is covered by the power forward and the center.
Before we look at some actual game tape, we are lucky enough to have a nice snippet from a coaching clinic to watch. Since many casual basketball fans are less familiar with exactly how the different types of full and three-quarter court presses work as opposed to basic man-to-man and zone defenses, I figured some coaching points would be helpful. It's only 3 minutes long and full of coaching tips, so I'd advise you to watch the entire thing.
First of all, let's discuss assignments. The head of the press (again, the small forward) needs to be quick and long. Quick because he needs to be prepared to run to either sideline in the event of a trap, and long because he doesn't want to make that reverse pass easy. The head of the press will be in the middle of the court, so as to force the ball-handler to pick a sideline. So when the opposing team is trying to move the ball up court, the 1 is going to work the middle of the court, staying in between the man with the ball and the other man who inbounded the ball, making it difficult to reverse it back to the open man. At the same time, though, the reverse pass is the pass that Fran's defense wants to force. That's because it is mostly a lateral pass and it doesn't do much to get the ball across half-court before 10 seconds is up. The other passes, on the other hand, can advance the ball forward, so Iowa does its best to take them away.
As you saw in the video above, the job of the second level varies depending on whether you are on the strong side (ball side) or weak side (non-ball side). If you are on the strong side, then your job is to take away the sideline pass. If you are on the weak side, your job is to take away the pass to the middle. Any type of press is vulnerable in the middle because if somebody catches the ball there they have the option of passing to either side of the floor. The 1-2-2 aims to take away the sideline pass and the pass to the middle, leaving the ball-handler in a quandary: he can make what the defense hopes is a difficult lateral pass and worry about the 10 second clock; he can attempt a dangerous pass down and to the opposite side of the court, hoping it doesn't sail out of bounds or get picked off; or he can try to push the ball up the sideline on his own, and risk getting trapped.
Finally, the back part of the press also has rotating responsibilities depending on whether they are on the strong side or the weak side. If the big man is on the strong side, they are in charge of helping to deny the sideline pass. If the big man is on the weak side of the press, they are responsible for guarding the basket.
Let's watch Iowa do this. And for those of you who can't read the Spanish subtitles, just focus on the players.
Notice in this first play, how Iowa initially forces the lateral pass. Next, the ball-handler feels like he has some room and dribbles, but runs into the trap. Unfortunately, Michigan State does break this press by making a long pass down and to the opposite side of the court. That pass is always there, but you can see it wasn't easy to complete. Even if Iowa didn't force the turnover there, they did force 12 seconds to run off the clock before Michigan State was able to get set in its offense.
Now, on the occasion the trap fails and the other team does something like complete a pass down the sideline, Fran's defense still has ways to defend this.
Here, the trap fails and the sideline pass is completed. Only instead of breaking the press, the guy who was responsible for the middle of the court (in this case Marble) and the big man in charge of denying the sideline (in this case Woodbury) set a trap of their own along the sideline. This play resulted in a travel because the Michigan State player had no chance to pass the ball over the long Marble and gigantic Woodbury.
Another fun possibility is that the ball-handler might accidentally pick up his dribble in anticipation of the trap. That can allow Iowa to leave him all alone to catch a 10 second call, or force him to make what the defense hopes is a bad pass to a covered man.
That play was possible because Aaron White did a nice job of "taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back." His job was to force the ball handler into indecision. He acted as if he was going to trap him, and so the ball-handler thought he could make the reverse pass. Of course, White took one step toward the ball-handler and then jumped back toward the reverse man, leaving the ball-handler to pick up his dribble. Michigan State still breaks the press, but you get the drift.
And finally, for one more coaching point, it is important that the head of the press keep his man out of the middle of the floor. Case in point right here.
In this clip, Aaron White should have taken a better angle to the ball. White let the ball-handler get too far out in front of him. This made it so White had to run straight up the court, allowing his man to beat him to the middle. The ball-handler's speed helped here, but White needed to run diagonally and force the ball-handler back toward the sideline and into the trap. Again, if the ball gets into the middle, the whole thing breaks down.
But when the 1-2-2 works, you guys, it really works and allows the Hawkeyes to get those easy baskets that they love so much.
Outside of Jim Boeheim, every coach runs a basic man-to-man defense. Fran McCaffery coaches a very aggressive (there's that word again) type of man-to-man defense; one that likes to have his players play the passing lanes, looking for steals and fast break opportunities. As you can see from the chart above, Fran's teams don't necessarily create a lot of turnovers relative to the Division I norm, but they do create a lot more steals, thanks to their aggressive nature.
Iowa's defenders know to be between their man and the ball, and will play their assignment tight when he is one pass away. This means they will take chances, often by jumping into the passing lane, in an attempt to get a breakaway basket.
Of course, this type of aggressive defense can backfire. If you go for the steal and you don't get it, the other team gets a decent look if your teammates can't rotate over fast enough.
However, besides just playing the passing lanes, Fran values a point guard that can be a tough on-ball defender. After all, a guy who can harass the opposing point guard and create a fast break opportunity is valuable.
And if the ball-handler is having trouble, and a teammate flashes to help bail him out, Fran's defenses are not afraid to trap the ball-handler when they are in the right position.
In the clip above, notice how close to the ball Marble is playing, despite the fact that his man is almost at the half-court line. Some coaches have the philosophy that the ball can't hurt you that far out, but not Fran. He has Marble playing out on his man that far out. Notice, also, Gesell is denying his man the ball, as is Aaron White. This forces Gesell's man to flash to the ball in an attempt to bail the ball-handler out. Once they complete the handoff, Marble and Gesell set the trap. It forces the turnover and the ball finds Aaron White out on the break for the easy dunk.
Keeping with their aggressive tendencies, Fran's defenses will play ball screens in a similar manner. Often, if teams are trying to run the pick and roll/pop, Iowa will have the pick guy's defender hedge out on the ball very hard. You need athletic guys, including big men, to pull this off and that's exactly the type of guys that Fran values. Coincidence? I think not.
In the above clip, you can see how hard Olaseni comes out on the ball-handler. This type of strategy requires great help defense from the rest of his teammates to make sure the guy rolling to the basket doesn't have an easy layup. It also requires a quick big man like Olaseni to be able to get in position to not allow the ball-handler to get a lane to the basket off the screen, and then be able to get back to his man in time.
Iowa's defense also likes to hedge on screens because it can create opportunities to trap the ball-handler off the screen. But defense isn't as easy to find in highlight tapes as offense is, and I don't have a whole lot of free hours lying around to re-watch entire game film. So you'll just have to take my word for it.
Last but not least, Iowa's big men are important when it comes to protecting the basket and blocking shots. Yes, steals are nice and Fran loves them, but blocked shots are something that Iowa has also been good at under McCaffery, and they can also lead to fast break points.
Iowa is primarily a man-to-man team, but McCaffery always mixes in a zone defense on at least a handful of possessions per game. But if he feels that the zone is a real advantage for the Hawkeyes and it is working, he will use it exclusively on every possession. McCaffery tends to favor the traditional 2-3 zone, but he will occasionally use a 3-2 zone, as well. Unfortunately, it's not as easy to find video evidence of the 3-2 zone, so I'm just going to focus on the 2-3 here.
Under Fran, the two most notable games that come to my mind in terms of zone defense, are the 2012 game at Minnesota and the 2014 game at Ohio State. The 2012 game in the barn was notable because Iowa opened the game getting manhandled down low by Ralph Sampson III and found themselves on the road down 21-32 with 5:06 left in the first half. They flipped the game around by switching to a 2-3 zone which turned Sampson from a basket machine to a turnover machine. The 2-3 zone clogged the lane and made life difficult in the post for the Minnesota big man, forcing the Gophers to play the game out on the perimeter. And since Minnesota couldn't shoot their way out of the zone that night (they were 4-23 from downtown), it ended up being the key to Iowa coming away with a comeback victory on the road.
As for Ohio State last season, it wasn't so much Iowa turning to the zone because they were outsized in the paint (although the Buckeyes did have some nice post players), rather the Buckeyes were a terrible three point shooting team last year: 263rd in the nation in 3pt FG%, according to Kenpom, to be exact. Iowa switched to the 2-3 zone at about midway through the first half, which created some turnovers for Iowa and led to some easy offense. It did this, first and foremost, by allowing the defenders to get their hands into the passing lanes.
And then next by collapsing the lane, allowing Hawkeye defenders to reach their hands in and snatch the rock away from from the ball-handler.
Of course, the zone ended up helping Iowa in this game, but it was far from perfect against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were able to stay competitive for most of the game, as Iowa frequently gave up the baseline which led to easy baskets and dunks like this:
And besides the opposing team shooting their way out of the zone, the baseline has been an issue for the Hawkeyes when employing the 2-3 zone.
Think about the roster as constructed now. Sure, Iowa lost two good defenders in Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe, and that definitely doesn't help the defensive side of the ball. (No offense to Zach McCabe, who was always on the court more for his offense and rebounding abilities.) However, Fran should be able to help replace what Basabe brought on defense by playing Aaron White at the four position more this year. Then you have Dom Uhl who is taller and longer than Basabe, and also looks like he should be a mighty fine rebounder and at least a decent shot-blocker. Not to mention that Iowa still has a lot of length down low in Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni. Scoring near the basket should not be easy against this team.
Meanwhile, McCaffery should also be able to help replace some of Marble's defensive value by using Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, and Trey Dickerson. Although I didn't put any of them in this post, there are plenty of clips in highlight videos from last season where Gesell was getting in the passing lanes and creating the kind of transition opportunities that Fran loves from his defense. Additionally, giving increased playing time to Anthony Clemmons (assuming he finds a cure for the turnover bug) would be a good thing for the team from a perimeter defense standpoint. And, finally, while Trey Dickerson is being touted for his offense, don't underestimate his speed on defense. That should come in handy for at least keeping his man in front of him, if not for also helping him pick the ball-handler's pocket on a regular basis.
Needless to say, I'm pretty optimistic about this team. Yes, there are a lot of unknowns, but there are also a lot of talented players capable of breaking out and having great great seasons. That goes for on the offensive and the defensive side of the ball. But when the opposing team is in control of the rock, I expect Iowa to do their usual thing under Fran McCaffery: use the 1-2-2 three-quarter court press to slow down their opponent and try to create turnovers and easy offense; play aggressive man-to-man and zone defense in the half-court; look for steals and blocks; keep their opponents off the free throw line; and crash the defensive glass on misses. I assume that is what we will see from the Hawkeyes this year, and we should see it on display tonight against Hampton. Bring on the Pirates.