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How the aggressive, pressuring defense that helped Iowa climb to the top of the polls has begun to collapse.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to find a culprit for Iowa's recent downturn in play, you need look no further than the nosedive the team's defensive rating has taken over the past week. Heading into the Indiana game, Iowa had the 11th ranked defense in the country in Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings at 92.3 points/100 possession. Exactly eight calendar days later, that rating has dropped to 42nd in the country at 96.1. To drop that far, that fast suggests that the team is playing even worse than that #42 rating at the moment. And you can see why the numbers don't like what Iowa has done: during that span, Iowa gave up the following points per possession to the following offenses:

  • Indiana (15th in offensive efficiency): 1.33 pts./poss.
  • Minnesota (200th): 1.03 pts./poss.
  • Penn State (197th): 1.13 pts./poss.

The Mendoza line for good defense is usually understood to be giving up a point a possession, so letting teams like Minnesota and Penn State put up those numbers is not a good sign. And although Indiana has a good offense, a number like 1.33 is some pretty rare atmosphere. Iowa's offense, however, has continued to hum at a fairly decent pace. It was rated 8th in KenPom's rankings heading into the Indiana game, and today it is ... still at 8th. If you are looking for problems to explain Iowa's recent slide, scoring is not one of them.

The problem is mostly defense. And the Penn State game was a master class in shoddy defense by an Iowa team that, up to the past week, has been very good on that end of the floor. A team that used to look energetic and coordinated has transformed into a slow-footed, pointing, over-helping mess. In fact, their efforts to apply defensive pressure have wound up leading to some of their biggest defensive lapses. Let's look at the tape.


Iowa likes to hedge on pick and rolls – that is, to have the man guarding the pick-setter go above the pick and threaten a trap on the ball-handler before recovering back to his man – but that only works if the threat of a trap is real. Here, Dom Uhl goes through the motions of hedging, but does little to actually constrain the ball-handler's movement. Anthony Clemmons doesn't see the pick coming and can't help, and Shep Garner goes right around Uhl and pulls up for an open three.


Here, Ahmad Wagner and Peter Jok move to trap the ball-handler, but Penn State's Donovan Jack slips the pick before it is set and dives to the basket. Wagner and Jok are left covering Josh Reaves just as Reaves floats a pass to Jack, who scores an and-one. It also appears there is some confusion between Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer on who should be helping on the roll-man.


Whoever scouted Penn State for Iowa must have decided that Brandon Taylor was a Steph Curry-esque threat to destroy them every time he touched the ball, because the Hawks sent trap after trap after him. The only problem was that the traps weren't strong enough to stop Taylor from passing out of them. This led to a series of desperate rotations by Iowa's defense, and, eventually, open Penn State shots. At 6'6", 225 lb., Taylor is a tough player to trap, and players like Nicholas Baer and Mike Gesell posed little challenge for him. The better question is why Baer was so often matched up with him in the first place. If one thing causes Baer problems, it's strength in the post, so putting him on Taylor almost necessitated some sort of double-team.


This clip shows why Iowa hedges on pick and rolls. Here, both Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell go under the pick, allowing Shep Garner to step into an open three-pointer. Gesell doesn't really try to fight through the pick and winds up giving Garner a good six feet of space. It's a long three, but it is wide, wide open.


It's not clear what the plan is here. If it was supposed to be a trap, Clemmons and Uthoff allow Garner to pass out of it far too easily. If it's a switch, Clemmons doesn't switch. Either way, the result is an open corner three for Taylor.

EXHIBIT NINE: ????????????

This is the last play of the half, and whatever Iowa was going for here, they didn't get there. Gesell and Clemmons start the play pointing at each other to take the ball-handler and things go downhill from there. By the time Gesell takes a swipe at the ball as Garner runs past, it's a fait accompli: Woodbury either has to give up a layup to Garner or leave his man open under the rim. The dunk by Jack is just the end result of a fundamental fudge-up to start the play.


First thing's first, one game is not the end of the world. Iowa didn't play well, it's the Big Ten, it's the road, stuff happens – Minnesota beats Maryland, etc. Beyond that, give credit to Penn State. They knew how Iowa would attack them and were ready with some good counters. They moved the ball quickly to avoid traps, their guards (and Taylor) made smart reads, and they made a lot of the open shots Iowa gave them.

Iowa was probably also dealing with fatigue. They were coming off a road game last Thursday and an unusually late game Sunday, then had to fly across country for an unusually early Wednesday game. It's not quite the classic NBA "second game in a back-to-back", but it's about as close as you'll get in the college game. A week of rest should help.

Lastly, teams may have figured out a few wrinkles to frustrate Iowa's scheme. Iowa's tendency to trap and hedge mechanically every time a pick appears can be manipulated to draw players away from the rim and stretch Iowa's defense to the breaking point. If opposing guards can get through the traps, they are likely to find favorable 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 match-ups in the middle of the court. That's the unusual thing about Iowa's defense: when it breaks, it doesn't just go from good to mediocre, it flips polarity entirely and becomes bad. Pressure applied poorly is worse than no pressure at all.