Fran McCaffery is an offense guy.
It was the reason he was hired in 2010. Iowa Hawkeyes basketball had the enjoyment sucked from it and the easiest way to regain excitement was through offense. Though that side of the floor slowly improved in McCaffery’s first three seasons, it was 2013-14 when the floodgates broke open.
The Devyn Marble-led squad averaged 81.5 points/game, good for 10th in the country and the high-water mark under Fran. KenPom ranked that offense 5th in terms of efficiency but it was built in a much different way than the current configuration. Among the four factors, effective field goal percentage was the lowest relative to the rest of the country, coming in at 104th. All of turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and free throw rate were in the top 20% of the country. During league play, the latter two components (ORB% & FTA/FGA), were the best in the conference.
While 2017 remarkably had the second best offense from a raw figure, outpacing this year by 0.3 points/game, 2019 is the only McCaffery-led offense which has been the best in conference at putting the ball through the hoop, with an eFG% of 52.2%. Through 8 Big Ten games, Iowa’s offense is an astounding .085 points/possession better than the #2 offense (Michigan). Through a different frame, that’s the difference between the #1 defense and the #6 defense. ($)
While the natural variation (and outliers) has dictated the Hawkeyes current record at 14-5 and 5-3 in league play, Fran has never had a team who can confidently say about any given opponent, “you cannot keep up with us.”
Luka Garza, at 23.2 points, is the obvious lynchpin through which the Hawkeye offense runs. Highlighting his importance is: in three of six games where he has scored less than 20 points have resulted in losses. When Rutgers turned the clamps down on him in the final 10+ minutes last week, they were able to make their run.
Yet Fran McCaffery used their focus on Garza to free up Iowa’s other options in crunch time offense. As someone who has become far too accustomed to a Hawkeye PG pounding the ball for 20+ seconds before initiating a gummy offense, what Iowa executed down the stretch was a thing of beauty.
Down one, Joe Toussaint (who otherwise had a brilliant game) missed two free throws but the Hawks were given new life after CJ Fredrick forced a rebound off of a Rutgers defender. Fran dialed up this beauty:
In watching the play, it’s clear how well-schooled Fredrick is at leveraging the screens. Geo Baker plays him in a way which prevents him from receiving the ball at the top of the key, yet CJF uses Baker’s momentum against him, to force him into a trail position. Baker does a solid job recovering but Garza’s (and Wieskamp’s) capable three-point shot frees up the lane and allows Fredrick to hit a strong 1v1 layup.
For good measure, the off-ball action between Connor McCaffery and Toussaint keep both of their defenders engaged and out of the lane. It’s just a well-designed play executed against as good a defense as Iowa has seen so far this season.
After forcing a long three-pointer and corralling the rebound, Iowa goes straight into their offense with limited dilly-dallying:
While a clean pass to Fredrick would have allowed him to take an uncontested three, this play is largely designed to enable a post entry to Garza. Watching it live, I was frustrated Iowa couldn’t get him the ball in this spot yet Fredrick’s basketball IQ is telling him to let the play run: Ron Harper, Jr. is sagging way off Joe Wieskamp to help in the post.
From there, McCaffery and Toussaint set the easiest screens of their life and the rest is history.
Iowa is not leading the conference in effective field goal percentage simply because of Garza, Fredrick, and Wieskamp (the three have combined for 60% of Hawkeye field goal attempts in conference play). Iowa’s strongest player in that category is actually Ryan Kriener, at a blistering 68.1%. He’s done it inside and out (70% from 2, 40% from 3) and, when he is rolling, gives Iowa a look they have never been able to show before: a ballhandler surrounded by 4 capable — and confident — 3-point shooters.
The final play which stuck out from last week’s game was a simple dribble drive from Joe Toussaint. His blend of speed and power mesh perfectly with an offense which requires each defender to mark their man.
While Iowa has both Kriener and Garza inside the 3-point line, their ability to score from around the court has opened a crease for Toussaint. He sheds the matador defense with ease and finishes a largely uncontested shot with his left hand which eliminates the possibility of a blocked shot.
What struck me about this final play is how reminiscent it was of past Hawkeye offenses. Just the point guard doing his best at getting to the bucket. But it was much easier than the one which sticks out in my mind:
In the set, Mike Gesell is forced to operate on the wing with the play unfolding to his left but is faced with one or two defenders sticking in the lane. As a result, he must settle for the baseline jumper. Toussaint, on the other hands, isoperating from the top of the key and has a much cleaner path to the hoop as defenders are stuck to their men. He also shows a fearlessness in picking the ball up from the free throw line and using his two steps like a running back, protecting the ball with both hands.
Though it is just eight conference games, Iowa has shown that they are operating at an elite level on the offensive side of the court. Their confidence rains through in threes, flexes, and mean mugs. They are unafraid of any opponent and are willing operators in crunch time.
Fredrick’s absence against Nebraska shows just how tenuous the circumstances are for this squad. They’ve also showed inconsistency in retaining possession of the ball. Yet if they are able to overcome these issues, the reason they’ll be a tough out in March is the same reason McCaffery was hired at Iowa: