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Iowa Basketball Could Win It All in 2021, But Only If It Can Improve On Defense

For Iowa to reach its potential and compete for a national championship this season, it must first show a sustained commitment to playing championship-level defense.

NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in decades, Iowa basketball has a legitimate shot to compete for a national championship. With the country’s top player in Luka Garza and a scoring attack that is ranked third in adjusted offensive efficiency according to advanced statistics from both KenPom and T-Rank, the 3rd ranked Hawkeyes have the offensive firepower to take down almost any team in the country…provided they can get a few stops on defense, that is.

Iowa’s offense has largely been the team’s calling card during the Fran McCaffery era, and, aside from the 2014-15 season and Iowa’s deep NIT run in 2013, the Hawkeyes have leaned on it far more heavily than its defensive play. Case in point, last year’s Iowa squad averaged 77.7 points per game and had the 23rd highest offensive rating in college basketball, but also allowed 72.3 points a game, producing a defensive rating that ranked 264th out of 353 division one programs, according to Sports Reference. Through three games, this year’s Iowa team ranks anywhere from 73rd nationally (KenPom) to 123rd (T-Rank)—an improvement to be sure, but also inconclusive given that Iowa has yet to play against any teams with elite offenses.

Fran McCaffery’s Iowa teams have been very successful with their “All Offense, All the Time” approach, but the old adage that “defense wins championships” still holds true today. The past twelve national champions have all boasted not just elite offenses, but top 20 defenses as well. In fact, even making the Final Four generally requires an elite defense, or at the very least an above average one; since the 2001-02 season, the team with the lowest adjusted defensive efficiency rating to make the Final Four was the Dwayne Wade-led 2003 Marquette team that ranked 109th, which is still two slots higher than Iowa finished nationally the last time it made the NCAA Tournament. In other words, for Iowa to have a real chance to compete for a national title or a Final Four bid, it must improve its defense beyond what we’ve seen for much of the McCaffery era.

Iowa’s defensive report card is mixed through its first three games. While the Hawkeyes have held their opponents to only 67 points per game, Iowa’s defense has still shown cracks that other elite teams should be able to exploit against them. Unlike some of Fran’s past Hawkeye squads, Iowa’s rotation is full of veteran players who seem to understand their rolls on defense and give a consistent effort on that end of the floor. But do the Hawkeyes have the athleticism to execute these assignments against the types of offenses they will face playing late into the NCAA Tournament?

As is the case almost every season, the Hawkeyes struggle to defend the perimeter. While Iowa has dramatically improved its three point defense from a few seasons ago when it allowed its opponents to make an embarrassing 37.6% of attempts from deep, it still has trouble preventing players from beating them off the dribble. Jordan Bohannon and C.J. Fredrick are legitimate offensive weapons, but don’t move quickly enough laterally to stick with faster defenders. Joe Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery have held up slightly better in the past due to their length, but neither has the foot speed to be real lockdown perimeter defenders, and both will spend much of their time guarding opposing power forwards.

Meanwhile, while Luka Garza has shown real defensive improvement since arriving at Iowa and can ably defend most big men on the low block, he will likely be targeted frequently in the pick and roll by opposing teams looking to exploit his lack of lateral speed whenever he switches on to a smaller player. When Garza and Bohannon share the floor, one can envision Iowa’s opponents running the high pick and roll against them on repeat until the Hawkeyes prove they can stop it, something which may be a tall order for two players whose physical limitations make executing this particular defensive assignment a tall order.

Iowa won’t get beaten on the pick and roll every time it’s used against them, as Garza is still a threat to snag a few trailing shot blocks per game, and Iowa’s players give enough effort on the defensive end that they will come out on top in some of these battles. But when tasked with stopping an elite offense that has the skill players to exploit this vulnerability, it’s tough to see the Iowa defense holding up enough to keep the Hawkeyes in the game without putting undue pressure on them to score at an unsustainable rate, particularly when Iowa plays against capable defenses who won’t allow them to drop 80 points with ease.

Iowa is schedule to play just such an opponent on December 19. The #1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs are averaging 93 points per game and boast the highest adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country according to KenPom; impressive numbers on their own, but even more so when one considers that they’ve done this against #6 Kansas, #11 West Virginia, and an Auburn team that won 25 games last season. Gonzaga isn’t a great three-point shooting team, but they don’t have to be when they can make an absurd 65.3% of their two-point attempts. The Zags are a team full of long, fast, athletic players who can beat defenders off the dribble and finish at the rim with consistency. Having watched all three of Gonzaga’s games this year, I truly would not be shocked to see them score 100 points against Iowa, especially given that Iowa’s fast pace of play will give Gonzaga plenty of offensive possessions.

Fortunately, Iowa is not doomed defensively, and still has the potential to make major improvements on that end between now and the NCAA Tournament. First, I’ve written about how Joe Toussaint’s combination of quickness and physicality make him a potential difference maker on defense and how the speedy sophomore could help mitigate Iowa’s issues defending elite perimeter players. Furthermore, Iowa’s younger players like Keegan Murray, Ahron Ulis, and Tony Perkins are all athletic enough to potentially grow into impact players on the defensive end of the floor, and there could be room for them to break into the rotation of they can make that leap this season. Now that Jack Nunge is in his natural center position instead of trying to guard small forwards like he did a few seasons ago, he too could round out into a solid defender for Iowa. The Hawkeyes also made major improvements at help defense between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, and with as many heady veterans as Iowa has in its rotation this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar leap in 2021.

However, Iowa’s best chance at improving on defense may be tied to its impressive length at the 2-4 spots. Between Wieskamp, Murray, and the McCaffery brothers, Iowa has several long, athletic players who can get hands in passing lanes, execute effective double-teams, block shots, and lock down defensive rebounds. Furthermore, these wings give Fran more diverse potential lineup combinations and potential schematic adjustments than Iowa’s defenses have had of late. Might Fran dial up more full or half-court presses after made baskets with lineups that include Keegan and Patrick to increase the chances of forcing turnovers, or at least giving opposing offenses less time to run their half-court offenses? Iowa has the depth to sustain such as strategy without wearing down its players, especially since McCaffery and Murray come off the bench. Could Iowa take advantage of its length and run more zone this year? Go small and play Patrick or Keegan at the five when Garza rests to mitigate the pick and roll threat? If Fran and is coaching staff can get creative and make improving Iowa’s defense a top priority, there appears to be real potential for growth in that area this season.

After ten seasons, Fran McCaffery finally has the type of offense that can carry Iowa to a national championship. However, if the Hawkeyes hope to live up to their immense potential this year, Fran will need to demand that his team play championship caliber defense as well. Iowa’s defensive production does not need to match that of its offense for the Hawkeyes to make the final four, and it would be unrealistic to expect it to do so. But the Hawkeyes have to elevate their play on that end of the court if they hope to play at a level that matches their current ranking.