It’s funny how quickly a team’s fortunes can change. One moment the Iowa Hawkeyes are riding high on a five-game winning streak and looking like the top team in Big Ten, the next they are blowing a lead to Indiana and playing their worst half of basketball this season, losing their grip on first place, and falling to a middling Hoosier team with a 9-7 record.
One loss does not mean that the sky is falling for Iowa basketball, and games like Thursday’s defeat are bound to happen given the immense difficulty of the Big Ten. However, the Hawkeyes’ game against Indiana exposed several issues which the Hawkeyes must clean up before March if they intend to make the postseason run that both fans and players believe they are capable of. The Hawkeyes have an uncharacteristically long break before their next game against Illinois on Friday, and one has to expect that head coach Fran McCaffery will be working hard to ensure these cracks have been thoroughly addressed before Iowa tips off against the Illini.
It is easy to look at the second half of the Indiana game and chalk it up to bad luck. Iowa’s offense, which is ranked as the most efficient in the country according to KenPom, looked anything but in the second half. The Hawkeyes went 11 minutes without a field goal, missed 12 consecutive shots from the field, and failed to score on a whopping 18 straight possessions. The Hawkeyes, who are shooting a conference-high 39.5% from three against Big Ten opponents, were held to only 21.7% from beyond the arc against the Hoosiers. Three-point ace C.J. Fredrick missed the entire second half with an injury and Jordan Bohannon, who was as hot as anyone in the country, shot 0-9 from the floor, including 0-8 from deep. Based on Iowa’s entire body of work this season, the chances of them experiencing that level of offensive futility again in 2020-21 seem extremely low.
However, many of the factors that contributed to Iowa’s offensive collapse in the second half could easily rear their ugly head again before season’s end, and the Hawkeyes must develop countermeasures to help them respond more effectively next time. First, Iowa’s inability to make outside shots can’t entirely be attributed to bad luck. While Bohannon and crew certainly missed open looks, they also settled for several contested threes in the second half, seemingly growing frustrated with their inability to separate from the Hoosier defenders. The Hawkeyes set several screens designed to free up shooters, but frequently allowed Indiana defenders to fight through them and either contest shots or dissuade Iowa players from taking them to begin with. This was uncharacteristic for a team that normally screens extremely well, and the Hawkeyes need to show greater toughness while setting picks against an Illini squad that is physical and athletic enough to capitalize if Iowa fails to do so.
Iowa’s ball movement was also disjointed in the second half. Without Fredrick in the game, the Hawkeyes seemed tentative and unsure of their plan of attack. Joe Wieskamp, who was both aggressive and efficient during the first half, was neither of those things during the second, virtually disappearing on offense for the remainder of the contest. While Indiana’s defenders did a great job recovering after playing help defense, Iowa’s perimeter players also showed basically no willingness to take them off the dribble while they were mid-recovery, making it easy for the Hoosiers to play help D without consequence. Iowa’s weak shooting from deep also allowed the Hoosier defense to collapse on Garza with as many as three defenders when he got the ball in the paint, yet Iowa’s perimeter players moved poorly enough without the ball that Garza was unable to find open teammates to pass to punish these defenders.
Iowa’s offense has enough weapons that it should be able to score even when one of its pieces is off the court for an extended period of time, and it’s likely that injuries or foul trouble will force them to do so again before the end of the season. When this occurs, the Hawkeyes must respond better and avoid letting the absence of one player disrupt their entire attack.
Iowa’s offense wasn’t the only area that left room for improvement, however. While the Hawkeye defense played a spirited game against the Hoosiers in the first half, they suffered several serious breakdowns in the last twenty minutes that allowed their opponents to score 50 second-half points. Hawkeye defenders were regularly beaten off the dribble in man coverage, and frequent breakdowns in their zone defense created open looks from deep, allowing one of the Big Ten’s weaker three-point shooting teams to drain 8-17 against them. Several unnecessary fouls late in the shot clock also bailed the Hoosiers out of otherwise disjointed offensive possessions, giving them a chance to create points at the foul line. Indiana’s poor free throw shooting meant that Iowa wasn’t severely punished for their errant fouls, but better teams will make the Hawkeyes suffer for gift-wrapping them opportunities from the line.
Finally, Iowa’s coaching staff must be better prepared to roll with the punches than they were on Thursday night. With Fredrick out, why was McCaffery not doing more to get Wieskamp involved to capitalize on his hot shooting from the first half? While McCaffery tried nearly every possible lineup combination, why did wait until the very end of the game to re-insert Joe Toussaint, whose ability to attack defenders with the ball in his possession could have created new opportunities for a stagnant offense? And with Bohannon unable to take his defender Rob Phinisee off the dribble, why did he not play more off the ball to see if Iowa could generate more catch and shoot opportunities for a team that desperately needed to hit from range? It’s certainly easy to second-guess the coaching staff after a tough loss, but McCaffery has shown himself to be a more creative offensive coach than what he displayed in the closing minutes of Thursday’s loss, and will need to be better prepared to adjust to adversity if Iowa hopes to win close games in March against elite opponents.
Luka Garza told the press in his post-game comments that, in future games, the team was “going to be better. I’m going to make sure we’re better. I’m going to make sure we don’t take anything for granted.” Given Iowa’s body of work this season, fans should be inclined to take Luka at his word. Last Thursday was easily Iowa’s worst game of the season, but if the team can correct some of the mistakes that sank them against the Hoosiers, their best basketball may still be ahead of them.