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Fixing Iowa Basketball

It’s all about defense and Fran’s substitutions

Iowa v Villanova
Bartt, what should I do?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Nothing that is written is going to be earth-shattering or brilliant. When it comes down to it, basketball is a pretty simple game. Offensively, get easy/high-percentage shots. Defensively, prevent the same. Much of Iowa’s recent slide can be attributed to CJ Fredrick being out. The Hawks have lost 4 out of the last 5 with a tough Rutgers squad coming to Iowa City and the Hawkeyes traveling to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. Here are three things that would help Fran’s fellas get straightened out.

Joe Toussaint

The elephant in the room is what is going on with Toussaint’s minutes? There has been talk of Joey T being injured. This is a case of “hope-so” because if he’s not, there is no excuse for Joe to not being given a lot of minutes with Fredrick out. Toussaint played 3:52 seconds at Indiana. Since you’re reading this you know we lost that game. Our last win, if you can remember back that far, was against Michigan State.

Toussaint played 20:44 in that game. His stat line? 10 points, 6 assists, 1 turnover, and 1 steal. And the best stat, 1 WIN. Toussaint had two turnovers at Indiana in those three minutes he played, but he feeds the post, he drops beautiful dimes in transition, he’s our strongest, quickest player, and he’s tough. Oh, and defense? Dude can defend. I’m not going to bad-mouth Hawks, but Joey T is a far, far better defender than two starters who eat minutes like Pac-Man. Fran has been a tad bit defensive (re-reading this I laughed out loud - Fran defensive? Ha! He only thinks of offense!) lately with the press, but he needs to be asked what’s up with Joe Toussaint’s minutes. If it is an injury, I get it. Then Fran should roll with Tony Perkins and/or Ahron Ulis. I’d also bet on the fact that Toussaint at 85% health is an upgrade defensively over others at 100% health. The eyeball test doesn’t make it seem like Toussaint’s injury is debilitating.

Ball Screen Defense

If I was coaching against the Hawkeyes I would run ball screens and handoffs 100% of the time. We are seeing this quite a bit the way it is. There are basically three ways to defend ball screens in basketball. There are nuances off of these, but three is pretty much it.

First, the defender defending the screener will show or hedge. Second, you can switch, and third, you can double team the ball with the screener’s man and on-ball defender. Iowa under Fran typically does the first, although not very well.

Here is a more in-depth breakdown of showing or hedging. A non-ball handler will come up and set a screen on the ball handler’s defender, facing opposite of where the ball should be driven. The ball handler will then drive shoulder-to-shoulder off of that screen looking to drive, shoot, or pass. The screener then will roll to the basket (pick and roll) or pop out if he can shoot from range. The screener can also slip to the basket if the defense senses it is coming and tries to “cheat” this play. The screener’s defender will jump out or show/hedge into the driving lane of the ball handler. This is to slow down a straight, quick drive. The screened defender needs to either “get skinny” and go over the top of the screen (if the ball handler can shoot) or go under the screen if the ball handler isn’t an outside threat. The screener’s defender, after jumping out to slow down the dribbler, must recover very quickly to his man who has probably rolled or dove to the basket.

If this sounds hard to do, it is. It’s very tough to defend. That’s why teams run it. Communication, early and loud, is very important in defending ball screens or handoffs (which is really just a ball screen). In watching our Hawks defend ball screens it seems to me that there is a great deal of uncertainty or a hesitation in defending these situations. It looks almost like we are doing a combination of the three choices, but not intentionally doing so.

Adam Woodbury was terrific at defending ball screens. He also was a terrific talker on defense. Luka Garza is pretty decent at defending ball screens even though he isn’t the most fleet of foot because he plays every second like his life depends on it. This idea will resurface in my next point.

Normally ball screens are set by bigger/taller players on smaller players for various reasons, but it’s more difficult to switch if you have a little/big situation. Iowa’s less experienced players (not Garza) have struggled with defending ball screens. Also, Iowa’s perimeter players (shorter) have not shown the toughness or determination to defend this situation.

The Hawks’ ball screen defense is a passive, reactionary approach to defending this situation rather than an attacking, aggressive approach. Fran is an offensive guy. We all know this. I’d like to see the Hawkeyes attack this common situation going forward.

Get rid of the “It’s just one basket” mentality and get stops!

Fran has always valued offense over defense. That is not going to change. It is evident in his lineups, it is evident in how he talks about the game. It is what it is. I have said for years that to win in the post season you need to play defense. The ball isn’t always going to go in. In a one-and-done situation and you are an offensive team, if the ball doesn’t go in one night, you go home. Unfortunately, our team is built for this.

We can’t waste the best player to ever wear a Hawkeye uniform. Fran needs to play guys that can defend. If you spread the court around Luka Garza with Joe Wieskamp, Keegan Murray, Joe Toussaint, and whoever else will defend and get rebounds, we will be in good shape. I guarantee it.

In my opinion one thing that has hurt the Hawks under Fran is that we always have guys who can get buckets. Peter Jok and Jarrod Uthoff could score at will. Fran can teach offense. It appears that because we can score and score quickly, there is a program-wide feeling that one defensive possession isn’t the end of the world. We can just get a fast-break layup or three point shot in a few seconds anyway.


However, it’s not a light switch that can be turned on or off. It’s a mindset. How many basketball games come down to one to two possessions? Most of them. You need to look no further than our last game. A last-second loss at Indiana. Off of a ball screen.

CliffsNotes Version for Fran

So, Fran, feel free to hit me up with a text. Or just remember: Joey T, aggressive ball screen defense, reward defensive effort. Then we can sing. “Innnnnnnnnnnnnn Heaven there is no beer!” Go Hawks!