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A tale of two programs

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Iowa’s most prominent universities hit rock bottom in basketball during 2018. How did one ascend while the other found rock bottom’s basement?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Iowa Hawkeyes were selected 18 times and Iowa State Cyclones, 19. The Hawks are 17-18 while ISU is 18-19. 14 times, they have overlapped in their entry to March Madness. In other words, it is more likely for Iowa’s two biggest state schools to reach the tournament than it is for both of them to miss it (13).

The adjacent ebbs and flows provide one last bragging right - who went further? - to carry the two fanbases into the next year of animosity, especially since the six year run between 2012 & 2017 landed red five times on the roulette wheel of March success. There was no such discussion in 2018 when both schools missed the tournament, sporting their worst records since 2011.

Yet Iowa has used that disappointment to set themselves up to be the highest seeded team out of the state since Iowa State’s 2001 squad, whose finale we’ll remember at a later time. Meanwhile, the Cyclones found that rock bottom does have a basement. Their 0-18 conference record became the latest in an unfortunate list of winless Power 6 basketball seasons.

So how did one team put together the state’s best regular season in a generation while the other put together the worst regular season in even longer? Let’s take a look.

Retention

Of guys who were on Iowa’s roster in 2018, just one could be playing college basketball in 2021 and isn’t for the Hawkeyes (Cordell Pemsl). Luka Garza, Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge, and Connor McCaffery each contributed to the 2018 team, however small. Yeah each of them played large roles for the 20-7 regular season, even though Nunge went down with three games left to play.

Class by class, Iowa has kept guys in the fold. Each of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 classes have seen no guys depart. Of course, it helps when two of the seven are sons of the head coach but batting 1.000 is still incredible in this day and age.

Iowa State, however, has struggled by similar metrics. Only Solomon Young exhausted his college eligibility at Iowa State while Lindell Wigginton and Cameron Lard entered the pro ranks. Jakolby Long (Southern Illinois by way of Southern Utah) and Terrence Lewis (sitting out at South Alabama) are playing college ball not in Ames.

ISU has also simultaneously struck out and hit a couple dingers by way of Talen Horton-Tucker & Tyrese Haliburton finding their way into the NBA quickly without having proper depth remain behind them. Just two potential four-year guys - George Conditt & Tre Jackson - are remaining out of a collective ten recruited 2017-2019.

All of this has played a hand in the following minutes continuity disparity over the last four years:

Minute Continuity (rank)

Season Iowa ISU
Season Iowa ISU
2018 63.1% (66) 24.3% (325)
2019 72.4% (21) 31.7% (293)
2020 46.5% (182) 33.1% (287)
2021 63.7% (46) 40.9% (227)

Scheme

Even in Iowa’s down season, you knew what they were: a team who could score but couldn’t get enough stops to save their life. With guys like Garza and Tyler Cook, Iowa has operated an inside-out motion scheme which juices spacing with great shooters. Over the last four years, Fran has turned them into a team who can score even more while providing an increasingly acceptable level of defense. Here’s how they’ve improved in KenPom’s rankings.

  • 2018: Offense - 19; Defense - 242
  • 2019: Offense - 15; Defense - 111
  • 2020: Offense - 5; Defense - 97
  • 2021: Offense - 2; Defense 61

Four years of improvement in each bucket.

Steve Prohm, on the other hand, rolls the ball out offensively and defensively, trusting his guys can beat the man in front of them. It works when there’s a unique wealth of developed talent with an offense which has carried over from a previous regime (2016 & 2017). The best case with Prohm’s recruiting and style is 2019 where there were a number of guys capable of creating shots for themselves or others, though it lacked structure.

It meant they could get hot over a three day stretch to bring back a conference tournament trophy. Yet they proved an easy scout for Ohio State in the NCAA tournament as they were held to 2019’s least points/possession.

Without a strong scheme & trust in who Iowa State is year-to-year, their offense/defense performance is erratic.

  • 2018: Offense - 81; Defense - 143
  • 2019: Offense - 9; Defense - 47
  • 2020: Offense - 48; Defense - 147
  • 2021: Offense - 228; Defense - 130

Overall, it’s been a fork in the road of the two programs when matching their game-to-game KenPom ranking over this stretch.

Development

The marriage between retention and scheme is development. Considering the limited retention ISU has experienced, I will not dwell on their deficiencies in this area. More often than not, the developmental challenges are managed by recruiting transfers to fill voids in the roster.

For Iowa, though, man have they reaped benefits. Fran McCaffery has been able to manage the roster for development and injury rehab by leveraging redshirts for his two sons, Jack Nunge, Jordan Bohannon, & CJ Fredrick. All are key components of the 2021 Hawkeyes and, with the exception of Nunge, will factor into the Hawkeyes’ postseason.

Iowa has also reaped the benefits of year-on-year improvement. Most notably, that’s Luka Garza & Joe Wieskamp’s three point shooting for this season as they went from ~35% shooters last year to well above 40% this year.

While each of Iowa’s starters are operating a career-high efficiencies, the development is not just in their individual games but cohesiveness, in general. The best indicator of Iowa’s “chemistry” is their top 2 turnover percentage. The best Iowa team prior to this one by that metric was 2016, when the Hawks boasted a similarly veteran squad.


On the eve of conference tournaments beginning in earnest, I am reminded of Iowa’s 2018 bout with Michigan in Madison Square Garden. It was one of their best efforts all season, filled with clutch moments. That potential was so rarely reached throughout that season...but it was there.

In 2021, Iowa was a team who showed what they were capable more often than not, which is what makes the next month so enticing. Yet the drama is removed with the comparison to Iowa State.

As the Hawks teeter towards March relevance, the Cyclones are anything but relevant.