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Hawkeye Basketball: What Iowa’s losses tell us about their NCAA tournament prospects

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What does Iowa need to do to finally make a deep NCAA Tournament run?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State
Will history repeat itself?
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes just completed one of the best regular season campaigns in a generation. They earned the highest seed in the Big Ten Tournament since 2006 - the only season to have a higher seed than this one. The 14 conference wins tie the 1969-70 season for the most in program history and the .700 winning percentage in conference was the best since 1986-87. That season, coincidentally, was also the last time the Hawkeyes finished the year inside the AP top-10.

With the NCAA Tournament now just a few short days away, the Hawkeyes look to turn that tremendous regular season success into their first real postseason run since 1999. The winning ways thus far have set Iowa up to do just that as they enter the tournament with their highest seed since that same 1996-87 season.

But Iowa’s regular season wasn’t without some hiccups. The Hawkeyes finished the season with 8 total losses. Going forward, it’s lose and go home. So, how does Iowa avoid an early exit in the tournament? Let’s explore those prior losses in more detail to break down some common threads that the Hawkeyes must dodge the rest of the way.

Control the Controllables

There are some things Iowa simply can’t control. They can only play who is in front of them. They can only play with the guys on their roster. But there are also things within Iowa’s control and those should be the primary focus.

Defense

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but a major key for Iowa down the stretch has been an improving defense. The Hawkeyes went from the mid-130s nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (essentially, how many points they give up per possession, adjusted for opponent quality) in the middle of the season to 50th nationally entering NCAA Tournament play.

That trend has to continue for the Hawkeyes to be successful. In Iowa’s 8 losses this season, they gave up an average of 85 points per game. That’s 13 points more than their season average of 72 points a game.

Not shocking - most teams give up more points in games they lose than in the ones they win. But more specifically, the Hawkeyes tend to get beat when they have poor 3-point defense. A big piece of that early in the year was Iowa’s reliance on a zone defense. The Hawkeyes were forced to protect Luka Garza from pick-and-roll situations defensively, but also to protect their guards who lack the lateral quickness against quick opponents and were slow to rotate in help defense.

The result has been a 3-point defense that’s among the worst in the nation. Iowa ranks 240th nationally in 3-point percentage allowed at just under 35%. But it was even worse in losses with opponents shooting roughly 40% from beyond the arc. Not only is that a full 5% worse than the season average allowed by Iowa, on average it was roughly 5% better than those teams average from beyond the arc on the season. Excluding the Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois, which came after Iowa had largely moved to more man defense, the differential is an even more dramatic 8%. Put simply, when Iowa gives up good looks from the perimeter, it’s been a recipe for disaster.

Attack on Offense

Iowa isn’t blessed with a plethora of players who can take their man off the dribble and get into the lane. That limits their ability to penetrate and kick or really go after opposing defenses to draw fouls. But what they lack in dribble drive ability they more than make up for on the inside with Luka Garza.

The Hawkeyes finished the season tied for 16th nationally in free throw attempts averaging 20 per game. That’s due in large part to Garza’s ability to get opposing big men off balance and out of position, but also thanks to some timely penetration from guys like Joe Wieskamp, Joe Toussaint and even Jordan Bohannon down the stretch.

But in a number of Iowa’s losses, that free throw advantage flipped. In the two losses to Illinois, the Hawkeyes shot 20 free throws total (e.g. half what they shot in a normal two game stretch). That’s not to say Illinois just plays great defense without fouling, they were actually pretty miserable at that throughout the season. Their high-intensity on-ball defense led to a foul rate of 219th in the nation. They committed 18 fouls in an average game, but only 14 per game against the Hawkeyes.

There are a few factors at play here which Iowa must try to avoid. For starters, the Illini have an athletic, physically imposing big man who is capable of matching up with Garza in the middle without being totally overrun by his footwork. Even when beaten for position, Kofi Cockburn is capable of recovering to alter shots without fouling.

For teams that draw fouls the more traditional way of attacking the lane, that’s easily overcome by going at other defenders off the bounce. Iowa struggled to do that against Illinois (and really everyone else this year) due in part to the quickness of the Illini’s perimeter defenders but also because Iowa really didn’t attack with much persistence. Against Grand Canyon in particular, who has a trio of guys 6’10” or taller to throw at Garza, Iowa needs to re-commit to utilizing the quickness of Joe Toussaint and the craftiness of Joe Wieskamp to get into the lane and create free throw opportunities early and often.

Overcome the Uncontrollables

You can only control what you can control, but there other elements at play in a number of Iowa’s losses this year. If the Hawkeyes hope to make a truly deep run in 2021, they have to find a way to overcome those obstacles through creativity, effort and adaptability. Here’s a look at a few of the other factors that had major impacts in the regular season but hopefully won’t rear their ugly head come tournament time.

Injury

We just can’t have nice things. Without fail, something always seems to go wrong as Iowa fans. This year was no different with a couple of devastating injuries. The most notable impact came from the loss of shooting guard CJ Fredrick. Iowa’s sharpshooter missed all of four games and more than half of a fifth. The Hawkeyes went 1-4 in those five games.

That is to say half of all Iowa’s losses came with a starter sidelined. While the Hawkeyes have no control over when or if a player goes down, and they do enter the tournament down their sixth man with Jack Nunge sidelined for the season, but they can absolutely control how they adapt.

It’s no secret the Hawkeyes struggled on both ends of the floor with Fredrick out of the lineup. While not Iowa’s leading scorer or best defender, he’s a threat on both ends and head coach Fran McCaffery seemed miffed as to how to manage his absence. For the majority of the time, we saw talented freshman Keegan Murray step into the starting lineup with Joe Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery sliding down a spot.

Murray is a star in the making and certainly brings a lot to the table, but in the early goings the Hawkeyes struggled to move the ball without an extra shooter on the floor and defensive rotations were a step slower. If someone goes down in the tournament, McCaffery is going to need to be quicker to adapt his rotations to limit the impacts.

Luck and the Draw

These two go hand in hand so perhaps this could be boiled down to just simply luck. But perhaps the biggest indicator of postseason success is the draw. In 2014, for example, the Hawkeyes ended up in a play-in game. They lost in overtime to Tennessee, who then benefited from a major gift on the draw. They advanced to take on an over-seeded UMass team before getting a Round of 32 matchup against the 14th seeded Mercer thanks to a Round 1 upset of Duke.

Iowa can’t control the draw that lies in front of them, but they already did quite a bit to prepare for the most difficult matchups that could lie ahead. The Big Ten is clearly the best conference in America with 9 of the league’s 14 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa is battle-tested against that league and five of their eight losses this season came against teams seeded 1 or 2 in the Tournament. That is to say, Iowa wouldn’t be facing an opponent of that caliber until the Elite 8 at the earliest.

But Iowa did lose three other games to opponents who aren’t even in the tournament. As noted, two of those came without CJ Fredrick, but the Hawkeyes have to find a way to overcome a potentially tricky matchup through adaptability. A big piece of that comes back to the two controllables above: defense and attacking on offense.

The other piece here is just plain luck. Iowa needs to have shots go down. Over the course of an entire season, we saw them do just that and the result is a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But a number of Iowa’s losses came down to Iowa simply not shooting well.

On the season, the Hawkeyes shot 39% from beyond the arc. That was good enough for 13th in the nation. In their losses, they shot just 32% from deep. Some of that can surely be attributed to great defense by opponents. Half of Iowa’s losses came to teams ranked inside the top-10 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. But some of it is just plain luck.

In the loss to Gonzaga, for example, Iowa shot just 18% from beyond the arc. The Zags have the 10th rated defense according to KenPom, so that makes some sense, but a more detailed look shows it really came down to Iowa simply not hitting shots.

ShotQuality uses more than 90 variables to assess the quality of every shot taken in an NCAA game, including the average shooting percentage of the shooter, the shot distance, defensive closeout, and much, much more. Over the course of the season, the Hawkeyes lead the nation in ShotQuality score, which is to say on average they have good shooters taking good shots.

That makes intuitive sense given the free flowing style of play that emphasizes extra passes to get shooters open looks and the results we’ve seen with one of the most efficient offenses in terms of points per possession in the modern era.

But in several of Iowa’s losses, shots simply weren’t going in despite their very high ShotQuality score.

Again, bad shooting nights happen. But early in the season a bad shooting night meant Iowa was virtually doomed. The Hawkeyes can overcome struggles on offense by controlling the two controllables. We some this against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament.

In that matchup, Iowa shot just 10% from beyond the arc, but they managed to get a win and advance. They did so almost exclusively by ratcheting up the defense and holding Wisconsin to an incredibly low 57 points. They kept the Badgers under 39% shooting from the floor and they came away with a win.

Iowa needs to channel that defensive intensity and commit to getting to the free throw line if they want to overcome the inevitable cold night shooting. If they can pair that with their season average shooting, the sky is the limit.

ShotQuality uses it’s offensive and defensive shot selection analytics to predict future outcomes as well. Using the algorithm, they’ve played out the NCAA Tournament based on the existing bracket and matchups at hand. Hawkeye fans will be happy with the results if Iowa can live up to the expectations they’ve built all season.