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Are Iowa’s Offense and Defense Heading in Opposite Directions?

Don’t expect Iowa’s defense to keep carrying its offense the way it has over the past week. But the gap between Iowa’s play on both ends of the court has closed a bit during conference play.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Iowa basketball over the past week has been like experiencing a bizarro version of the program fans have been accustomed to seeing under coach Fran McCaffery. While the Hawkeyes have become synonymous with high-flying, highly efficient offense and questionable defense, Iowa has flipped the script in recent weeks, playing as well on defense as they have in several years while the offense has struggled to match its normal output. Hawkeye fans who watched their team’s recent games against Rutgers (L, 46-48) and Penn State (W, 68-51) can be forgiven for wondering whether Fran McCaffery has been taking advice from Kirk Ferentz and the football staff about whether offense or defense should be the focal point of a game plan.

Is Iowa’s recent success on defense indicative of a new normal, and will the team’s offensive struggles continue to be a problem as Big Ten play continues? Hawkeye fans should be cautioned against reading too much into only a two-game sample size, and some of Iowa’s recent play can be attributed to the strengths, weaknesses, and play styles of their opponents. Still, there are lessons to be learned from the past week of play which could help determine the fate of this Hawkeye team as the season continues.

Just how big a disparity has there been between Iowa’s offense and its defense over the past week? The Hawkeyes shot only 27.9% from the field against Rutgers (22.2% from three) and 40.7% against Penn State (31.3% from three) and were held under 70 points in consecutive games for the first time since 2018. Meanwhile, Iowa’s past two opponents have averaged only 49.5 points per game, have not made more than 1/3 of their shots from the field, and have averaged 14 turnovers a game in the face of an increasingly frenetic Hawkeye defense. Iowa’s offensive ineptitude doomed it against Rutgers, while its strong defensive performance carried it to a win against Penn State despite another underwhelming day of shooting.

Still, Iowa has not been playing in a vacuum, and their opponents have had some say in dictating the flow of the game in recent contests. Rutgers and Penn State have both been excellent on defense throughout conference play, holding Big Ten opponents to the 2nd and 3rd fewest points per game respectively. Iowa missed several good shots in both games, but also faced two excellent gameplans which helped them get back on defense to limit transition scoring opportunities and made difficult for its best offensive weapons to get open looks. Meanwhile, Rutgers and Penn State have the two lowest scoring offenses in the conference, casting some doubt as to whether Iowa’s ability to shut them down says more about the Hawkeyes doing something well or their opponents doing something poorly. Finally, Rutgers and Penn State respectively play with the 282nd and 347th fastest paces of play in college basketball according to KenPom, which reduced the number of possessions for both Iowa and their opponents and helped artificially deflate the score.

Yet there are still signs that the gap between Iowa’s offense and its defense is less of a chasm than it has been in some years. The Hawkeyes are giving up 69.4 points per game this season, the fewest of any year since the 2015-16 campaign when the Hawkeyes were ranked in the Top 30 in adjusted defense. Iowa is leading the conference in steals per game during Big Ten play (8.4) and is second in blocks per game (4.8). Iowa’s opponents have hit only 31.7% of their threes against the Hawkeyes this season, which is the lowest percentage since Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gessell, and Anthony Clemmons were locking down the perimeter. Keegan Murray is the best and most versatile defensive player Iowa has had in several years, its guards are defending with more physicality than has been standard in past seasons, and the Hawkeyes’ ¾ court press has given opponents nightmares all season, creating turnovers and forcing offense to operate on shortened shot clocks.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s offense, while still excellent, has looked far less unstoppable during conference play than it did against non-Big Ten opponents. Iowa is scoring 73.6 points per game against Big Ten teams compared to its season average of 83.1. The Hawkeyes have the 2nd-worst three-point shooting percentage in Big Ten play (30.2%) and are shooting worse from the free throw line in conference play than they have in any season under Fran McCaffery (68.5%). Keegan Murray has exploded on offense this season but has struggled to find his rhythm over the past few games thanks to defenses conspiring to deny him access to the paint, creating questions about whether he can adjust to this pressure and maintain his absurd offensive efficiency. Jordan Bohannon, despite shooting 3-7 from three against Penn State, has posted career lows in shooting (37.4%) and three-point percentage (36.1%) (excluding his injury-plagued redshirt year in 2019-20) and had shot only 7-33 from the field and 5-25 from three in his three previous games.

Iowa fans have 12 years of evidence for how Fran McCaffery likes to play, and the smart money says that the Hawkeyes will continue to live and die on the strength of their offense. However, Iowa would be wise to recognize that the balance is closer to equilibrium than it has been in several years. Iowa’s half court offense is not the unstoppable force it was when Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp were the focal points of the Hawkeye attack, and the team lacks the depth of elite three-point shooters that it has been spoiled with for the past several seasons. Meanwhile, Iowa’s quickness on the perimeter and clinical efficiency in operating its press gives the team a much higher defensive upside than it has had in the past and could create more opportunities for Iowa to score in transition, which is precisely where the Hawkeye offense is truly built to shine. Don’t expect Iowa to be held to under 50 points in many more games this season, but don’t be surprised if the Hawkeye defense comes up big again before conference play is over.