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Iowa’s March Madness Problem is Worse Than You Think

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The NCAA Tournament is famous for its unpredictability, but there is nothing unpredictable about how Iowa performs in it.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Richmond vs Iowa Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Another year, another March Madness stained by an Iowa basketball flameout. The 2021-22 Iowa basketball team appeared primed to escape the purgatory of first-weekend NCAA Tournament exits that has housed the program since its last Sweet 16 appearance in 1999. Unlike past Fran McCaffery teams that limped into March Madness after disappointing Big Ten Tournament exits, this season’s Hawkeye squad was one of the hottest teams in the country after winning the 2022 conference tournament and nine of its previous ten games.

Unlike most of Iowa’s teams since the early Tom Davis years which were saddled with athleticism deficits compared to blue blood opponents, this year’s squad featured presumptive lottery pick Keegan Murray and a collection of other above-average athletes. Unlike Iowa’s past two NCAA Tournament teams that were dangerously reliant on their offense to win games and had shown signs of major defensive shortcomings all season long, this Hawkeye team was more switchable and disruptive on defense than almost any team of the McCaffery era. The 2021-22 squad could score like the Garza-led Hawkeyes and defend like the Uthoff-led ones. Add in a #5 seed and favorable matchups against #12 seed Richmond and a VERY soft #4 seed Providence, and Iowa seemed destined for the tournament’s second weekend.

Naturally, the wheels fell off. Iowa’s vaunted offense, which ranks 3rd in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating, mustered only 63 points against a Richmond defense that ranks on 94th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Hawkeyes shot only 36.4% from the field and a dreadful 20.7% from three compared to their normal shooting percentages of 46.1% and 36.3%, respectively. Iowa’s shot quality gave them a 74% chance of victory based on past performance, yet the team continued to miss open shots, throwing up brick after brick before eventually immuring itself.

Iowa’s pitiful shooting performance was shocking given how prolific the Hawkeye offense had been all year, but a sudden and fatal performance drop off in the NCAA Tournament should hardly come as a surprise to fans who have watched the program’s postseason games over the past two decades. Iowa has an unfortunately rich recent history of laying absolute eggs in its losing efforts during March Madness. More than the losses themselves, it is the nature of these defeats which make them particularly hard to stomach. From bloodbath losses at the hands of national title contenders to deflating defeats lower-seeded teams to overtime losses (yes, that’s losses—plural) against Tennessee, the Hawkeyes seem to find creative new ways to rip their fans hearts out every NCAA Tournament.

While this streak of disappointments started before Fran McCaffery arrived in Iowa City in 2011, the Hawkeye coach has certainly made it his own. When Fran’s Hawkeye teams lose NCAA Tournament games, they do not necessarily do so by virtue of being the lesser team (honestly, does anybody really think Richmond was better than Iowa this year?). Instead, the Hawkeyes almost always end their season with performances that are dramatically worse than what the team has consistently shown over the course of the season.

Fran McCaffery’s Iowa Teams in NCAA Tournament Losses

Season PPG OPPG Points Scored in Final Game Points Allowed in Final Game Points Scored vs. Season Average Points Allowed Over Season Average
Season PPG OPPG Points Scored in Final Game Points Allowed in Final Game Points Scored vs. Season Average Points Allowed Over Season Average
13-14 81.5 70.3 65 78 -16.5 7.7
14-15 69.8 62.3 68 87 -1.8 24.7
15-16 77.6 69.3 68 87 -9.6 17.7
18-19 78.3 73.9 77 83 -1.3 3.1
20-21 83.7 72.7 80 95 -3.7 22.3
21-22 83.2 71.2 63 67 -20.2 -4.2
Average 79.01 69.95 70.16 82.83 -8.5 11.88

As the table above illustrates, Iowa tends to perform significantly worse than its season averages on both offense and defense in games it loses in the NCAA Tournament, scoring an average of 8.5 fewer points per game and surrendering an additional 11.88 points to their opponents. This amounts to the Hawkeyes playing an astounding 20.38 points worse in Fran McCaffery’s tournament defeats when compared to their average play over the course of the season. This drop-off in performance can be partially explained by the quality of opponents the Hawkeyes have faced in previous NCAA Tournaments, but not entirely, given that Iowa regularly plays a difficult schedule in one of college basketball’s most difficult conferences. Hawkeye fans may not be surprised to see that the team’s defense tends to underperform in tournament games, but Iowa’s offense is not blameless in this cycle of misery. The Hawkeyes have scored fewer points than their season average in every tournament defeat in the McCaffery era and have even been held under 70 points in four of their six losses. Iowa’s offensive numbers are even more surprising when one remembers that two of these games went into overtime, meaning the statistics actually overrate the performance of Iowa’s offense relative to its defense.

The NCAA Tournament is famous for its unpredictability, but there is nothing unpredictable about how Iowa performs in it. Every year, without fail, the Hawkeyes will suffer a near complete system failure in one of their first two games. Individual losses can be chalked up to random variance or bad luck; after all, how often is Iowa, one of the best offensive teams in the country, going to score 63 points and shoot 20% from beyond the arc? But when performances like this continue to happen with every tournament appearance, one has to recognize that they are not statistical outliers and are instead part of a pattern. Iowa isn’t losing tournament games due to the fluky nature of March Madness. They are losing because they are consistently playing below their standard level of performance in the games that matter the most.

Need further evidence that the Hawkeyes are underperforming in March? Since 2018, Iowa has the 3rd best winning percentage of any Big Ten team (68.4%) and is tied for the 10th most wins of any power conference team in the nation with 91. Iowa joins Gonzaga as one of only two teams to rank in the Top 10 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating over the past three seasons, and the Hawkeyes just missed making it four years in a row in 2018-19. Iowa has the profile of a team that should have made at least one Sweet 16 during Fran McCaffery’s tenure. It is worth asking why they have not.

Should this article be read as a criticism of Fran McCaffery? Yes and no. It is to McCaffery’s credit that Iowa has performed well enough to compile such an impressive statistical profile in recent years, and the head coach deserves immense praise for molding Luka Garza and Keegan Murray into national player of the year candidates, a prospect which would have seemed absurd to most basketball analysts until it came to pass.

The 2021-22 Hawkeyes also dramatically overachieved their preseason expectations thanks in large part to Fran’s excellent coaching; Iowa was predicted to finish 9th in the conference, and most fans, upon receiving a visitor from the future and being told the Hawkeyes would be defeated by a #12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, would have assumed Iowa had snuck in as a plucky #12 seed themselves despite losing several key player’s from last year’s team, not that they won 26 games and earned a #5 seed. Still, McCaffery’s March Madness results speak for themselves, and it’s worth questioning whether a man who has zero Sweet 16 appearances in 26 years as a head coach can be the one to lead Iowa to the promised land. I for one have no magical formula for how McCaffery can break this excruciating streak of disappointing exits, but it is difficult not to conclude that whatever the team is doing to prepare for March Madness is not working.

Making the Sweet 16 is not easy, but for Iowa to go 23 seasons without doing so is simply unacceptable. McCaffery was finally able to solve his Big Ten Tournament woes this season. After nearly two and a half decades, Hawkeye fans can only hope that figuring out the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner.