In a year devoid of offensive production on the gridiron, Hawkeye fans were looking to Iowa basketball as their reprieve. Fran McCaffery’s bunch, historically, is exciting. They get up and down and they put points on the board. Lots of them. Since taking over the helm in Iowa City back in 2010, the Hawkeyes have averaged 83.6 points per game - most in the Big Ten. Just twice in that span has Iowa averaged under 70 points per game.
And yet here we are in the first week of January and this bunch of Hawkeyes is STRUGGLING to put the biscuit in the basket. While Iowa is still leading the conference in scoring this season at 81.1 points per game, that’s largely been buoyed by early season success that has simply fallen off a cliff since the Hawkeyes exploded in their dismantling of Iowa State back on December 8th.
Since the Cy-Hawk win, Iowa has averaged 78.6 points per game, boosted significantly by a 106-point showing against Southeast Missouri State. Excluding that pay game that went according to plan, the Hawkeyes are averaging 71.8 PPG in that period.
Perhaps more striking than the dropoff in scoring itself is just how that dropoff has occurred. The Hawkeyes have gone from a hyper efficient offense that utilizes motion, ball movement, screens and cutting to produce easy baskets to one that settles for jumpshots or hunts threes. In the nine games Iowa played through December 8th, the Hawkeyes averaged 22 3-point attempts per game. They made 38.7% of those attempts, again, because they were producing good looks and knocking down open shots.
In the five games since that December 8th win, the Hawkeyes are averaging 27 3-point attempts per game and making just 26.7% of those attempts. So not only is Iowa shooting five more shots from long distance per game in that stretch, they’re making two fewer per game. And it’s no coincidence the one win in that stretch came in the only game where the Hawkeyes attempted fewer than 25 3-pointers (at home vs. Southeast Missouri State where they shot 22).
Not coincidentally, the Hawkeyes have dropped a staggering 35 spots in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings over that period. Through the Iowa State win, Iowa was a respectable 75th nationally in adjusted defense. Given a perennial top-10 offense, that’s a winning number much in the same way that just being not terrible on offense would make the Hawkeye football team a real contender in the Big Ten. But since December 8th, Iowa has fallen to 110th nationally in adjusted defense.
While conventional wisdom would tell you the increase in 3-point attempts should lead to more long rebounds and potential runouts, that’s really only been the case in the embarrassing home loss to Eastern Illinois. In the first game in modern college basketball history to see a 30+ point underdog win, the Panthers racked up a staggering 26 points in transition thanks in large part to a season-high 33 attempts from beyond the arc from Iowa.
But by and large, there has been no statistical jump in fast break points for opponents over the last five games (8.6 during that span vs 8.3 during the first 9 games of the year). There’s also been no meaningful change in second chance points or rebounding margin (though Iowa is 1-3 in games where they are outrebounded vs. 7-3 in games where they win the battle of the boards).
Instead, we see the impacts really magnified in the half court defense where the Hawkeyes are giving up almost a full point per possession more over the last five games than during the first nine. Some of that has been an uptick in points in the paint, which have gone up by nearly a basket per game. That’s been one contributing factor to the big jump in effective FG percentage the Hawkeyes are giving up during their skid. On the season, Iowa is 8-1 when holding opponents below 50% in eFG%. They’re 0-5 when they don’t. During the last five games, opponents’ eFG% has jumped to 55.7%, more than 6% above their season average.
So what’s happened to the defense? It’s as puzzling as it is frustrating from a fan perspective. The active rotations and help defense we saw early in the season have given way to late help, lazy rotations and an apparent lack of interest in putting forth anything resembling effort.
It’s hard to tell which is the root cause, but there’s a clear correlation between the miserable offense and return to a complete lack of defense. Is the inability to hit open shots driving frustration and too much emphasis on the offensive end rather than using defense to create easy offense? Or is there something else happening under it all?
‼ SQ UPSET ‼— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) December 30, 2022
Actual Score: Iowa 50-66 Nebraska
ShotQuality Score: Iowa 72-63 Nebraska
Based on the quality of shots taken:
Iowa wins 78% of the time
Nebraska wins 22% of the time pic.twitter.com/MoFBlCsdHR
We learned on Tuesday afternoon that junior forward Patrick McCaffery is stepping away indefinitely to deal with mental illness. The Hawkeyes have had five different players, including a trio of starters, now miss time due to injury. It’s possible this group is just going through a genuine rough patch.
Whatever the cause, a solution needs to be found quickly or this season will be lost. The Hawkeyes prepare for a Thursday showdown with #15 Indiana after already dropping their first three Big Ten contests. Iowa is barreling toward complete irrelevance in the conference this season and serious apathy amongst the fanbase. For some of us, that apathy has already hit like a ton of bricks.