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What Is Behind Iowa’s Road Struggles?

Is Iowa an elite offensive team that struggles to find its shot on the road? Or an average team that benefits from a serious homecourt advantage?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

On November 16, Iowa basketball traveled to Newark, New Jersey to take on Seton Hall, a perennial NCAA Tournament team who had just hired one of the hottest coaches in college basketball in Shaheen Holloway. The Pirates were fresh off a victory over a team that made the Elite Eight the previous season and were favored to defeat the Hawkeyes at home. While Iowa struggled early and trailed 10-2 at the first TV timeout, the Hawkeyes eventually adjusted to the hostile Seton Hall crowd and established a comfortable rhythm, cruising to an impressive 83-67 victory in enemy territory.

Unfortunately, Iowa’s first road game of the season did not prove to be a predictor of its future success away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. While Iowa has an impressive 13-2 record playing in Iowa City (with their only losses coming in games where the Hawkeyes were without two starters, including Kris Murray), they are only 4-8 in games played outside their home arena. Iowa’s notable road defeats include a loss to a middling Nebraska team in which the Hawkeyes scored only 50 points and shot 26% from the field, a 16-point loss against a bad Ohio State team where the Hawks surrendered 93 points to an unremarkable offense, and a humiliating 20-point loss to end a nine-game winning streak against Northwestern. Iowa’s wins at Rutgers and against Clemson on a neutral court stand out as aberrations in a season in which the Hawkeyes have consistently played down to poor competition and failed to rise to their opponents’ level against quality teams.

On one hand, Iowa’s road struggles hardly seem like major news. College basketball teams generally play better at home than they do on the road. The average college basketball team wins about 67% of their home games, and playing at home tends to benefit a team to the tune of roughly four points a game. Only two Big Ten teams even boast winning road records this season, and they happen to be the ones at the top of the conference standings (Purdue and Northwestern).

Still, the drop-off between the quality of Iowa’s play at home vs. on the road is significant even by those standards. While a few of Iowa’s road losses have been competitive games (namely their defeats at Penn State and Michigan State), the Hawkeyes have largely looked like a completely different team outside of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The biggest culprit in Iowa’s crushing road defeats has been the team’s disappearing act on offense. Playing at home, the Hawkeyes have the highest adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country per Bart Torvik (125) and an impressive effective field goal percentage of 57.1, good for 31st in Division I college basketball. Away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa’s adjusted efficiency rating falls to 109.8—the 53rd highest rating in the country, but still a respectable number. However, Iowa’s effective field goal percentage falls off an absolute cliff as soon as the Hawkeyes leave Iowa City, plummeting all the way to 45.4, which would rank Iowa 326th out of 363 teams in college basketball. While the Hawkeyes shoot 56.7% from the field and 38.4% from three at home, those numbers drop considerably to 47.2% and 27.9% respectively in road or neutral site games.

This massive disparity in offensive performance between home and road/neutral games helps explain Iowa’s struggles away from Carver-Hawkeye. Iowa is heavily dependent on its offense to win games, and unless the Hawkeyes are playing terrible competition like the COVID and injury-depleted Minnesota Golden Gophers, they are not going to win many ugly, low-scoring defensive battles. The best basketball teams are those that can find ways to manufacture wins when their shots are not falling, and the 2022-23 Hawkeyes have yet to prove themselves capable of doing so on a regular basis. There is an old saying in sports that “defense travels,” which means that the ability to defend your opponents is often a more transferable skill in a hostile road environment than the ability to score points. Given that Iowa’s defense is unremarkable in its home games, it is little surprise that the Hawkeyes have not been able to ride it to many victories when their offense short-circuits away from home, especially since Iowa allows opponents to shoot three-pointers at a much higher rate away from Carver-Hawkeye (38.2%) than they do in their home arena (33.3%).

However, it is also worth wondering why Iowa’s offense has been so unstoppable at home and so inconsistent on the road. Iowa’s style of play does not change in road games as much as one might think given the huge discrepancies in the home/away splits. The Hawkeyes play at a slightly faster tempo at home (an adjusted tempo rate of 71.3 compared to 69.8 on away or neutral courts), and while they tend to take threes at a higher rate at home than they do on the road, that can also be explained by Iowa abandoning the three-point shot when they aren’t making many of them. As easy as it would be to say that Iowa allows the opposing crowd to take them out of the kind of offense they want to run, the numbers don’t bear that out.

It is also possible that the premise of this article is completely backwards, and that Iowa is actually a mediocre shooting team that benefits from an absolutely incredible homecourt advantage. This would seem a bit odd in a season in which Connor McCaffery called out poor home fan support, but there are some numbers that support this argument. Team Rankings, LLC, which hosts the running home court advantage power ratings, ranks Iowa as having the third-highest home advantage in college basketball this season. Iowa’s Tony Perkins is making three-pointers at twice the rate in home games (40%) as he is in away and neutral court contests (20%), a disparity that is the difference between Perkins being a three-point ace and someone opponents don’t need to guard on the perimeter. In fact, every single Hawkeye in the team’s regular rotation is shooting significantly better at home than they are away from it. This could be chalked up to players’ struggles dealing with hostile road environments, but it could also be explained by the boost they get from the support of the Carver-Hawkeye crowd.

Whether Iowa is a good team that plays poorly on the road, an average team that plays extraordinarily at home, or some combination of the two, the Hawkeyes will need to solve their road woes if they hope to make noise this March. Winning games in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments will require Iowa to defeat quality teams outside the friendly confines of their home arena, and the Hawkeyes may need to win one of their remaining home games against Wisconsin and Indiana to secure a double-bye in Chicago. To accomplish this feat, Iowa must find a way to bridge the gap between the home team that truly seems capable of making any shot they take and the away team that often looks like it couldn’t hit water if it fell out of a boat.