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Can Iowa Basketball Learn to Win Ugly?

The Hawkeyes are 1-7 in games in which they fail to score 70 points. Can Iowa find success in the NCAA Tournament if its shots stop falling the way they often have on the road this year?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Second Round - Iowa vs Ohio State Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Fran McCaffery has earned his share of both devoted fans and ardent critics during his 13 seasons as the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes men’s basketball program, but supporters and detractors alike can agree that McCaffery’s teams play an incredibly fun brand of basketball to watch. Iowa’s basketball program has adopted an identify in direct contrast to its football team—all offense, all the time. Iowa under Fran regularly plays at one of the fastest paces in Big Ten and is typically at or near the top of the list of the conference’s highest scoring offenses. McCaffery has done an incredible job finding players that fit his offensive system and are capable of pushing the pace and scoring in transition and hitting open shots from outside the arc. If Iowa can make shots and coax its opponents into playing at its pace, the Hawkeyes can beat virtually anyone in college basketball.

Iowa’s problem comes when the team isn’t scoring at its preferred rate. When the Hawkeyes are not hitting their shots, the team tends to struggle. This may seem like the coldest of hot takes (“Breaking News: Basketball Teams Need to Score Points to Win Games!”), but this statement is truer for Iowa than it is for most schools. There are many successful college basketball programs that prefer to play slower, low-scoring games, some of which tend to be incredibly successful; Iowa need look no further than its conference rival Wisconsin, a team that has ridden that style of play to three Big Ten championships and an NCAA title game appearance of the past decade. There have even been seasons in which the Hawkeyes themselves preferred to play a slower, more defensive-oriented style of play. The 2005-06 Iowa team that won the Big Ten Tournament had the best defense in the country and was content to play at a snail’s pace, believing that players like Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska could generate enough offense when they needed to that the team could lean on its defense (anchored Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year winner Erek Hansen) to win games. Even earlier Fran McCaffery teams were capable of winning low-scoring defensive battles against quality opponents, particularly those which boasted excellent interior defenders like Adam Woodbury, Jarrod Uthoff, and Gabriel Olaseni.

However, from the 2016-17 season to present, Fran McCaffery’s teams have largely lacked the ability to win ugly. Much of this can be attributed to Fran’s coaching and teambuilding philosophies. McCaffery has done a tremendous job assembling teams full of versatile wings who can score at multiple levels, sharpshooting guards who can rain fire on their opponents from three, and offensive-minded big men. Whether by design or by happenstance, McCaffery has not done a great job recruiting players who excel on the defensive end. This could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy; because Fran has developed a reputation for producing star offensive-oriented players of a certain mold, Iowa tends to attract prospects who fit that archetype and struggle to recruit impactful defenders. While this has helped Iowa establish a perennially elite offense, it also means the Hawkeyes cannot fall back on a competent defense to help them win games when their shots are not falling. Too often it appears that Iowa has no Plan B for what to do if its three-pointers aren’t falling or the referees allow their opponents to get away with clutching and grabbing Hawkeye players to slow down Iowa’s motion offense. The Hawkeyes do not play well unless they are able to play their way.

Unfortunately, this lack of a contingency plan has led to several frustrating losses in low-scoring games this season. The Hawkeyes have a 1-7 record in games in which they have scored fewer than 70 points, with their sole win coming against an abysmal Minnesota team that won only nine games this year (for reference, the aforementioned 05-06 Hawkeye team went 13-9 in such games, which not only speaks to that team’s ability to win ugly, but also how much more frequently it got drug into rock fights than most of McCaffery’s teams). Notably, each of Iowa’s low-scoring games took place outside of Carver-Hawkeye arena; Iowa has made only 48.3% of its two-point attempts and an abysmal 28.2% of its threes when playing away from its home court this season. Given that Iowa will play all of its remaining games away from Carver, the team’s ability to make a run in the NCAA Tournament will seemingly be decided by whether it can get and stay hot from the field. If Iowa fails to do so, there is little evidence to support the idea that they can beat a quality opponent, particularly on a neutral court.

Looking beyond this year’s team, Fran McCaffery and the coaching staff must seriously consider how they can better prepare themselves to win games in which they are not able to score at their preferred rate or dictate the style and pace of the contest. This may involve placing a greater emphasis on mastering half court defensive sets during practice, introducing more physicality to scrimmages to prepare players for teams that will clutch and grab and play at a snail’s pace, or bringing in a defensive-minded assistant coach who can rethink the program’s approach and mentality on the defensive end. Iowa has done an incredible job developing the offensive talent of players in its program, but has rarely seen players take huge defensive strides during their tenure in the black and gold, a trend which may be caused by the diminished emphasis the coaching staff puts on defense relative to offense. This year’s squad is excellent at executing its press after made baskets, and the Hawkeyes actually produce the third-most steals per game in the Big Ten (6.7) largely on the strength of these sets. As disciplined as the Hawkeyes are at preventing their opponents from crossing the timeline, one cannot help but wonder whether the Hawkeyes’ half-court defense could improve if the coaches were similarly committed to drilling it the way they obviously have with the press.

Finally, Iowa must find a way recruit impactful defenders to the program. The transfer portal may be a good place to start, as Iowa has narrowly missed out on a few rim protectors and solid wing defenders of the past few years. Landing one or two legitimate two-way players would better position Iowa to win games when its shots are not falling and could help change the program’s culture surrounding the importance of playing defense.

Fran McCaffery’s coaching philosophy and offensive strategy have made Iowa one of the most exciting programs in college basketball and a perennial NCAA Tournament team. However, for Iowa to take the next step as a program and evolve from an NCAA Tournament participant to a potential title contender, the team must develop a counter-punch that it can deploy when its shots are not falling. Even the best offensive teams will occasionally have an off-night from the field, and the Hawkeyes cannot allow themselves to be so dependent on scoring 75-80 points and shooting a high percentage from three that they fall apart whenever they fail to do so. The Hawkeyes play a beautiful brand offensive basketball that most fans wouldn’t see them change for the world, but they will continue to bump against the Sweet Sixteen glass ceiling until they also learn how to win ugly.