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Iowa knew what they needed to do to beat the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone, but they just couldn't execute.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

This was clearly not an elite Syracuse team that Iowa faced on Friday night. They lost a lot from last year's team, and out of the seven players Jim Boeheim trusted, only three of them gave Iowa fits. Of course, that's not take away anything from Syracuse or make this seem like a bad loss for the Hawkeyes; this Syracuse team is still very good. Rakeem Christmas frequently took Iowa's post players to school down low; Trevor Cooney was a high volume, fairly efficient shooter on the night; and Chris McCullough showed why he is one of the best freshmen in the country.

Despite very good games from Syracuse's best players, Iowa still had a chance to win this game. Ultimately, it came down to execution, or a lack thereof for the Hawkeyes (somewhere Kirk Ferentz is smiling). Iowa came out of the half flat for the second game in a row, but this time, they were able to claw their way back into the game. Unfortunately, they were eventually done in by costly turnovers.


Four Factors in Review

1st half

2nd half

4 factors

Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.91, Syracuse 0.95

Possessions: 69


Neither team shot the ball real well in this one. Both squads struggled from downtown, and both teams weren't real great from inside the arc, either. Let's go ahead and look at the shot charts, courtesy of Shot Analytics.

First, here's Iowa:

iowa shot chart

Iowa had a little bit of success via Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff in the middle of that Syracuse zone. They also found some success beyond the arc by whipping the ball to the left side of the zone before the defense could rotate. Iowa's downfall in this game (besides only going 6-21 from three point range), came at the rim. According to the shot chart, Iowa made only 41.2% of their shots attempted right at the rim. That's not good, and that sucktitude was compounded by the fact that many of Iowa's turnovers also came near the basket on the baseline. We will get to that in the section below, though.

As for Syracuse, Christmas and McCullough abused Iowa in the post for a good part of the game.

syracuse shot chart

Syracuse made 57.1% of those shots that are clustered at the rim on the chart. Outside of the occasional Trevor Cooney three pointer, the Orange did basically all of their damage in the post. Similar to their struggles against California, Jim Boeheim's team struggled to shoot from any real distance.

But, overall, Iowa won this category with improved second half shooting largely because they made 11 of their 17 two point attempts after halftime. This factor was a huge reason why Iowa was able to get back in the game, but it was the next factor that ended up costing the Hawkeyes a close win.

Advantage: Iowa


The Hawkeyes turned the ball over 18 times against Syracuse. I went back and took notes on all 18 turnovers and noticed a few common themes. First of all, Iowa had some really inexplicable turnovers that came on guys bobbling the ball. I specifically counted 4 bobbles that led to turnovers. Some of the wing players were thinking of what they were going to do with the ball before they caught it and ended up losing it. Meanwhile, Iowa's post players weren't always prepared to catch the ball at the basket and missed out on some easy baskets/foul opportunities once they got behind the zone. Those unforced errors were killer in this game, but they were particularly costly when Iowa exploited the baseline on the zone only to turn the ball over because they weren't able to make or weren't able to handle a good pass. I counted 6 turnovers that wasted Iowa's opportunity to take advantage of the area behind the zone.

The area on the baseline behind the back row of the zone is an area that is always there for the taking. I mentioned it when I gave an overview of Fran McCaffery's defense, and if you want to see a textbook example of how to attack that weakness, Ohio State did it all day to Iowa in a losing effort in Columbus last year. The Hawkeyes knew that would be there all game and attacked it with varying degrees of success.

Iowa's turnover problem was at its worst in the first 20 minutes of the game. 11 of their 18 giveaways came in the first half, when Iowa basically coughed the ball up once every three possessions down the court. Needless to say, that's terrible. The second half was better, as Iowa dropped that to 7 turnovers and only about 20% of their possessions, but their most costly mistakes happened at the end of the game. It should come as no surprise then, that the black and gold played their best offensive basketball when they weren't busy handing the ball to the team decked out in orange. Take Iowa's second half run that pulled them to within one point. Over a period of about 6 minutes in the final 10 minutes of gametime, Iowa went on a 15-4 run and turned the ball over 0 times. When I went back and rewatched the game, I also paid attention to this portion of play. Let's take a look at their successful offensive plays during this time:

  1. Aaron White baseline alley-oop.
  2. Woodbury posts up McCullough, draws foul (makes 1-2 free throws).
  3. Mike Gesell elbow jumper off of Woodbury ball screen.
  4. Uthoff 3, assisted by Gesell off offensive rebound by Woodbury.
  5. Uthoff baseline pass from Gesell; fouled (makes both free throws).
  6. Uthoff 3, assisted by Gesell dribble drive.
  7. Aaron White beats the zone down the floor for the dunk.

As you can see, by not turning the ball over during this period of time, Iowa took advantage of the weaknesses in the zone by scoring 4 points on the baseline (counting Uthoff's free throws) and 6 points from three point range. They even got a basket by running the floor and beating Syracuse down the floor before they could get the zone set up. That was something we didn't see enough of all game. Basically, my point in noting this little streak of scoring is that Iowa's offense was at its best when it wasn't giving away the damn ball. Iowa had a chance to tie the game with a three in the corner from Oglesby with about 2:30 left in the game, but Josh inexplicably lost the ball out of bounds. Iowa then had the opportunity for a game-winning shot with 10 seconds left, but Woodbury made an ill-advised pass to a covered Aaron White that was picked.

In closing, turnovers are what cost Iowa this game.

Advantage: Syracuse

Offensive Rebounding

The battle on the offensive glass was a competitive category all night long. Iowa took the first half, while Syracuse took the second half. Christmas and McCullough grabbed 6 of the 14 offensive rebounds for the Orange. McCullough was able to convert 2 of his 3 offensive boards into 4 points, but Christmas wasn't able to get any points from this 3 offensive rebounds.

As for Iowa, Aaron White came up with 2 points off of his 3 offensive rebounds thanks to a putback slam dunk. Adam Woodbury turned 2 of his 3 offensive rebounds into 5 points by making 2 layups and hitting a free throw on an and one situation. Iowa's other best offensive rebounder in this game was Gabe Olaseni, who had no points of his own off of field goals, but allowed Jarrod Uthoff to knock down a jumper after keeping the possession alive.

Iowa won the this category ever so slightly, but offensive rebounding was a fairly even battle all night long.

Advantage: Iowa

Free Throw Rate

Iowa's free throw rate is skewed thanks to Jim Boeheim's strategy of fouling when they were up 3 at the end of the game. The Orange did this twice and Iowa got 4 free throw attempts in the final 10 seconds of the game out of it. If you take away those final 4 free throws, the Hawkeyes actually lose this category slightly. Honestly, I think Iowa would have had a free throw rate closer to their season average of about 45% if they hadn't turned the ball over so much on the baseline. Some of those would have been easy layups, but some of them would have drawn fouls, a la Jarrod Uthoff getting hammered by three Syracuse defenders during Iowa's 15-4 turnoverless run. Iowa technically won this category, but you could easily say Syracuse won it.

Advantage: Iowa

Overall: Iowa Won 3 Out of the 4 Factors



We all said we wanted to see Jarrod Uthoff step up against tougher competition after fading down the stretch of the Texas game and, well, he delivered against Syracuse. He started off slow, with only 5 points in the first half. After halftime, though, he put up 15 points, including scoring 8 of Iowa's 15 points when they made their run at the end of the game. He was aggressive with the ball, putting up 14 of Iowa's 55 field goal attempts, but he was also efficient from the field, finishing with a 60.71% eFG%. Going 3-6 from the line dropped his TS% to 59.35% for the game, but he was still efficient, nonetheless. In addition to being Iowa's best offensive player, he also reeled in 6 rebounds (1 offensive) and played some great defense, tallying 3 steals and 2 blocks. This is the Uthoff that Iowa needs to see on a consistent basis. If he can put an entire game together sometime, he's going to go off for like 30 points in a game this year.

Aaron White also had his usual good game. Like Uthoff, he started slowly, but picked it up in the second half. White was limited to just 10 minutes of play before the half due to picking up two quick fouls. But thanks to White's history of rarely fouling, Fran trusted him enough enough to enter him back into the game earlier than he would somebody like Woodbury. Still, though, only having him on the court for 10 minutes in the first half was less than ideal for Iowa. White played a big role in Iowa's offense when he was on the court, and not just when he was scoring. He did his usual thing of dunking the ball, running the court and what not, but he played the middle of Syracuse's zone very well. He only had 2 assists on the night, but there were opportunities for more. Being the smart veteran that he is, White knew where he was going with the ball before he caught it. This worked well for Adam Woodbury who got an easy layup and then two free throws  out of a couple of quick bounce passes. This did not work out well for Gabe Olaseni, who didn't seem to ever be ready for these passes. One pass from White was legitimately behind Gabe, but Olaseni also missed a nice pass over the top from White and bobbled a pass from Uthoff on the baseline. Despite some turnovers, I thought Aaron White (and Uthoff) worked the middle of the Syracuse zone well.

Adam Woodbury also had himself another pretty good game, scoring 12 points for the Hawkeyes. I say "pretty good" because he struggled a bit on defense against the experience of Christmas and the athleticism of McCullough. Rakeem Christmas put on a clinic of how to post up Iowa players all game long. Sometimes this was Woodbury or Olaseni when Iowa was in man defense, but when Iowa went zone, Christmas also posted up White, Uthoff, and Dom Uhl as the back line of the zone rotated. And more often than not, Christmas caught the ball, made a strong move to the basket and converted or drew the foul. On the offensive side of the ball, Woodbury did some nice things for Iowa. He roamed the middle of that Syracuse zone and was able to help reverse the ball and open up some scoring opportunities. His two turnovers were pretty bad passes -- one where he made up his mind to turn around and pass the ball before looking, and another where he tried to find a cutting Aaron White who was not open -- but he did a good job, overall, of being the offensive fulcrum in the hole of the Syracuse zone. He also did a good job of making 5 of his 8 shots, including a number of little turnaround jumpers in the middle of the zone.

And despite only scoring 6 points on 2-7 shooting and going 1-4 from the line, I thought Mike Gesell had a better game. It was far from perfect, obviously, but he ran the offense fairly well at times and put his teammates in position to score. He had 7 assists against Syracuse and a lot of them came from Gesell penetrating the zone and finding an open teammate. 3 of his assists also came during that crucial point of the game in which Iowa cut a double-digit Syracuse lead. If Mike can't find a way to get his shot to start falling, it would at least be nice if he can continue to set up his teammates on offense.

Finally, some bullet points:

  • Despite Gesell's assist total, point guard is still a worrisome position on this team. Anthony Clemmons struggled against tougher competition for the second game in a row, while McCaffery clearly doesn't yet trust Trey Dickerson in big games (he played only 3 minutes). Somebody needs to emerge here. I'm fine with Gesell taking more of a distributor role if he continues to shoot the ball so poorly, but I would also like to see Clemmons pick his play up and for Dickerson to adapt to this level of competition quicker.
  • But let's not just bag on the point guards. Shooting guard hasn't been much better recently, either. Josh Oglesby isn't shooting real well from deep early this year and had some bad turnovers vs. Syracuse. Peter Jok, though, is probably the bigger worry. He has yet to show much improvement from last season, has been almost invisible on offense and has still looked iffy on defense at times. For someone who we thought had the potential to be Iowa's next Devyn Marble, he has looked lost for a good portion of this young season. It's still only four games, and things could definitely get better, but right now, Jok does not look good.
  • Outside of Uthoff, Iowa's three point shooting is worrisome so far. Clemmons is shooting well from deep, but all of his makes have been against lesser opponents. Again, it's only 4 games, but Oglesby and Jok coming alive would be a boon for this offense.
  • Speaking of troublesome shooting, thanks to playing two good teams with very good front courts, Iowa's shot chart near the basket looks bad:

shot chart

Okay, that's enough of my yammering. Iowa could have won this game; it was well within their reach. Of course, they didn't and that continues to be a trend that is driving us to ponder why we invest so much of our time in collegiate athletics. It's a long season of which we are only in game four, though. In other words, there are a lot of games left, and this team has some talent that just needs to come together. Let's hope they gel as the season goes on.