It's been a painful miracle to watch Iowa's season unravel: excruciating, but hard to understand. What has become clear is that the heart of the problem is defense. After spending the first three months of the season in the top 30 or so of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive rankings, Iowa's ratings have plunged since the Wisconsin game on February 22nd. Now the team is ranked 106th. It's a staggering fall in quality in the space of just two weeks, and to get to the bottom of it, I decided to take a microscope to the latest specimens from Iowa's sick* defense.
* Sick as in ill, not the other kind of sick.
Because, let's be clear, the loss to Illinois was mostly the result of poor defense. Giving up 66 points may not seem bad, but it was a slow, 59-possession game and that means Illinois scored a very healthy 1.12 points per possession. And when you consider that Illinois has the second worst offense in the Big 10 and the 190th worst in the country, you understand just how bad Iowa's performance really was. The Illini's offensive numbers on the season are wretched: they are ranked 309th in effective field goal percentage, 291st in 3-point percentage, 293rd in 2-point percentage, 338th in free throw rate (FTA/FGA), and 318th in assist rate (and all this is after their good performance against Iowa). They basically do nothing well, statistically, on offense. They can't shoot, they can't pass, they can't crash the offensive glass.
Their defense, however, is very good – 18th best in the country per KenPom – so Iowa's 1.07 points per possession is nothing to sneer at. Iowa's offense wasn't great, but Illinois' players had a lot to do with that. Nnanna Egwu is a scary rim protector, and the team has a trio of quick guards who made life very difficult for Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell.
So what is the problem? How come Illinois' Geo Metro of an offense transformed into, say, a Mazda Protege? If you want the short answer: bad pick and roll defense, lack of coordination between players, and a bad tendency to gamble. If you want the long, gruesome answer, here are 16 defensive breakdowns from the Illinois game. (Also, if you want to avoid reliving this game and just want the final takeaway, click here).
EXHIBIT 1: 18:30 first half, Illinois 2-0
Here we see a very common defensive basketball challenge: a pick and roll. Basabe's man comes up and sets a screen on Gesell. Basabe switches onto the ball handler. So far, so good.
Here's where the confusion starts. Gesell appears to want to follow his man, but Basabe appears to want to switch onto Gesell's man.
Now the pass goes back to Basabe's man, who is open at the three-point line because of the miscommunication on the switch. The result is a made three for Kendrick Nunn.
EXHIBIT 2: 16:08 first half, Illinois 10-4
Another pick and roll. Iowa likes to trap the pick and roll ball handler, and it appears that Olaseni is moving to do that. Only one problem: Gesell is being picked on his left side, not his right, and so #13 Abrams is heading to the right, not left toward Olaseni. By going high on the ball screen, Olaseni gives up the baseline with zero help underneath.
This didn't result in direct points (Marble managed to come over for the block), but it was still a mistake.
EXHIBIT 3: 14:56 first half, Illinois 15-6
Iowa puts on the full court press and manages to get a good trap in the corner. Not quite good enough, though, because the trapped guard manages to get off a jump pass to #33 Ekey. This wouldn't be fatal, normally, but then Gesell goes for the gamble:
He's unable to get around the larger Ekey for the steal, and when Ekey gets the ball, suddenly Illinois has a 3-on-1 break. The result is a layup.
EXHIBIT 4: 13:54 first half, Illinois 17-6
More pick and roll follies. McCabe does the thing Olaseni didn't do earlier and protects the baseline by switching onto the ball-handler. But McCabe and Marble don't appear to be on the same page on whether they are switching, whether they are trapping the ball handler or just staying on their men. If they're meant to switch back, McCabe has gotten himself way out of position, and if they're trying to trap, Marble does a poor job of denying the pass back to Ekey, who is now open at the three-point line.
Nunn makes the easy pass over Marble back to Ekey, who makes a three.
EXHIBIT 5: 10:42 first half, Illinois 20-13
Another trap poorly executed. Oglseby and Basabe appear to have Nunn trapped near half-court, and Gesell has Abrams well covered at the half court, but Nunn manages to get a pass out of the trap, and suddenly White and Jok** are facing a 3-on-2.
The result is an open three for Rice, which luckily for Iowa, misses and goes out of bounds.
** A separate article could be written about the four or five defensive lapses Jok made in this game, but they were usually pretty obvious and don't need discussion here. Suffice it to say he's a major defensive liability at this point.
EXHIBIT 6: 2:17 first half, Iowa 30-27
This is less a defense thing and more a rebounding thing, but defense is part of rebounding, so here goes. After 32 seconds of very good D, Iowa has managed to force an ideal shot: a contested two. With four players totaling 27 feet in height around the rim, you would think Iowa had a good chance at the defensive rebound. But Jarrod Uthoff fails to look around and box out #2 Bertrand, who picks up a deflection off Woodbury and makes a layup.
EXHIBIT 8: 18:47 second half, Iowa 36-32
A pick and roll again. Woodbury does his job and hedges high on the ball handler, but takes too long to recover on to #32 Egwu. This sets off a negative chain reaction for the defense. Aaron White briefly switches onto Egwu to cover for Woodbury:
But this leaves White's man, #13 Abrams, uncovered at the top of the screen (he kind of blends into the bench), and Abrams takes advantage by curling to wing, where he is open for a three-point shot, which he makes.
This is the way it frequently is for Iowa. The application of pressure in one location, if it doesn't produce a turnover, forces other defenders to scramble and protect the vacuum produced in its wake. One extra pass is usually enough to produce an open shot.
EXHIBIT 9: 15:14 second half, Iowa 42-39
After a made free throw, Iowa did its press-into-zone thing, and we see here the zone early in the possession. After a failed trap on #25 Nunn, Marble and Gesell seem to be confused about where to go next, as evidenced by their pointing at each other (there was an awful lot of this kind of players pointing at each other in this game). Marble's eyes seem locked on someone in the third row for some reason, and he's out of position and off-balance when Nunn receives a pass on the move to the basket. The result is a layup.
EXHIBIT 10: 14:31 second half, Iowa 45-41
Although the interior defense seems to have Bertrand's drive under control, Marble leaves #23 Nunn to go for the steal on Bertrand. The result is an open drive to the basket for Nunn and a pass out to an open #21 Hill at the three-point line. Luckily for Iowa, Hill bricks it off glass.
EXHIBIT 11: 13:53 second half, Iowa 45-11
This is similar to the Olaseni play from earlier. #32 Egwu sets the pick high, and Olaseni dutifully flashes to attempt to trap the ball-handler #24 Rice. But Rice doesn't take the pick and Instead goes baseline, blowing past Oglesby and eventually making a short bank shot while drawing a foul. The problem isn't the strategy of trapping the ball-handler, per se, but rather a lack of awareness on Olaseni's part. Instead of watching to make sure Rice uses the pick, he sprints out to the pick before Rice even makes his decision. The result is a total absence of interior help for Oglesby, and an athletic 6'10" dude out guarding empty space 20 feet from the basket.
EXHIBIT 11: 10:53 second half, Iowa 54-48
Iowa is in its zone again, and everything is okay for the moment. Ekey has the ball on the wing, and White has the responsibility of covering him. White makes the assumption that Ekey will automatically pass to the corner, and shifts his body toward the corner in the hopes of a steal.
Ekey, being a conscious human being with functioning motor skills, takes the free lane to the basket that White gives him, and converts an and-one on McCabe, who is forced into the impossible situation of coming off his man at the last second to stop him.
EXHIBIT 12: 4:50 second half, Illinois 59-56
More pointing. Iowa is in its zone, and, after a dribble hand-off (#25 Nunn, seen here moving to the bottom of the screen, handed it off to #24 Rice, moving to the top of the screen), Marble and Gesell are confused about who should take the man with the ball. Marble feints as if he will take Rice, and Gesell moves to cover Nunn at the bottom of the screen, but then Marble decides to stay on Nunn, and points to Gesell to stick on Rice. The result is that no one covers Rice, who takes an open three. Luckily he misses and Iowa gets the rebound.
EXHIBIT 13: 3:58 second half, Iowa 59 Illinois 59
Another box out failure. Iowa has forced a tough perimeter shot from Egwu, and with only one Illinois player below the free throw line, the team looks to be in good shape for the rebound. White fails to get a body on #33 Ekey however, and...
... the result is an offensive rebound and the possession continuing. And during that possession...
EXHIBIT 14: 3:49 second half, Iowa 59 Illinois 59
Another miscommunication on the pick and roll. White sags back like he's going to offer help on Gesell's man, but then moves back to cover #33 Ekey. In the process he winds up sort of picking Gesell by crossing in front of him on his way to the sideline.
The result is that Nunn has a free lane to the basket. Woodbury comes up to cover Nunn, and that leaves Egwu open underneath for a dunk, which Woodbury prevents by fouling.
EXHIBIT 15: 3:05 second half, Illinois 60-59
Confusion on a pick and roll. #33 Ekey moves as if to set a pick, leading White to move to trap the ball-handler. But he then immediately slips the pick and drifts to the corner. Gesell and White needed to work together here. Once White committed to trapping, Gesell needed to form the other side of the trap and prevent the pass to the corner. Instead he sticks on Abrams and points at White to cover the wide-open Ekey.
With no one within ten feet of him, Ekey calmly makes a three.
EXHIBIT 16: 00:03 second half, Iowa 63, Illinois 63
White has an ingrained habit of going for steals in this situation, and it costs him here. After a pick by Ekey, Abrams is left one-on-one with Gesell at the top of the three-point line. White lays in wait in the middle of the floor, I imagine to provide help if Abrams drives to the basket. That's all fine. But then Abrams swings it to Ekey, and White makes the fatal mistake of going for the steal. It was a major gamble, and gave Ekey the space to take the three that won the game. You can say it was a tough shot, and it was, but there's a difference between a real contest – one that affects the shot – and a cosmetic contest – one that is applied after the shot is gone to cover up for a mistake. White's contest was cosmetic here.
So what is the problem with Iowa's defense? If there's one overriding theme, it would have to be confusion about responsibilities, largely in two scenarios: in the pick and roll and at the top of the zone. In the pick and roll, the Hawkeyes love to trap the ball-handler above the pick, but their execution has been shoddy. Too often they set half a trap, allowing the ball handler to skate fancy free to the unprotected basket, or a weak trap, allowing an easy pass out to a suddenly undermanned interior defense. They make the mistake of assuming that the offense will do exactly what they expect, and are caught flat-footed when a ball-handler rejects a pick or when a big man slips a pick and fades to the three-point line. They don't seem to know their responsibilities, and constantly surprise each other by switching when their partner doesn't switch or staying when their partner switches.
The situation is similar in their zone. Responsibilities are somewhat fluid in the zone, and there are moments when a player's "job" in the zone comes into conflict with an immediate emergency (like a player open for a three in their vicinity). It's hard to tell exactly who is responsible for a breakdown, but you can tell something is wrong when two players are covering one area and both are pointing at the other to cover an open player. It should be old habit by now who does what and who goes where in the zone, but Iowa looks like they are still learning.
There's also the more philosophical problem of gambling and pressure. Iowa's players have clearly been coached to gamble for turnovers. You see it a little in their full court pressure, you see it in their pick and roll defense (see the trapping mentioned above), but you also see it in the small decisions players make. Aaron White and Devyn Marble have gotten in the habit of roving on defense and reaching for steals. When it works, it's great – it usually means a dunk or a layup. But when it fails, it's like pulling the first block out of one of those sliding square puzzles. Everyone else has to make up for the gamble, and that leads to first one player getting out of position, then another, until the defense is in disarray and the offense has an open shot.
Is all of this the result of fatigue or lack of effort? It's possible. This kind of defense requires a lot of energy, not just from the running but from the thinking. It could be that Iowa's legs and brains are just too exhausted to do this kind of thing any more. It doesn't help that three players – White, Gesell and Marble – are playing such heavy minutes and still trying to pull off this taxing style. Fran McCaffery has become so reliant on those three players, (especially Gesell***, who bears almost sole responsibility as point guard now that Anthony Clemmons seems to be in Fran's dog's doghouse) that he does not seem comfortable leaving them out of the game for more than a few minutes. The concept with this Iowa team was that their depth would allow them to play up-tempo, pressure defense for 40 minutes straight with no problem, but the rotation has shrunk considerably since the start of the season, with McCabe, Clemmons and even Jarrod Uthoff consigned to fringe roles. It's a catch-22 for the coaches: leave White, Marble and Gesell in until they get exhausted and cost the team with sloppy defense, or take them out and cost the team by playing less effective players.
*** As you may have noticed, Gesell features in an awful lot of these mistakes. This is partially because of opportunity – he's always in and he's always defending the point man in the pick and roll – but also, I have to think, because of fatigue. The pointing, the confusion, are marks of a player who can't find the energy to send to his legs and mind to make them do what they need to do. Clemmons may make too many mistakes, but Fran may need to trust him for lengthier stretches of the game if he wants Gesell to be at all effective on D.
There's also the matter of personnel. Many of Iowa's players are not ideally suited for the extreme pressure style. Gesell and Oglesby are decent defenders, but they don't have the size or length to be great trappers. Zach McCabe and Adam Woodbury*** are not always fleet enough of foot to pull off the recovery part of hedging and recovering, and Gabe Olaseni, while a terrific athlete, still makes mental mistakes when he tries to apply pressure on ball handlers.
**** He actually had a pretty decent game against Illinois, though. He had one real defensive mistake, but otherwise made all the right decisions and even had a block and a steal. Plus his offense was outstanding.
But at this point, after so many consecutive poor defensive performances, the focus must also shift to the coaches. If Iowa is too tired to run their favored style of defense effectively, if they don't have players that are suited to it, then it's time for a change. Their fatigue will not magically disappear after four days of rest; if they are too exhausted to play good D after two games in three days, how well will they play on the third day of the Big 10 tournament? Or the second round of the NCAA tournament? The coaches had a dream of a defense that created havoc, forced turnovers, and led to the fast break, but right now they rank 134th in the country in opponent's turnover percentage and 191st in steal percentage. They give up a shocking number of three-point attempts (they're currently 306th in the country in the percentage of opponent shots that are threes), and a hideous number of assisted shots (they're 196th in percentage of their field goals that are assisted). The players look confused and frustrated on defense, pointing at each other and hoping someone else will cover their man. Too often the opponent's offense consists less of their running plays and more just waiting for Iowa's defense to break down and leave someone open.
There aren't any easy answers for Iowa's struggling defense, but here are some easy answers. If you had to characterize Iowa's players in one word, that word would be "tall". With gigantors like Woodbury, Olaseni, Uthoff, Basabe and White on the court, the team's defensive advantage should be defending shots at the rim, not harassing guards on the perimeter. And while Gesell, Oglesby and Marble are not elite perimeter defenders, that's the nice thing about having a league of giants in the middle: they can clean up a lot of mistakes. By employing a switching, trapping style (one that the players either haven't mastered or are too tired to execute), Fran McCaffery has taken his team's greatest potential strength – its size – and made it a weakness. A certain amount of switching and hedging is inevitable against the pick and roll, but Iowa's penchant for taking it further and trying to create traps and pressure 25 feet from the basket has proven to be a losing strategy. At this point, they might do worse than reverting to the simplest of pickup game defensive strategies: you cover your man.