Close games in basketball are hard to define quantitatively. You’ll see games that look close and are back and forth the whole way, but then down the stretch after a few fouls and the ensuing free throws, a team will win by 10. Or you’ll see games that don’t look close at all and a team will have a big lead throughout, then completely fall apart in the last two minutes of a game and blow an 8 point lead and lose. But for the sake of argument and ease of analysis, I’m going to classify a close game as one with a final margin of 6 points or less. With all the possessions in a basketball game, ending up a 2-possession game feels close enough for me.
The 2015-2016 season has started off pretty rough on the close game spectrum. Even the exhibition game against Division II Augustana ended in a 2-point loss for the Hawkeyes. Since then, they have played in close games in 4 of their 10 games…and won only one of those games. Iowa lost to Dayton by five, followed that up with a 6-point loss to Notre Dame, and in case you forgot, blew a giant lead and lost by one to Iowa State last Thursday night. The lone victory was a 3-point overtime win against Florida State in the B1G-ACC Challenge (which Iowa could have won in regulation but they gave up an offensive rebound in the final seconds that let FSU tie it up, then turned it over without getting off a shot to win on their final possession).
A 25% win record in close games is pretty excruciating as fans and unfortunately is nothing new for us. Since Fran has taken over the program we’ve experienced more than our fair share of painful, last second losses.
As Iowa’s head coach, McCaffery is now 15-34 in games decided by six points or fewer, a miserable 30.6% winning percentage.
Just for comparison, I went back and looked at Wisconsin’s close games over the same period Fran has been at Iowa. If you think about the two programs, they are very comparable in many respects. But the Badgers have been enjoying more success lately. One key reason why? In their close games the Badgers are 31-22 (58.5%). So they have only played in four more close games than Iowa has, but they have won twice as many close games as Iowa. If Iowa had gotten those extra three wins per year, just think about how much better the good teams would have been. Three extra wins last year probably means a 5 or 6 seed. The year before that it might have meant an even higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. And they probably make the NCAA Tournament even with a soft non-conference schedule in the 2012-2013 season.
If you took a close game as a 50-50 proposition, which isn't much of a leap, then there is only 0.47% chance of winning 15 games or fewer out of 49. So if the ending of close games came down to pure chance, it would be astronomically unlikely that Iowa would have lost this many. Out of the 351 Division I basketball programs, at 0.47% you'd only expect two teams to have a winning percent that poor. So what I’m saying is, Iowa is not unlucky… they are bad.
It's Fran’s job to figure out why they are bad. But we can provide some analysis, too. And I think the place to begin is with him and some of his coaching decisions.
The Timeout Thing
This is the easiest thing to start with. McCaffery has had a love affair with unused timeouts. Even with the new rules this year (which give him fewer timeouts), he has found a way to not use them. With his team obviously floundering down the stretch against Iowa State, he stood by and watched them literally throw the game away. A timeout to calm them down and just inbound the ball correctly would have led to a win. A timeout to set up a play to get a shot somewhere inside of 25 feet might have improved their chances.
This has been a very consistent pattern for Fran. He lets his players try to make a play in the flow of the game and hea doesn't want to let the defense have a chance to get set. But it’s not as if timeouts haven’t worked for the Hawks, either. McCaffery smartly used one to set up a big play in the one close win of the year (against Florida State). He set up a clever inbounds play, which we have seen plenty of times during his tenure at Iowa. But how many times have we seen Iowa look discombobulated in the final minute of the game? There have been too many turnovers, too much uncertainty with the ball. You have to at least give yourself a shot and using timeouts seems like a better way to give yourself a better opportunity.
The Fragile Shooter
Still, despite the lack of setting up plays at the end of the game, Iowa has had its share of decent looks at the end of games. There was a crazy streak of missed shots a few years back and while that's ended, Iowa still isn't making a lot of end-of-game shots. It's still concerning how often those game-winners clank off the rim. The Gazette's Scott Dochterman broke down the grim numbers in an article last week:
But the late-game numbers the last three years indicate Iowa's players struggle in the clutch. In those situations, Iowa is just 2 of 11 from the field with three turnovers and another situation that failed to net a shot.
It’s not like Iowa doesn’t have capable shooters. They have options at least as capable as the vast majority of Division I teams. Yet when it comes down to making one play, too often Iowa’s opponents are able to make it, while Iowa is not.
I suppose it could be something you are born with or aren’t. Some people are just clutch. It would be some consolation if that explained it all. Maybe there is someone in the group of younger guys that will have this ability ingrained in them. But I don’t think it’s out of the question that lack of clutchness is partially a reflection of the coach. Are the players soft because they are scared of the wrath? Is there a little thought embedded in the back of their heads that wonders if they will get yelled at if they miss? Would they make more shots if Fran called a timeout to set up a play that might put them in a better position to make a winning shot?
We’ve spent plenty of time ridiculing the Paul Rhoads and Bo Pelinis of the world, coaches that can’t keep their cool or a consistent temperament, which shows up in the game as the players play with the same inconsistency. Just like you never know when the Wrath of Fran is going to rear its bright red face, you never know which Iowa team is going to show up from half to half. And this is not new. We wrote about it years ago.
It's helped cost the Hawkeyes games as well. In the Wisconsin game a couple years ago Fran wrathed a little too hard and got back-to-back technical fouls. Wisconsin made all four ensuing free throws. The final margin of that game? Wisconsin by 4. There have been other times when his technical fouls have come at terrible times and those free points, when Iowa plays in so many close games, have been very, very costly.
And the wrath isn’t always directed at the refs. Iowa players certainly aren’t immune from being yelled at during games. It happens enough that, as mentioned above, it may help partially explain the lack of confidence from players at the end of games.
The Prevent Offense
I liken Fran's motion offense to an up-tempo, no-huddle spread in football. It's predicated on transitioning fast, getting players spread out, passing the ball around quickly, and, as the name implies, using motion by players off the ball to create open shots. The problem is that in crunch time, that all stops. The offense becomes the point guard dribbling the ball around while everyone else just stands there. No motion. And thus, no offense. It's like an up-tempo, no-huddle team deciding to huddle in the fourth quarter and run out of the I-formation. It doesn't work.
I think of the 2012 Pitt game in football, aka James Vandenberg's coming out party. Todd Graham had his "high-octane offense" and it was effective. They had Iowa on the ropes and then they put on the breaks and tried to run out the clock. The Hawkeyes of course flipped the script, went no-huddle themselves and managed a huge comeback (and planted a no-huddle seed in Kirk Ferentz's head that plagued him until he ditched it this year). Fran McCaffery is Todd Graham and he needs to stick with what's working on offense.
If Fran wants to figure it out, he doesn’t need to look very far. Kirk Ferentz has built a legacy on close games. Ferentz has had more than his fair share of close games. It's a little easier to come up with a close game metric in football -- a 1-possession game. Ferentz is slightly below .500 overall in those games, but has found a way to string together a bunch of close wins in bunches and turn what would be good seasons into great seasons.
It looks like Iowa basketball is primed for another good season. They're 7-3 with no bad losses and all of the losses happening on the road or neutral floors, against high-quality opponents. They have shown already they can play with anyone in the country. But if they want to put together a great season, they're going to need to figure out how to win more close games.