By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Defense, or the lack of it, was the hot topic during Fran McCaffery’s teleconference with the media on Tuesday.
A season that started with high expectations has unraveled to where Iowa is in a desperate struggle to stay out of last place in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday’s game at Michigan.
Iowa is 3-11 in the conference and 12-15 overall and has to win its last four games just to avoid finishing the regular season with a losing record for the first since McCaffery’s first season as the Iowa head coach.
This from a team that many felt was poised to make the NCAA Tournament after coming so close to making it last season with four freshmen starters.
When trying to figure where things have gone wrong, it helps to start on defense, and to stay there for a while.
No one thing has contributed more to Iowa’s disappointing season than shabby defense.
You name it and the Hawkeyes have struggled to do it; from help defense to transition defense to zone defense to man-to-man.
Sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon and sophomore forward Tyler Cook are Iowa’s top two scorers and arguably the two most important players on the team.
But they also both struggle on defense, as do all of their teammates.
Iowa’s defensive woes have been a group effort. A team doesn’t give up an average of nearly 85 points per game in the conference without everybody contributing to the misery.
There was no reason to think Iowa would be a great defensive team this season because it wasn’t a great defensive team last season.
Iowa hasn’t been good on defense since 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury controlled the lane two years ago, with help from guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons on the perimeter.
But nobody expected this level of dysfunction on defense.
“I thought we’d be better than we are now,” McCaffery said of playing defense. “I thought with our size and our length we’d be better than we are. And we’re continuing to work to the end to shore up some of our deficiencies in certain areas.
“We’re making progress at times. We certainly are in practice if it’s not evident in the games. I do think the guys are really trying to get better in the areas where we struggle.”
It is widely believed that playing sound defense mostly comes down to hustle and desire.
Effort is certainly a big part of it, maybe the biggest, but there is more to it than that.
And let’s face it, there have been times this season when Iowa’s effort on defense has been questionable, or worse than that.
The current team has many flaws, including the tendency to let what is happening on offense effect the defensive end of the floor.
Every team does that to an extent because basketball players are human. When shots aren’t falling on offense, the desire to play defense also starts to fall.
The challenge is to overcome that pattern of behavior and immaturity, or to at least limit the number of times it happens.
Iowa has failed miserably in that regard.
McCaffery’s current team has been susceptible to long scoring droughts in which the momentum and the lead often shifts to the opponent and never shifts back.
“I do think think there’s a tendency to maybe drop-off a little bit,” McCaffery said. “But when we get sideways, whether it be with an offense that is sputtering or live-ball turnovers, kit seems to have snow-balled. There have been a number of games where there’s a run, or two runs, in a game that really is only difference in the game. They go on a 14-4 run and you end up losing by 10 or 12. That’s what it is.
“So the thought process, obviously, is to really bare down at both ends, to execute offense the way we want to and make sure we get a good shot without turning the ball over because that always give you the opportunity to get your defense back and at least in position.”
McCaffery said Tuesday that defense is being emphasized more in practice.
It has been suggested that McCaffery doesn’t spend enough time coaching defense in practice, but that’s hard to say since Iowa’s practices are closed.
His players, more than anything, haven’t learned to stay focused and connected on defense, especially when the offense is struggling. How much of that is the players' fault and the coaches' fault is hard to say.
The playes and coaches both share a responsibility for Iowa's defensive woes.
Coaches often preach that defense never should suffer because so much of it is based on hustle and desire, whereas offense is more hit and miss and more about skill and execution.
“I think it’s fair because that’s how it should be,” McCaffery said. “But the reality of it makes it a lot harder than it sounds. And that’s true, not just with this team, but from experience over the years. When you’re cooking on offense, just your effort level and your enthusiasm and ability to stay connected is at its height.
“And when you’re spitting it up in the middle of the floor or your offense is sputtering or you’re shooting contested shots and losing rebounds and you’re always in transition and you’re four-on-five, and that’s really hard.”
Perimeter defense will be a key against Michigan, which made 11 3-point baskets during a 75-68 victory over Iowa on Jan. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Michigan made 62 percent of its field goal attempts in the first half (18-of-29), including making eight triples in the first half.
Iowa is last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (78.5) and next to last in 3-point field-goal defense.
It seems with this Iowa team that the best way for it to perform well on defense, or at least hold its own on defense, is for it to perform well on offense.
That's a bad habit that has played a big part in ruining the season.
Iowa vs. Michigan
When: 5:30 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV: Big Ten Network
All-time series: Michigan holds a 92-63 advantage in the series that began with a 19-15 Wolverine win in 1912. The Wolverines have won 12 of the last 19, but the Hawkeyes have won five of the last six. Michigan won this season's first meeting, 75-68, in Iowa City on Jan. 2, 2018.
The Wolverines hold a 51-24 advantage in games played in Ann Arbor. Iowa has beaten Michigan in its last two visits to Ann Arbor, including a 71-61 triumph on March 5, 2016. Iowa's 72-54 victory in Ann Arbor in 2015, was Iowa's largest margin of victory at Michigan in 61 years.