The Iowa men's basketball team has earned its reputation on defense, and there is just one way to fix it

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Fran McCaffery makes his point during a timeout. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Word spread quickly on Twitter that incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp had dunked over Tyler Cook in Iowa's first open gym this summer.

Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon told the media on Thursday about Wieskamp’s eye-opening dunk over his taller teammate and it drew all sorts of reaction from fans.

One comment stood out, though, because it was funny, snarky and cynical. But it also had an underlining message that will follow the Iowa men’s basketball team into the season.

Sounds like the defense is in mid-season form! Go Hawks,” somebody posted on Twitter after learning that Wieskamp had dunked over Cook.

The post ended with an eye-wink emoji to show that whoever made the post was partly joking, but there also was some truth and seriousness to it.

Given how woefully Iowa performed on defense last season, it makes sense that somebody on Twitter might focus more on the dunk being allowed than on the dunk itself.

There is plenty of hype surrounding the 6-foot-6 Wieskamp as he makes the transition from high school to college.

He was a prolific scorer for Muscatine High School, the all-time leader in Class 4A in Iowa with over 2,000, points, and will be expected to contribute immediately.

But scoring is only half of the challenge in basketball, and as we saw last season, Iowa struggled big time with the other half of the challenge.

Iowa averaged nearly 80 points per game last season, and yet still finished 14-19 overall and just 4-14 in the Big Ten.

Scoring wasn’t the problem for the Hawkeyes last season, and it shouldn’t be a problem next season, either, not with players like Cook, Bohannon, Wieskamp and sophomore center Luka Garza taking many of the shots.

Iowa has some tantalizing individual pieces, but none of them have shown much on defense from an individual standpoint or from a team standpoint.

Since his freshman year of high school, Wieskamp has been praised for his immense talent as a basketball player, but I can’t recall reading or hearing anything about his defense.

It was the same with Cook and Bohannon and for every member of the iowa team when they came to college.

None of the current Iowa players earned their scholarship or their accolades in high school based on how they performed on defense.

“When you come out of high school, I’ve been telling the freshmen, they’re always used to getting the ball on offense and going and not really worrying much on defense,” Bohannon said. “But when you have a fast-paced team like us, you’ve got to realize that I know we’re going to score a lot of points, but we always say it’s just going to come down to defense and getting more stops than they do.”

Defense is being emphasized more this summer to a degree according to the players, but it isn’t a case where every workout or practice is a non-stop defensive grind with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery imploring the players to work harder.

And it’s not a case in which McCaffery has abandoned what he teaches on defense for something totally different.

“It’s not really that much of an increase defense-wise,” Bohannon said. “I think we’re just putting a little more emphasis on it, I guess. We’re breaking down little details. But honestly, it’s the same drills we’re doing, kind of. But we’re just breaking it down even more, which I think is important because I don’t think there is anything wrong with the stuff that we were doing.

“I think that there are just little details that we need to fix. And I think we’re doing a good job of getting down to the nitty gritty of it and just deciding what things we need to change for this upcoming season.”

Iowa certainly has enough talent, size and versatility to be a threat, but it’s hard to give Bohannon and his cohorts more credit than that due to their many concerns on defense.

Junior forward Cordell Pemsl provides some hope just from his appearance alone. He has trimmed 30 pounds since his freshman year, and his main reason for doing so is to be more versatile on defense.

“I really wanted to be able to guard more than just a center,” Pemsl said Thursday when explaining his weight loss.

Fran McCaffery talked about fixing the problems on defense during an interview with KCJJ radio in April, but he focused more on mindset than strategy.

McCaffery said the players have to really lock in and invest in each other on defense. He also talked about building trust and knowing where to be on the court at the right time and knowing when to help on defense and when not to help.

Because you name it and Iowa struggled to do it on defense last season.

It didn’t matter if the Hawkeyes played man-to-man or zone or tried to apply pressure, opponents mostly found little resistance.

Not much will be expected from Iowa this coming season, and understandably so, considering the circumstances on defense.

Bohannon is one of the top 3-point shooters in college basketball, the 6-9 Cook is a force as a low-post scorer and the 6-11 Garza is an emerging star in the post.

But until Iowa shows that it can at least hold its own on defense, the strengths on offense will be overshadowed.

 “I wouldn’t really say it’s a different feeling,” Bohannon said. “We all have the same mindset that we did last around this time that we thought we could accomplish something special this upcoming season, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with having the same mindset.

“But I think you can to a degree it feels a little bit different because we know thathere is going to be less expected from us this year with the season we had last year. But I know that we’re working constantly getting in the gym by ourselves as well and we’re continuing to improve every single day. So from the season we had last year and to be able to do that this offseason, I think that says a lot about us.”

How they perform on defense next season will say even more about the Iowa players.