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The Iowa Hawkeyes’ defense isn’t good but it doesn’t have to be

Much has been made of the Iowa Hawkeye defense this season. As of this writing, Iowa’s current points allowed per possession in conference is the worst among Big Ten teams, at 1.092. While it’s a decided improvement over where they finished last year – 1.187 – there is still concern about the state of the defense.

I’m here to tell you that it’s quite alright.

Through 24 games, Iowa has given up 1.135 points or fewer 20 times. There is no questioning that 1.135 points per possession is a bad number but Iowa is 19-1 in those games. In fact, this is the highest winning percentage of any Fran McCaffery-coached Hawkeye team yielding that many points or less:


Data from KenPom.com

Iowa has had better defenses under Fran through 24 games – 2013, 2014, & 2016 by this slicing of data – but none have been as consistently impressive as this Hawkeye team at keeping opponents at bay. The flipside of this is that conference opponents have outpaced their conference-only efficiency (often significantly) in 11 of Iowa’s 13 games, including all five losses.

However, Iowa requires just a semblance of really good defense to put some distance – or gain ground – on opponents. The last 5 minutes of the Northwestern game are a total outlier in terms of timing, but around that time, Iowa was down 57 to 72 through 60 possessions according to KenPom ($). At 1.2 points per possession, it’s a losing number. Iowa, however, was able to outscore them 23-7 in the final 10 possessions to finish the game allowing 1.129 PPP.

Iowa actually had plenty of stretches throughout the Northwestern game of more-than-adequate defense, they couldn’t buy a bucket offensively and stayed in the hole. The best example is the five-minute timeframe they stayed at 44 points while Northwestern stretched their lead from six to nine. Hardly the defense’s fault.

Part of the reason 1.135 feels ugly is that at 70 possessions per game – Iowa’s average through conference season – it multiplies to 79.5 points/game so it is ugly. Yet in wins, they’re allowing a much more palatable 1.009 PPP (~70.6 points per game).

Yet Iowa has scored 80+ points in five conference games. Their offensive efficiency has exceeded their opponents’ defensive efficiency in every game but one (Ohio State). This Iowa team can score. Their offensive efficiency is so good, they have overcome three blowout losses to have the fourth best conference-only net efficiency through 13 Big Ten games in McCaffery’s tenure. Due to some clutch play, they’ve translated it into an 8-5 record, tied for second best through 13 games since 2010-11.

Iowa’s Conference Net Efficiency under McCaffery

Year Record Big Ten Net Efficiency
Year Record Big Ten Net Efficiency
2010-11 3-10 -0.12
2011-12 5-8 -0.087
2012-13 6-7 0.018
2013-14 8-5 0.116
2014-15 7-6 0.032
2015-16 11-2 0.141
2016-17 6-7 -0.047
2017-18 3-10 -0.102
2018-19 8-5 0.019

Through 13 games

Data from KenPom.com

Part of what makes Iowa’s offense so good is the stress it puts on all areas of opponent defenses. The Hawkeyes currently have five players with multiple 20-point games. The 19 they have tallied is third in the conference behind Michigan State (23) and Purdue (21). Those teams, however, have offensive stalwarts – Cassius Winston (13), Nick Ward (9), and Carsen Edwards (18) – accumulating the points while Iowa’s scoring is more diverse.

Just how diverse? Only 9 schools have five or more players with multiple 20-point games. The fact that Iowa is the only team in KenPom’s top 10 of Adjusted Offense with this many 20+ scorers highlights the importance of the varied attack. Looking into Fran’s past highlights it even more.

Just once before has a McCaffery-led offense been in the top 10 of KenPom: 2014. While Aaron White and Devyn Marble tallied just 18 20-point games in that season, Gabe Olaseni and Melsahn Basabe led Iowa to a top-20 offensive rebounding rate, the best we’ve seen in Fran’s time here.

This is not to say Iowa has lacked scorers. Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok combined for 27 20-point games in 2015-16, the most of any duo in a season. Yet, they did not have enough on the margins (rebounding, free throws), night to night, to take the offense into the elite territory like we are seeing this year. They leaned much more heavily on defense and could not find ways to win when it faltered – they were just 1-8 when yielding 1.1 PPP or more vs. 3-4 this year.

Fran and company have shown an ability to attack matchups, look for the hot hand, and find the best shot. Changes in the roster have improved Iowa’s turnover percentage (~183rd to 52nd) and enabled a cleaner, marginally more patient offense (16.2 seconds/possession vs. 15.9 in 2018). The flip side is by limiting turnovers, especially steals, Iowa can set their defense more often.

Iowa’s defense is not going to finish well. It just isn’t. Even if they defend at the same rate as they have in each of their conference wins (1.009), the final PPP defense will end up around 1.063 PPP, somewhere between 10th-12th in the Big Ten ($).

But their offense, oh buddy, their offense. As it stands now, they’re third in conference-only efficiency and closer to first than fourth. In fact, Iowa’s offensive margin to fourth place is the same as their defensive margin (worst in the conference) to 7th place. So when Fran says he’s willing to give up some baskets to get more baskets, it’s with reason.

Though Iowa’s Net PPP is not predictive, the margin so close to zero insinuates they are above .500 a little more than expected (Northwestern game). It’ll be imperative Iowa continues to score at a high rate, especially as they have allowed teams like Northwestern to score .2 PPP higher than they have throughout the rest of conference play.

Only Maryland is in the top half of conference offense of teams remaining on Iowa’s schedule so the statistics suggest Iowa’s opponents are going to have a tough time keeping pace. As such, it’s important Iowa plays enough defense to enable their offense to carry them to victory.

Iowa cannot allow teams to score at will, something which has happened against Michigan State, Purdue, and Minnesota. In games where Iowa contains the opponent just enough, the Hawks have continually succeeded. If they continue to play just enough defense, this offense gives fans reason to believe bigger things could be in store in the coming weeks.

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