By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Members of the Iowa men’s basketball team held a players-only meeting after Saturday’s 98-89 loss to Omaha at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Senior guard Peter Jok didn’t seem pleased that word about the meeting had leaked to the media.
“That’s for only us,” Jok said when asked what was discussed in the meeting. “Whatever is said in the locker room, stays in the locker room.”
Freshman forward Cordell Pemsl apparently didn’t get those instructions from his senior teammate because Pemsl volunteered the information about the players-only meeting.
“The coaches went and talked first and then we talked as a team and just wanted to figure out what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it,” Pemsl said. “But it seems to be every game it’s the same thing.
“We’re giving up easy lay-ups. We’re giving up offensive rebounds. Teams are getting as many offensive rebounds as we’re getting defensively. I think it’s a mindset now at this point. We’ve all been playing basketball since we were six and seven years old. Everyone knows how to play defense. It’s just whether or not we want to or not.”
Defense almost seems like an afterthought to the current Iowa team, or an annoyance. Combine that with Iowa's preference to play at a fast pace and you have a recipe for dissaster on defense.
In addition to being Iowa’s fourth loss in a row, Saturday’s game also marked the fourth time this season that Iowa has allowed at least 90 points.
It would be one thing if it were Indiana or Michigan State shredding Iowa’s defense. But Saturday’s opponent was Omaha, barely five years removed from competing at the Division II level.
Omaha entered Saturday’s game with the same record as Iowa at 3-4, but the Mavericks looked like the better team on both ends of the floor.
They had more rebounds, more assists and fewer turnovers than Iowa.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery didn’t mince words when asked what he thought of his team’s activity and effort on defense.
“Not good enough,” McCaffery said. “It was not good enough. I mean, they scored 98. It's not good enough.”
Iowa’s defensive effort has been lacking since the season started. And as Saturday’s game so painfully demonstrated, there is no easy or quick fix.
“I’ve had experience before with issues,” McCaffery said. “I've never had one with consistently the same problem and seemingly no effected change, and that's what's been frustrating because we haven't defended. We've played essentially 10 games if you count the scrimmage and the exhibition game. We haven't defended in any of them. We have outscored people in four or five of them, but we haven't really competed defensively like you're going to need to with the caliber of teams on your schedule. So that has to change.
"So how you do that? Well, you change your practice structure. You change personnel. You reward the guys that are playing with the kind of effort that you're both referring to. If you don't run back, you're coming out. That happened today. Put a guy in, he didn't run back, they tipped one in, you're out. I don't need any attitude.”
The situation on defense is similar to a few seasons ago when Iowa struggled to make perimeter shots. The players back then supposedly shot well from the perimeter in practice. At least, that’s what we were told, but rarely did it carry over to the games.
The same thing is now happening on defense.
At this rate, Jok might lead the nation in scoring for a team that struggles to win 10 games. Jok scored 33 points on Saturday, making all 12 of his free throws. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough for Iowa to avoid the upset.
Omaha entered Saturday’s game with a 0-11 record against Big Ten opponents.
“We’ve got to stay together and stay positive and we’ve got to make a change because once Big Ten starts we’re playing the best teams in the country,” Jok said. “I can do as much as I can. But at the end of day, each guy has got to change.”
It certainly doesn't help that Iowa is playing without two key frontline players with forwards Tyler Cook and Dale Jones both sidelined with hand injuries. But Iowa struggled on defense, even with the 6-foot-9, 253-pound Cook in the lineup.
Fans should hope that the Iowa players communicated better during their post-game meeting on Saturday than they did during the game.
It might seem premature to call Monday’s game against Stetson a must win, but that’s exactly what it is at this stage.
With a 3-5 record, Iowa’s margin for error is shrinking fast with regard to conference play.
Instead of worrying about whether Iowa will make the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive season, fans should be more concerned about whether the team can avoid having a losing record.
Iowa hasn’t had a losing record since finishing 11-20 in McCaffery’s first season as head coach in 2010-11.
But with nonconference games against Iowa State and Northern Iowa still remaining, Iowa is at risk of entering Big Ten play at below .500.
This season figured to be tough at times with Jok as the only returning starter from last season.
But now it’s showing signs of being a rebuilding season and that won’t change unless something changes in a hurry on defense.
“It’s hard right now, but it’s a roller coaster,” Jok said. “I told them it was going to be up and down. We’ve just got to stay positive.
“It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.”
There were a few bright spots for Iowa on Saturday, including freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon making six 3-point shots. The former Linn-Mar star has combined to make 13 3-point baskets in the last two games.
And yet, Iowa still lost both games.
“You saw spurts, it’s there,” Bohannon said. “We just need to put forty minutes together. And that comes with energy and communication. That’s the main thing we need to start preaching.
“We trust each other. We have real good chemistry. It’s just forty minutes trying to put together.”
Talking about playing good defense is one thing. Doing it is another.
The challenge for Iowa is to turn words into action.