By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery has a mess on his hands.
For the first time in eight seasons as the Iowa men’s basketball coach, his team has taken a significant step backwards and failed to meet expectations.
With records of 3-12 in the Big Ten and 12-16 overall, and with just three games remaining, Iowa is assured of finishing the regular season with a losing record for the first time since McCaffery’s first season in 2010-11.
The Hawkeyes have lost four games in a row and will try to stop the bleeding when they face Indiana at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
A season that started poorly with Iowa losing six of its first 10 games has only gotten worse for lots of reason and here are 10 of them:
You’ll notice a trend at the beginning of the list where the focus is on Iowa’s inability to defend. Shabby defense has ruined this season more than anything else.
1. Transition defense: There always seems to be at least one or two players from the opposing team that are left unaccounted for in transition.
There was a sequence in Wednesday’s 74-59 loss at Michigan, for example, in which Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dribbled up the court uncontested and then passed to a trailing Charles Matthews, who then took an open lane to the basket for a fast-break dunk.
Meanwhile, the Iowa defenders were caught standing flat-footed and failed to offer any resistance.
McCaffery likes to play at a faster pace, but that often leads to questionable and rushed shots, which then often leads to easy baskets in transition for the opponent.
Iowa has a lot of size on the frontline, but not much quickness in the backcourt. The Hawkeyes want to run and gun on offense, but they often pay a heavy price for it on defense.
Big Ten opponents were averging 84.4 points per game against Iowa heading into the Michigan loss.
2. Man-to-man defense: The Iowa players aren't exactly the most athletic bunch, especially on the perimeter, and that becomes painfully obvious while playing man-to-defense. The inability to stop point guard penetration has a domino effect that often leads to easy baskets in the paint for opponents.
3. Zone defense: There is a misconception that playing zone defense is easier than man-to-man because it comes down to each player only being responsible for a particular area. The Iowa players seem to believe that misconception because they have a tendency to relax while playing zone defense.
Or, so it seems.
4. Not enough perimeter shooters: Sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon already had less space to shoot when the season began without Peter Jok playing alongside him.
That space has shrunk even more, as Wednesday’s loss at Michigan showed, because there isn't another reliable 3-point shooter on the team.
Bohannon only took five shots and scored seven points against a suffocating Michigan defense that was clearly designed to stop him.
5. Lack of production at shooting guard: Heading into Wednesday’s game at Michigan, sophomore shooting guards Isaiah Moss and Maishe Dailey had combined to average 20 points per game in Iowa’s 12 victories, but just 12.7 points per game in the 15 losses. Enough said.
6. Lack of player development: Name a returning player from last season who is significantly better this season.
It’s hard to think of any.
Forwards Nicholas Baer, Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kriener have regressed, while Bohannon and sophomore forward Tyler Cook are performing at a level that is similar to last season on both offense and defense.
7. Best leader is a freshman: Luka Garza was the lone bright spot in Wednesday’s loss at Michigan, both from a performance and a leadership standpoint.
The 6-foot-11 freshman center scored 22 points and played with grit and emotion, while his teammates were listless and mostly ineffective.
The problem with Garza being the emotional leader is that he is just a freshmen and some of the veteran players might resent it or tune him out.
But in fairness to Garza, somebody has to assume a leadership role, and none of his older teammates seem very interested or capable of taking on that responsibility.
8. Christian William effect: The players were upset and devastated when Williams left the team abruptly in late October and the day before Iowa’s first exhibition game.
The timing was weird and made you wonder if something happened in the days leading up to the exhibition game that upset Williams enough to cause him to leave.
Williams already knew heading into the season that he almost certainly would be Bohannon’s backup at point guard again, and yet Williams still chose to return and stayed with the team through the first few weeks of practice.
9. First two Big Ten losses: Iowa was 0-2 in the Big Ten by Dec. 4 and never has recovered.
The Big Ten was forced to schedule two conference games in early December due to playing the conference tournament a week earlier than usual at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Big East Conference for more than three decades has held its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden and on the same week as the Big Ten Tournament.
The Big Ten wants to grow its exposure on the East Coast so it agreed to move its postseason tournament up a week in order to play at Madison Square Garden.
But instead of gaining early momentum, the Hawkeyes dug an early hole with back-to-losses to Penn State and Indiana.
10. Lack of quality depth: Just because a team uses a deep rotation doesn’t mean it has quality depth. McCaffery often uses 11 players because he says he wants to be fair and because he never knows which players will perform well on a given night.
The problem with using that many players is that it’s hard to develop cohesion and chemistry on the court because the lineup changes so frequently.