By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two games hardly signify a trend, but there is reason to think that the Iowa men’s basketball team is making strides on defense based on its last two games.
Iowa held Penn State to just 33.3 percent shooting from the field during this past Saturday’s 68-51 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and that came three days after Rutgers shot just 31.0 percent from the field against the Hawkeyes.
And though Rutgers edged Iowa 48-46 in Piscataway, New Jersey, it was to no fault of Iowa’s defense.
In each of the past two games, Iowa has played with a toughness and a tenacity on defense that sometimes has been missing on that end of the floor.
Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry was so impressed that he praised Iowa for its toughness during his post-game press conference.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Micah. He’s really good in so many different ways, so I really appreciate that,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “But I think it’s a real compliment to the players. We had a tough road game, and it didn’t go the way we had hoped, and get home at 3:00 a.m., play an afternoon game on Saturday against a team that is really going to challenge you with their physicality, with their ball movement, with their cuts, with their talent and execution, so the fact that we were able to put together an effort like this I think says a lot about the guys in that locker room.”
Iowa could’ve been vulnerable for a letdown against Penn State after suffering such a tough loss at Rutgers that was decided by a controversial foul call against Keegan Murray with 1.9 seconds left to play.
Murray was called for a touch foul against Rutgers forward Ron Harper Jr., who then made two free throws that ultimately proved to be the difference.
It was a crushing defeat that could’ve lingered and turned into another loss, but the Iowa players kept that from happening, and did so, largely by playing with a level of intensity and purpose on defense that sometimes has been missing in key games.
Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring and is known for playing at a frenetic pace under Fran McCaffery, who also gives his players a lot of freedom to shoot.
Defense is where Iowa mostly has struggled under Fran McCaffery, including at times this season.
But in the last two games, Iowa played with a sense of urgency on defense and didn’t let what was, or wasn’t happening, on offense effect that end of the floor.
Iowa has had a tendency in games in which it struggles on offense to let that hinder its performance on defense.
However, that didn’t happen against Rutgers and that is reason to be encouraged as Iowa prepares to face Purdue on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It seems as if this Iowa team is starting to take on the personality of its starting point guard Joe Toussaint whose game is built largely around toughness and quickness.
Toussaint’s ability to pressure the ball at the point of attack, and his competitiveness both help to set the tone on defense.
His teammates see how hard that Toussaint plays defense and are inspired to match his effort.
Keegan Murray gets most of his attention and praise for what he accomplishes on offense, but he is also a versatile defender, as is his twin brother, Kris Murray.
Sophomore shooting guard Tony Perkins and sophomore point guard Ahron Ulis also have excelled on defense, while sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery is developing into a disruptive force on the front of Iowa’s zone press.
Iowa doesn’t have a true post player in its rotation, so there are times when a lack of size causes problems on defense.
That is especially true against Purdue, whose starting center is 7-4 sophomore Zach Edey.
But there are ways to compensate on defense for a lack of size and its starts with being focused and connected on the court.
Again, it’s only been the last two games in which the defense has shined, and it came against two opponents that sometimes struggle to make shots.
But for Iowa to have only allowed a combined 99 points in the last two games is a step forward regardless of the competition.
It’s a sign that this team is committed to playing solid defense, even when shots aren’t falling on the offensive end.
A lot goes into playing top-notch defense, but there are two things that should always be present on that end of the floor and Fran McCaffery mentioned them both when addressing his team’s defense after the game Penn State game.
“They had really impressive effort and communication,” Fran McCaffery said.