IOWA CITY — Iowa coach Fran McCaffery believed before this season — and still believes now — that if Iowa could improve defensively, the Hawkeyes could develop from a competitive pain-in-the-behind program to a Big Ten contender.
Last year the Hawkeyes were 18-17, gave up a Big Ten high in points per game and twice allowed at least 103 points. Part of the problem was a lack of the depth; part of it was attention to detail. With renewed focus, Iowa sought to prove it could defend and one game in particular this season showed the team’s year-over-year strides.
Last year, Northern Iowa dictated the game’s tempo in an 80-60 win against Iowa. Northern Iowa’s guards often broke down the defense and found players open on the perimeter or under the basket. The result was either a 3-pointer — UNI hit 11 — or a foul. The Panthers sank 26 more free throws than the Hawkeyes in the blowout.
Earlier this month in an 80-73 Iowa win, the Hawkeyes controlled the game by defending at the point and along the 3-point arc. UNI scored late driving to the basket when Iowa chose to avoid fouls and limit 3-point attempts. The win symbolized a change in mindset among the players.
“We’ve showed a tremendous amount of maturity because we had to do it about both ends,” McCaffery said. “We made tremendous strides as a defensive team.”
Iowa (11-2) has had one defensive hiccup this year in a 95-79 loss at Virginia Tech. The Hokies ran roughshod over the Hawkeyes in transition, which provides a blueprint of sorts as Iowa opens Big Ten play on Monday against No. 5 Indiana.
The Hoosiers average 89.1 points a game and lead the Big Ten in rebounding margin, assists, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Iowa sophomore Aaron White said there are many keys to slowing Indiana’s offense, many of which start when Iowa has the ball.
“We had a little slip-up there in the Wichita State game and the Virginia Tech game, and the slip-ups were because of our defensive intensity or lack thereof,” White said. “We were taking bad shots and they were getting easy buckets — in the Virginia Tech game specifically — and if you look at a team like our next opponent, Indiana, they’re a lot like Virginia Tech. They’re explosive on offense, and they’re going to take your turnovers and bad shots and execute them into points. They’re the best transition team in the country.”
Five Indiana players score more than 11 points a game, including sixth man Will Sheehey. The Hoosiers feature multiple offensive weapons, from point guard Yogi Ferrell to slasher Victor Oladipo and outside shooter Jordan Hulls to preseason All-American center Cody Zeller.
“They’re quick with Oladipo and Ferrell and Sheehey,” White said. “Plus Cody Zeller might be the best ... he runs well for his size.
“Defensively I think we’ve really improved, taking what the coaches give us game in and game out and really executing on the floor.
”Iowa statistically is much better defensively from a year go. The Hawkeyes allow 61.2 points a game, down nine points from last year entering Big Ten play. Iowa’s non-conference opponents hit 44.7 percent of their shots last year, while now they sink 36.7 percent.
It’s defense that will determine Iowa’s place in a stacked Big Ten.
“If we have any chance to be really good, if we have any chance to be the championship hunt, or go to the NCAA tournament, we’ve got to defend,” McCaffery said. “We couldn’t defend the way we did last year. I think it’s clear that we’ve made great strides in that area.”