1. Don't overreact, but Saturday is biggest game of the year ... so far.
If nothing else this Big Ten season, Iowa's on-court performances carry the well-timed swings of a pendulum.
A win early against Nebraska, then a loss at Wisconsin. Three straight wins against Northwestern, Ohio State and Minnesota had the Hawkeyes in the top 10, analysts discussing Final Four and fans dreaming of the national title.
Then a loss at Michigan had people complaining about Iowa's mental toughness. A win at Northwestern brought promise, and a loss to Michigan State brought shame. A win at Illinois brought hope, and Tuesday's 76-69 loss to Ohio State brought pain.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Big Ten basketball, where Northwestern can win five of seven, Penn State can take three straight and Nebraska's only home loss was against Michigan. It's also the same league where Wisconsin can lose its last three at home, Ohio State drops four straight and Illinois bottoms out at eight losses in a row.
What's up is down and what's down is ... who the heck knows.
"(Ohio State) came into the season expecting to win a national championship," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "They were in the final eight last year, have a lot of people back. They have a lot of upperclassmen. We don't want to get carried away here. We lost to a real good team and didn't feel like we played our best. Give them credit for having a lot to do with that, and be ready to go."
Iowa has yet to lose to a bad basketball team this year. All six losses have come to top-15 RPI squads (3. Villanova, 6. Iowa State, 7. Michigan State, 12. Wisconsin, 14. Michigan, 15. Ohio State). None of the losses were by more than eight points and the average setback is 4.8 points.
But that's also the problem. Iowa is 1-6 against those squads. The Hawkeyes have shown resolve in a road win at Ohio State and victories against Minnesota, Xavier, Illinois, Notre Dame and twice pounding the daylights Northwestern. But the close losses are starting to pile up.
That's why this Saturday's game against Michigan is the most important thus far. The Hawkeyes lost by eight at Ann Arbor two weeks ago. They haven't lost two consecutive games yet this season. But the Hawkeyes have lost two straight at home. The fan base is edgy because the performance hasn't matched the ultra-high expectations. Perhaps that's an issue, too, for a program eight years from its last NCAA tournament appearance and 13 since its last NCAA win. But that doesn't matter now.
Beating Michigan isn't impossible, however. Iowa rolled Michigan by 16 points two years ago at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The teams' three previous games in Iowa City all were decided in overtime. Michigan lost its first Big Ten game on Sunday at Indiana, and the Wolverines are far from perfect.
"Obviously we lost to them up there,"† McCaffery said. "You know, last week we sat here not feeling good about how the game went (against Michigan State), and I felt like we needed to regroup and get the team ready to play on Saturday, and we did that. I thought our guys were really professional in their approach. I was very proud of them, told them that.
"You know, we played hard (against Ohio State). We didn't play well. We never really got in sync. We got behind. We weren't in sync defensively. We made more mistakes than we normally make. We just have to learn from it and get ready for Saturday. Obviously the No.†1 team in our league right now."
The Hawkeyes need this win to assure themselves that they are still among the Big Ten's upper echelon. With three defeats in its last five games, Iowa has drifted closer to the center than the Big Ten's top. The Hawkeyes (17-6, 6-4 Big Ten) are three losses behind Michigan and Michigan State in the regular-season race. Although Iowa plays both one more time, it's unrealistic to expect it to catch either for a title. It's a shame because this is the final year where you can crown a semi-true regular-season champion. (Next year when Rutgers and Maryland join the league, teams will play only five home-and-homes and eight single-plays)
Iowa's hopes for a Big Ten title are waning, but as long as the team advances to the NCAA tournament, the basketball season is defined by how a team plays in March, not February. Michigan lost seven times to Big Ten opponents last year (counting the league tournament) but rallied to win five straight in the NCAA tournament and advance to the championship game. Of course two players from that team were NBA draft picks and three more from the current squad (counting injured Mitch McGary) will be drafted as well. Iowa might have a few draft picks without any guarantees.
There's enough talent on this team to become a factor in the Big Ten race. But the league is so balanced that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. Perfection is impossible, but sharpness is necessary for the Hawkeyes to play near their expectations.
2. Defensive woes uncharacteristic but concerning
Iowa failed to generate stops on the defensive end, and it cost the Hawkeyes against Ohio State on Tuesday.
The Buckeyes (18-5, 5-5 Big Ten) scored 45 points after halftime, their highest output in a half in Big Ten play and the fourth-most against Iowa all season. Ohio State made 54.2 percent during the second half and were 16 of 20 from the free-throw line. Iowa appeared sluggish and almost lost on defense, which allowed many easy shots for the Buckeyes.
"I donít know if it was really a lack of energy," Marble said. "I just think sometimes we had some breakdowns, so many people probably collapsing on help and not guarding the ball the way we need to on the perimeter, and itís causing too much help recovering. Things like that, I think, led to their success."
Iowa (17-6, 6-4) routinely mixes defenses and altered zone with man-to-man Tuesday. It was effective against the Buckeyes in the teams' first meeting on Jan. 12 when Ohio State had 17 turnovers leading to 27 Iowa points. But Ohio State attacked Iowa more viciously on Tuesday, which led to more dribble-drives in the paint and more open shooters on the wing.
Ohio State connected on 7 of 16 3-point attempts and still scored 32 points in the paint. Ohio State guard Aaron Craft scored 17 points, dished six assists and snagged six steals, the leagueís first player with that stat line since Michigan Stateís Charlie Bell in 2001.
"We played a fair amount of zone in the second half just to try to slow them down," McCaffery said. "But in the zone they were really open, and we did not have the same effectiveness, I didn't think, in terms of slides and communication that we had up there, and even there we had some breakdowns.
"But I also think up there they were a little more tentative than they were (Tuesday). They weren't tentative at all against the zone. They were attacking it, they had guys raising up and shooting. They were running set plays. Even when they didn't score against the zone, they were shooting wide-open 3s. We weren't defending at all."
Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith wrecked Iowa's defense early in the second half. He knocked down a jumper on the first possession and followed with a 3-pointer on the next. Four trips later, he drilled another 3-pointer.
"Heís a very good player," Iowa guard Mike Gesell said. "He can put up points in a hurry, and you canít lose a guy like that. He knocked down some big shots."
3. 3-point game not gonna happen
Teams can't change what they are three months into a season without overhauling personnel. Iowa remains an inconsistent 3-point shooting squad at best and at worst are way below average.
The Hawkeyes shot a season-low 15 percent (3 of 20) from 3-point range against Ohio State. While the Buckeyes were terrific defensively, most of Iowa's attempts were good looks. Is that a cause for concern or a shoulder shrug? When you listen to the players and coaches, it's the latter.
"Most of them were good looks and by good shooters," Iowa's Aaron White said. "Zach (McCabe) is a good shooter, he didnít make them. Devís (Marble) a good shooter, Mikeís (Gesell) a good shooter. They just werenít falling. We just didnít execute on offense and when we did get open shots, they werenít falling."
"Some of them we probably should have passed up on, I think," Marble said. "A couple of them. Some of them were good looks that didnít go in. Twenty, on a night like this, is probably too many."
"I thought there were a couple that were a little deep, maybe a little rushed, but some of that comes with Ohio State is very quick and they close out hard and things of that nature," McCaffery said. " Maybe we could have shot-fake-and-drove a couple.† But we had good shooters shooting open 3s. I wasn't upset with any of them, no."
Even Ohio State Coach Thad Matta stuck up for Iowa.
"Iowa does not normally take 20 shots from 3," he said. "They are so good in the paint. They are so quick, and they have so many guys that can score down there. "
But here are the statistical facts, which have value after 24 games. Iowa ranks fourth overall in Big Ten 3-point shooting at 35.8 percent. That's a good number. But in Big Ten play alone (which, frankly, matters a heck of a lot more), Iowa is eighth at 32.8 percent. Iowa has made the fewest 3-pointers in league play (4.5 a game).
Perhaps even more concerning, Josh Oglesby (13-28, 46.4 percent) and Devyn Marble (11-36, 41.7 percent) rank third and 11th, respectively, in Big Ten 3-point shooting. The rest of the team combines to shoot just 23.8 percent (17-73). Both Gesell and McCabe have six 3-pointers each in league play, but are a combined 12 of 50. In Iowa's four Big Ten losses, the Hawkeyes have made 12 of 52 from 3-point range.
To ask for sizable improvements in 3-point shooting is a wish. Iowa can be slightly improved, but the statistics show Iowa is not a good 3-point shooting team. If Iowa is forced to rely on its perimeter game, rarely is it going to beat a good team.