BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Questions are circling the Iowa men’s basketball program like sharks swimming around a sinking ship.
Where is the toughness? What’s wrong with the defense? Why all the turnovers? How does the team return to its winning ways? All of the questions are legitimate, especially in the wake of Iowa’s third straight loss, a 93-86 setback at Indiana. But before media and fans ask those questions, those inside the program are asking themselves similar questions.
That starts with head coach Fran McCaffery.
“Maybe, I need to back off a little bit,” McCaffery said. “Because I’ve been trying to be real intense these last couple of games, and there’s a fine line between intensity that’s helpful and intensity that may not be as productive as I’d like it to be. I need to try to look at and evaluate that.”
Iowa’s defeat at Indiana was a near carbon copy of its 95-89 loss at Minnesota on Tuesday. Both times the Hawkeyes (19-9, 8-7 Big Ten) faced a struggling opponent itching to play at a faster pace but couldn’t either get key stops on defense, or turned over the ball to slip further behind.
Minnesota crushed the Hawkeyes from the perimeter, knocking down 9 of 11 3-point attempts to score 51 points by halftime. Indiana put up 49 in the first half by breaking down Iowa in transition. Neither game did Iowa’s defense mount any resistance despite scoring 47 and 52 points, respectively, themselves.
“I think against Minnesota, that was a little worse,” Iowa guard Devyn Marble said. “Indiana is just as fast as us at getting the ball in and pushing it. We didn’t play the defense we needed to, but at the same time they were going to score points. There’s only so much you’re going to be able to do.”
Both games featured second-half stretches where Iowa seemingly was in control, only to let it slip away in a fog of turnovers, quick shots or poor execution on offense. After cutting the deficit to two at Minnesota, the Hawkeyes scored just one point over an eight-possession stretch to fall behind by 13. As they mounted a comeback, Iowa’s Gabe Olaseni twice was nailed for moving screens.
At Indiana, Iowa led 60-53 four minutes into the second half. The Hawkeyes then turned the ball over three times and were called for charging, which allowed the Hoosiers to score nine unanswered points. The most painful sequence was when Olaseni missed inside, and Indiana’s Will Sheehey quickly followed with a 3-pointer to electrify the crowd and cut the Iowa lead to two points.
“We had that one stretch, we had it right at the rim and they scored on it,” McCaffery said. “We could have gone up nine; instead it was five. Those kinds of plays seemed to keep happening to us.
“I think when we scored quickly early in the second half, that’s why we kept quick shooting the ball. When the other team’s on a run, you don’t want to quick-shoot the ball on the road.”
All the questions Iowa thought it answered with road wins at Ohio State and Illinois or a home dismantling of league leader Michigan now have reappeared, starting with the defense. Iowa has allowed its last three opponents to shoot at least 53 percent in the first half. The Hawkeyes seem a step slow in rotations, unable to limit penetration and don’t apply their usual intensity.
“We need more energy and we need more focus and concentration and get back to what we were doing that made us a top-10, top-15 team, really locking guys up, taking pride in our defense,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “That’s slipped here in the past week or two.”
“We didn’t sprint back at the level that was necessary to stop this team (Indiana),” McCaffery said. “We were getting back, but we weren’t getting back and getting it put back together. We were back, but it wasn’t put together.”
What about the offense? Iowa committed 18 turnovers, leading to 18 Indiana points. Several times an Iowa player tried to bull through the lane like a fullback for a basket or a foul call. More often it led to turnovers.
In an uptempo game, points come and go. But the second-half lapses stunt an offense’s rhythm.
“Obviously one of the key points in this game was limit turnovers and a little too much of guys trying to make a play on their own rather than trusting the offense, trusting one another,” White said. “Not placing the blame; I’m guilty of that as well. Got to pick my spots better as well as other guys and trust one another.”
“A lot of the turnovers came at the time when we had the advantage, about to get a layup or at least an open shot,” Marble said. “We had too many turnovers in that situation.”
The most important question for this reeling team: Is it tough enough? Iowa is 1-7 in league games decided by single digits, 5-15 over the last two years. The Hawkeyes squandered an 11-point advantage at Minnesota, an 11-point lead at Wisconsin, a 15-point lead to Villanova and a 10-point lead at Iowa State. All of those losses featured unique but equally painful ways of wilting under pressure.
“It’s a little overused, but I think it’s a little relevant here,” Iowa guard Mike Gesell said of lacking mental toughness. “I think we’re just not trusting each other right now. I feel like on defense where we’re not rotating as well, we’re not getting up and pressuring guys and getting steals for run-outs like we were early in the season, and I don’t think we’re talking enough on defense. That’s one of the biggest things.”
“Obviously we’ve got to get our defense corrected and play tougher,” Marble said. “I think at times we played soft. I think until as a team we change our mental aspect in how we come into the game mentally and how we play guys and sticking to the game plan, we’re going to struggle.”
There are three games left in the regular season. The sharks continue to swim, and only the players have the harpoons. The question is, do they know how to use them?