Iowa MBB: Taking A Step Back, But Looking Forward
Now one year removed from putting the college basketball world on notice, Luka Garza and the Iowa Hawkeyes have hit a bump in the road. Or rather, they hit a giant pothole, got a flat tire and had to call AAA to tow them away. In their last six games, the Hawkeyes are two-and-four and have given up an average of 76.8 points per game.
It’s hard to pinpoint just exactly what has gone wrong for the Hawkeyes during this current skid. It could be going without sophomore guard CJ Fredrick, or shooting a mere 42.7 percent as a team (five percentage points lower than their season average), or Garza averaging 21.7 (four points lower than his average), or as I mentioned earlier, their horrid defense.
While likely a culmination of all of the above, I'll go with the latter as the greatest contributing factor. For the past few years, the Hawkeyes have become notorious for their effort on the defensive end and they'll be the first ones to tell you that.
“As a team, we gotta do a better job of communicating. We can’t have two guys on one at any point; I think that's what killed us. We were just a day late and a dollar short on a lot of things, a lot of zone rotates, all of that. It was definitely upsetting,” said Garza after their first loss against Indiana on January 21. "If we defend and rebound, we can beat anyone in the country."
For just how great they are on the offensive end, they are equally as bad on the defensive end. And to no one's surprise, there seems to be a direct correlation between how many points they’ve given up and how many games they've lost. In five of the six losses they’ve suffered, the Hawkeyes have given up more than 80 points.
Grazing over to the win column, you’ll even notice that in seven of their victories, they allowed 70 points. In most of these games, they have been able to get away with poor defensive play due to their extreme firepower and the luxury of having one of the best players in the nation with Garza. The question shouldn't be how many points can you score, but rather: how many points can you score AND how many points can you limit the other team to. As of now, Iowa has no interest in the second part of that equation.
This stretch of games has presented just how important defense is for teams that go through cold streaks shooting the ball. There needs to be an equilibrium of offense and defense for moments when you just cannot seem to get anything to fall. Scoring at will is never a bad thing, but it's also never a certainty.
Not to be cliche, but the phrase "defense wins championships" is especially true for these Hawkeyes. Their national championship aspirations will be short-lived if they don't get this issue solved in the final games of the regular season. As Garza mentioned, the Hawkeyes' offensive ability is able to carry them far, but if they are able to anchor down defensively, their vision of cutting down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium can become reality.
Don't get me wrong: the chances of a national championship are extremely far-fetched. It would take a LOT, but I'm not ready to rule it out of the picture just yet.
And hey, there were some positives that came out of this disgusting six-game sequence, such as guard Joe Wieskamp becoming the player that we all knew he could be. The potential was there—everyone could see it—but it was just a matter of when Wieskamp himself would realize it. Despite Iowa's poor performance the past six games, Wieskamp has shined, averaging 16.8 points per game, shooting 51.4 percent from the floor and 55 percent from beyond the arc.
The breakout performance from Wieskamp will play an integral part in Iowa's success down the stretch. Taking the pressure off of Garza to be the entire offense will go a long way. It will open up others on the court and allow Iowa to be dynamic on the offensive end.
Another weird (but true) positive is getting hot at the right time. I like to think of a bad string of games similar to getting over a sickness such as the flu. It may knock you down for a short period of time, but before you know it, you're right back to feeling better, and in this case, winning basketball games. This could be the case for the Hawkeyes—suffering a string of games where they just aren't feeling like themselves.
The rest of the Hawkeyes' season presents a difficult challenge. Through their last six games of the season, Iowa will play against four ranked teams—two of which are ranked inside the top five. This will be an opportunity for them to prove they are who we thought they were: a perennial championship contender. If they are able to find success during this stretch of games and carry the momentum into the Big Ten tournament, they will set themselves up nicely to make a run during March Madness.
If there is ever a time to get hot, it’s now.