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Can Iowa’s High-Flying Offense Overcome Its Porous Defense?

On offense, the Iowa men’s basketball team sure looks like a national title contender. Entering Tuesday’s games, the Hawkeyes led Division I teams in adjusted offensive efficiency on Ken Pomeroy’s site. They own four of the top 35 offensive single-game performances of the season, adjusted for opponent quality. They rank fourth in the country in 3-point shooting percentage at 40.3 percent, and have the third-lowest turnover percentage. They have hit double-digit 3-pointers 16 times in 23 games, peaking with 17 triples in a 93-point outburst against North Carolina on Dec. 8. Their star post player, Luka Garza, is the prohibitive favorite for both national player of the year awards.

What’s Iowa’s problem, then? This team is elite at exactly one end of the floor. The Hawkeyes pair high-powered offense with porous defense — as of Tuesday, they ranked just 75th in adjusted defensive efficiency. (That’s actually an improvement, from 107th on Feb. 17 and 122nd on Feb. 10.) And that could spell their doom come tournament time.

Since the 2001-02 season,1 only five teams have entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency and 75th or worse in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2012, Missouri had the No. 1 offense and the No. 80 defense — not far from where Iowa currently sits. The Tigers earned a No. 2 seed but were upset in the first round by Norfolk State, adding to their impressive tally of losses from different seed lines. In 2005, Wake Forest was also a No. 2 seed, with the top-ranked offense and a defense ranked 90th; the Demon Deacons lost in the second round to West Virginia in double overtime. Creighton, in 2014, was No. 101 on defense and had a chance to make a run as a No. 3 seed, but the Blue Jays exited in the Round of 32 against Baylor. California in 2010 (No. 1 offense, No. 88 defense) was a No. 8 seed and fell in the second round to top-seeded Duke. Oklahoma State in 2017 (No. 1 offense, No. 134 defense) earned a No. 10 seed in the Big Dance and lost a shootout to Michigan in the first round.2

In all, from 2002 to 2019, 25 teams went into the NCAA Tournament ranked in the top five in adjusted offense and worse than 75th in adjusted defense.3 Though the list includes three No. 2 seeds, seven No. 3 seeds and six No. 4 seeds, only one of the 25 teams — Marquette in 2003 — reached the Final Four. Fifteen of the 25 failed to reach the tournament’s second weekend.

Those NCAA Tournament woes aren’t limited to middling overall teams, either: Both the 2012 Missouri team and the 2005 Wake Forest squad entered the tournament among the top five teams in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margins, despite their defensive shortcomings. Both were upset.

The seeding is important to note. As one of the top teams in the Big Ten, Iowa is projected to land a No. 2 seed, which would give the Hawkeyes a better outlook than, for example, the California team that ran into Duke in the second round. But similar teams — top-five offense, mediocre defense — have run into trouble from all seed lines.4

Less-than-stellar defense has afflicted previous Iowa teams, too, just as it threatens to torpedo this season. The Hawkeyes have ranked better on offense than on defense, according to Pomeroy’s metrics, in each of the past eight seasons. In 2013-14, they started 19-6 (8-4 in the Big Ten) and ranked No. 15 in the AP poll before they lost five of their last six regular-season games, plus the Big Ten Tournament opener to Northwestern and the NCAA Tournament opener to No. 10 seed Tennessee. The Hawkeyes’ raw defensive rating was no better than 112.0 in any of those last seven losses;5 they finished 77th in adjusted defensive efficiency, failing to capitalize on the nation’s fifth-most efficient offense.

Three years later, Iowa appeared to be in good shape for a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance after finishing a grueling Big Ten schedule with a 10-8 record. But, in their first Big Ten Tournament game, the Hawkeyes gave up 95 points in a loss to Indiana, with a defensive rating of 125.2. They ended up being one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament and headed to the NIT, where they fell in the second round by allowing 94 points in an overtime loss to TCU.

If defense is Iowa’s downfall again this season, the ultimate what-if question will involve Garza. Since 1992, only one other Big Ten player has finished a season averaging more than 24 points and eight rebounds per game — Purdue’s Glenn Robinson did it twice — and Garza is on track to be the second. Last week, he broke Iowa’s career scoring record. But even Garza hasn’t always been able to offset his team’s defensive struggles. He’s averaging 23.8 points in Iowa’s six losses, including an overtime defeat against Minnesota in which he scored 32 with 17 rebounds. But the Hawkeyes gave up 17 3-pointers and lost, 102-95.

On that December night against Minnesota, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery called his defense “unacceptable.” The team has improved since then, but we won’t know until next month just how much it’s holding back the Hawkeyes.

Footnotes

  1. The first for which we have KenPom efficiency data. We are excluding the 2019-20 season, since the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  2. A sixth team, Georgia in 2003, finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in adjusted offense and No. 119 in adjusted defense but skipped the NCAA Tournament as a self-imposed penalty for rules violations.

  3. Aside from the 2002-03 Georgia team, just one other team with that profile failed to make the tournament: Boston College in 2003.

  4. These cautionary tales also apply to Ohio State and Villanova. Entering Tuesday, the Buckeyes ranked third in adjusted offense and 86th in adjusted defense, and the Wildcats were fifth in adjusted offense and 79th in adjusted defense, putting them in the same category. Ohio State slipped below Iowa on defense after giving up 92 points in a loss to Michigan on Sunday.

  5. Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency measures the number of points a team would allow per 100 possessions; Iowa finished that season with only nine games at a defensive efficiency rating worse than 112.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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