Iowa basketball: Areas for improvement

While this past Saturday’s 76-50 win at Northwestern may have provided the Iowa basketball team with a slight reprieve from a rugged Big Ten schedule, another gauntlet of opponents now awaits.

Over the course of the next 13 days the Hawkeyes have the pleasure of taking on a trio of ranked teams at home in no. 3 Michigan State, no. 17 Ohio State, and no. 21 Michigan. Luckily though, splitting up the aforementioned contests is a road trip to hated rival Illinois. (Wait a second, what’s really all that lucky about this?)

Anyhow, it goes without saying that Iowa (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) has its work cut out for it in the coming weeks if the goal is to make a real charge at the regular season conference title.

Despite some impressive performances so far this season there are numerous areas in which the 10th ranked Hawkeyes can improve going forward. A few of the coming criticisms have correlated directly with Iowa’s four losses, while others are necessary if coach Fran McCaffery’s team wants to ensure itself a favorable seed hopefully leading to a deep run in March.

1. Defending the 3-point line

Statistically speaking Iowa is one of the best teams in the country in 3-point field goal percentage defense. The Hawkeyes have held opponents to a paltry 28% from behind the arc through 20 games. So what’s the issue?

In each of Iowa’s four defeats, the opposition was far more proficient from long range. The Hawkeyes have given up almost 37% shooting in their losses compared to 25.5% in their wins. Even more troubling is that these opponents have made 9.5 3’s per game, nearly double what Iowa has allowed outside of those contests.

To be fair the four opponents (Villanova, Iowa State, Wisconsin, and Michigan) all happen to be very good outside shooting teams, but the fact still remains that the failure of the Hawkeyes to limit open 3-point looks in these games greatly contributed to them losing. Iowa is going to continue to face strong shooting teams, so improving in this area against quality competition will be crucial to their success as the season progresses.

2. Control dribble penetration

This is an issue that recently started to rear its ugly head for the Hawkeyes. A loss last Wednesday at Michigan showed that Iowa has some work to do in keeping high level guards out of the lane. The Wolverine perimeter players, in particular Nik Stauskas wrecked havoc blowing past Hawkeye defenders.

Tuesday night will provide Iowa with the challenge of keeping two of the best guards in America out of the paint in Michigan State's Keith Appling and Gary Harris. (Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)

Tuesday night will provide Iowa with the challenge of keeping two of the best guards in America out of the paint in Michigan State’s Keith Appling and Gary Harris. (Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)

As a whole this Iowa team is not ultra quick, but what it does have is great height and length. The problem is that on too many occasions opposing guards are straight-line driving to the basket. This negates Iowa’s all-around size because help side defenders are unable to rotate in time to challenge shots at the rim.

There won’t be a shortage of talented guards for Iowa to face throughout the rest of Big Ten play, and they will certainly see them come NCAA Tournament time. For the Hawkeyes to really do damage going forward it’s imperative that their perimeter defense consistently slows driving opposing guards for even a fraction of a second more. Doing so will allow for Iowa’s length and rotations to have a bigger impact on games.

3. Continue to value possessions

On the season Iowa has not been a high turnover team. That being said, the past two games should serve as a reminder that taking care of the ball must always be an important point of emphasis.

The Hawkeyes play at a very fast pace, so offensive possessions are usually plentiful. However, against stiffer competition a great value needs to be placed on every trip down the floor.

Iowa’s coughed the ball up 14 times (not an egregious number) in their loss to Michigan, but quality opponents will take advantage of these opportunities just as the Wolverines did. The Hawkeyes also had 10 first half turnovers on Saturday against a less than impressive Northwestern team, and consequently led by only six at the break. In the final 20 minutes Iowa cleaned up its act and went on to blow out the Wildcats.

Turnovers against lesser competition usually lead to closer margins of victory, but against elite opponents (of which there are many remaining on Iowa’s schedule) they will almost always get you beat.

The Hawkeyes will likely look to avoid an abundance of such outcomes moving forward.