Howe: Hawkeyes Need to Toughen Up

Northern Iowa forced Iowa to match its toughness on Saturday during the Big Four Classic in Des Moines. The Hawkeyes showed, once again, that it's prone to backing down rather than stepping up. It's a disturbing trend for a team suffering from an identity crisis.

DES MOINES, Iowa - You need to change your perceptions about Iowa basketball and so, too, do its players. This isn't the high-flying, run-and-gun outfit everyone was sold when Fran McCaffery was hired five years ago.

Perhaps you've already realized that after watching the offensive atrocity witnessed Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena. In their 56-44 loss to Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes were held to the fewest points in the McCaffery Era. They scored an embarrassing 15 points in the second half with three field goals.

It wasn't an aberration. Iowa is offensively challenged. That's being kind.

We hear McCaffery and his players say they're not worried about poor shooting, that they get buckets at an alarming rate in practice. It's for positive reenforcement purposes. They're field goal percentage through 12 games sits at 40.9 percent.

In addition, that number is skewed. Against the five respectable teams - Texas, Syracuse, North Carolina, Iowa State and UNI - Iowa is shooting a combined 98 of 286 (34.2 percent) from the floor. It's 1-4 in those contests.

At 8-4, the Hawkeyes look, at best, like an NIT team. According to the RPI, they're 1-4 against teams in the country's Top 150 and 7-0 versus teams below that. North Florida (5-5) comes to Iowa City on Monday at 158.

So, how did we arrive here and what do we have? If you watched the North Carolina and UNI games, you could figure it out if you were willing to look beyond the perceptions of what McCaffery's program was expected to be and realized what it was.

First, opponents, the good ones, have learned to take away Iowa's transition offense. UNI dropped four, and sometimes five, players back after it took a shot. The Panthers sliced through Iowa's three-quarter court trap most of the night, turning it over just 10 times leading to eight points.

With the Hawkeyes forced to play in the half court, the high-level programs then pack in their defense. Aaron White's lob dunks are erased. That leaves them with mid-range jumpers and three-point shots, where it shoots 30.0 percent behind the arc. It's also hard to pinpoint someone on this team skilled at feeding the post.

Against North Carolina, No. 18 in the RPI, Iowa shot 18 of 55 (32.7 percent) from the floor, including 3 of 20 (15.0) behind the arc. It still played good defense, holding a weak-shooting Tar Heel team to 19-68 (27.9) and 4 of 23 (17.4).

The Hawkeyes stayed mentally tough during a sluggish first half versus UNI. Despite shooting just 11 of 27 from the floor, they didn't allow it to affect their defense, holding the Panthers to 9 of 24 (37.5) in field goals to enjoy a 29-23 lead.

Instead of digging in for a dirty final 20 minutes, Iowa softened up after the intermission as it did against Texas and Iowa State. Poor shooting (3 for 24 from the floor, 0 of 7 on threes) led to distressing defense. The Panthers connected on 11 of 20 field goal attempts after the break.

UNI star Seth Tuttle said he and his teammates increased their intensity in the final 20 minutes. White said his squad failed to match it.

"They ramped it up and I'm a little disappointed that we didn't ramp it up as well defensively," the Hawkeye captain said. "I've been telling you guys all year, shots are going to fall or they're going to miss, but you can dictate what can happen on the defensive end. That's what we've got to do."

Exactly. Get it out of your head that this is a team reminiscent of the Show Time Lakers. It has to be the Bad Boy Pistons, like what happened at the Dean Dome and needed to occur here Saturday night.

It's Iowa basketball under McCaffery. Read his comments from media day, and he understands.

"We don't have any McDonald's All Americans. So the guys we're getting are typically going to be four-year guys that have character, work hard and improve. Eventually, maybe we'll get a guy like that or two and if that happens that will be great. But up until then, you know, I'm satisfied with what we have and where we are," he said in October.

McCaffery's task is reaching his players with who they are and need to be. And it takes dogged determination to miss shots, which they will continue to do, and still buckle down on defense.

Forget about being gazelles. This isn't Kentucky or Duke. The Hawkeyes must grind.

That type of basketball can be successful. UNI serves as a great example of how it works. Wisconsin performs it at an even higher level. Thinking about two match-ups with the Badgers this winter after watching Saturday night's second-half meltdown should send shivers down the spines of Hawkeye fans.

Iowa faces an uphill battle to make the NCAA Tournament from where it sits today. Finishing .500 in a Big Ten that's not as good as it's been in recent years puts it at 18-13 heading into the conference tournament, provided it beats North Florida on Monday. And it's hard to hold confidence in the Hawkeyes winning 10 or more games in the league with their identity crisis.

The four-man recruiting class arriving next year features guys much more likely to be projects than they are to provide instant impact. It's the current state of Iowa basketball. The sooner these Hawkeye players figure out their personality, the better, for the rest of this season and beyond.

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