Iowa's Strengths (in no particular order)
1) Pierre Pierce attacking the basket. This guy has all the attributes of a big-time scorer off the dribble. He's quick, he handles the ball pretty well, he's aggressive, his first step can be a killer, he's strong, he's long, he can jump and he's explosive. Plus, he's obviously very confident in his ability to beat people off the dribble and score in traffic. One of the most important statistics for the Hawkeyes so far is Pierce shooting 85% at the free-throw line (11 of 13). This was a serious weakness in his game two years ago. If Pierce can continue to shoot with a confident stroke at the line, he'll be that much more dangerous.
2) Offensive rebounding. With a 6-11 center like Jared Reiner in the middle and quick, aggressive athletes like Greg Brunner and Pierce salivating at every loose-ball opportunity, the Hawkeyes should earn plenty of second-chance points this season. This will provide a solid boost for the games when Iowa isn't shooting well from the perimeter. Second-chance points are a deadly weapon. Through two games, Iowa has only been out-rebounded 44 to 29 (1.5 ratio) at its offensive end. That's a BIG plus. For comparison's sake, at the defensive end, Iowa has out-rebounded its opponents 65 to 23 (2.8 ratio). Obviously, the opposition hasn't been able to match Iowa physically yet, but I really like this trend.
3) Jeff Horner pushing the ball up the floor. I'll admit that I'm a big Horner fan. He does so many things so well—especially for a young player—that helps you win games. Don't underestimate his ability to play a tremendous game even when he's not shooting well…there simply aren't that many players who can do that. Horner sees the floor as well as any Hawkeye in recent memory and Iowa has had some great point guards. His ability to push the ball up the floor with the pass—sometimes a 45-foot bullet—not only creates some EASY baskets for Iowa, but it also puts immense pressure on the opposition to get back defensively and it gets Horner's teammates on the move, knowing that if they can beat their man down the floor, they will get the ball. Again, not EVERY team in the country has a point guard who can—or WILL—do this on a consistent basis. In my opinion, this mindset at the start of each possession helps create a TEAM atmosphere at the offensive end of the floor, which is critical to having good team chemistry.
4) Brody Boyd spot-up shooting from three-point range. If I was coaching a team against Iowa, one of my top concerns would be to NOT allow Boyd to get on a roll from long range. When he does, it opens things up for Reiner in the post and penetration lanes become wider for guys like Pierce, Horner and Mike Henderson. If Boyd can continue to shoot the ball well from downtown—he's 4 of 8 through two games—it will create a lot of options for the Hawkeye offense. And not only do Boyd's hot streaks keep Iowa's point totals climbing, but they also get the Carver-Hawkeye crowd into the game, which can build momentum even more.
5) On-the-ball perimeter defense. It has been very good to see Iowa's top perimeter defenders—Pierce, Henderson and Horner—get after ballhandlers and force people into hurried decisions. Especially since this area has been a bit of a weakness during the last few seasons. This is another important asset as it can force an opponent to start its offense further from the basket than it wants…or take longer to get set up. Not only does this type of defensive quickness, athleticism and aggressiveness force tipped passes and turnovers, but it can also cause mistakes of omission as a guard may not SEE the open cutter or post player because he is too worried about a guy like Henderson breathing down his neck.
Iowa's Weaknesses (in no particular order)
1) Feeding the post. This is frustrating on a few different levels. First of all, this has been a weakness for the last three or four seasons. Second, Iowa has a very good post player in Jared Reiner, who the Hawks will need to utilize to contend for the Big 10 crown. Third, when a post player is open and doesn't receive the ball from a perimeter player who is looking directly at him a few times in a row, it is only human nature for that post player to say to himself, "OK, the next time I get the ball, I'm gonna shoot it." This causes the post player to make his moves out of anger or aggression, rather than based on where the defender is or if there is a double-team coming from a certain direction. The result is the post player looks like a "black hole" who is making moves about six times too quickly…and taking shots that look awkward and sometimes awful. Sound anything like what we saw from Reiner against Drake at times on Tuesday night? Sound anything like what we saw for two seasons out of Reggie Evans in the halfcourt offense?
Playing great halfcourt basketball on the offensive end is a sensitive and fragile activity that involves five different egos at once. When a player is open—and isn't at an obvious disadvantage—in the low-post, mid-post or high-post, that player should receive the basketball. If it's a 50/50 deal…then you can expect some pretty bad shots and an inconsistent offense as a result. Plus…and this cannot be over-stated…every defense in the history of the game is at its weakest when the ball is in the paint. The team that can get the ball into the paint the most consistently—whether it's 10 feet from the basket or two feet—will be the most successful. Guaranteed. That doesn't mean that the SHOT always comes from the paint, but the ball must get there. In fact, the best three-point shot attempts usually come from an inside-outside pass. I could go on for a long time about the importance of this issue, but Iowa definitely needs to improve in this facet of the game.
2) Transition defense. This is another area that has plagued the Hawkeyes off and on for the last few years. And when you have guards who can penetrate like Horner, Henderson and Pierce can, this weakness can be magnified in a hurry, because the only man back defensively might be Boyd. Or it might be a forward chasing down an opposing forward. The good news is that this is not a terribly difficult area to improve upon. It just takes discipline and court awareness to understand your assignment, rotate back defensively, protect the lane and then stop the ball. To be successful, you must minimize easy baskets by your opponents. Transition defense is the first step in doing that.
3) Defending the post. Different teams have different philosophies about defending the strong-side post. Some teams like to front the post at every opportunity and rely on backside help to discourage the lob pass. Some teams will play behind the post and rely on quick double-teams to keep the post from making his primary move. Iowa has a tendency to play behind the post and remain in a one-on-one situation, even on the low block. I understand this strategy when the defender is a shot-blocker or has a definite size advantage. It gets a little more risky when the players are closely matched in size and even more dangerous when the offensive player has some quickness. The result is often a high-percentage shot or a foul. One thing I would like to see Iowa start doing is have guys like Brunner, DeWitz and Pierce front their men in the low post. Reiner? It might help him stay out of foul trouble to do a better job of half-fronting—or side-fronting—which can at least discourage the post entry pass.
4) Defending out-of-bounds plays underneath the basket. Nine times out of 10—if not more regularly than that—Iowa plays a man-to-man defense in these situations. That's fine. What gets the Hawks into trouble is that the man who's guarding the in-bounds passer is usually standing directly in front of the passer and has his back to the action of the play. As a result, if one of his teammates gets screened and an offensive player flashes to the basket, he is not able to A) see it, or B) give help. The risk, for example, is that a "pick the picker" play will result in an uncontested layup. I would much rather see the guy defending the passer to be half-turned, facing the action in the paint, ready to give help immediately where necessary…and once the ball is entered, ready to return to his man.
5) Turnovers. In its first two games, Iowa has committed 40 turnovers against opposition that wasn't exactly up to Big 10 standards. That's a concern. Several of the turnovers were unforced, which is pretty frustrating. Obviously, Pierce needs to take better care of the ball (10 turnovers) from his wing position. But, the entire team could do a better job, as well. For example, Sonderleiter and DeWitz both have five turnovers already. I'm hoping this will improve markedly by the time the conference season arrives.
Areas of Opportunity
1) Pierce posting up in the halfcourt offense. This is an intriguing option to me, especially if a typical guard tries to defend Pierce. With his size, quickness, strength and finishing ability around the basket, the sophomore would be able to get great looks against a good percentage of the players who will be guarding him. Most teams will be greatly concerned about Pierce's quickness on the perimeter and ability to penetrate. Therefore, they will defend him with quickness. Usually, that type of lateral ability is not matched with the size and strength that would be necessary to match up with Pierce in the low post. Plus, considering how confident he looks at the free-throw line, it might be another good way to draw some fouls and knock down some freebies.
2) Running "small" at times. Coach Steve Alford has a wide variety of lineups he can use this season, which is a great luxury for a coach to have. So what happens if Reiner is in foul trouble and Sonderleiter needs a break? How about this lineup: Horner, Boyd, Pierce, DeWitz and Brunner. This is a small, but quick, lineup that contains some very good shooters. This might be a great opportunity to use Pierce in the post area…perhaps with Brunner. Horner, Boyd and DeWitz would certainly provide enough of a perimeter threat to enable Pierce and Brunner to operate without double-teams in the low-post and mid-post areas. This could create some mismatches that would be fun to watch. You might need to use a zone defense with this group, but that shouldn't be a big problem. Pierce and Brunner could rebound well at the bottom of a zone.
3) Glen Worley will be healthy soon. When the senior forward returns to the floor, the Hawkeyes will have another solid low-post player. For much of his first few seasons, Worley was playing out of position at the small forward. But this year, it looks like he will be playing his natural—and most productive—position of power forward. The best basketball that Iowa has played in the last three seasons was with Worley at the power forward and Evans at center. For all his strengths, Worley is not a guy who will beat you consistently off the dribble. As a result, he was not a good fit at the 3-spot. On the other hand, he has a great knack at getting offensive rebounds, drawing fouls and has a good touch at the free-throw line. If he can stay out of foul trouble, I look for Worley to put together a strong senior season.
Areas of Concern
1) Depth in the low post. Through two games, Reiner has committed NINE fouls. Not good. Definitely not a trend we want to see continue. Especially while Worley is sidelined, Iowa needs Reiner to be on the floor at crunch time. This is not meant as any kind of slight on Sonderleiter, either. There were times last season when Sonderleiter played great in the low post for the Hawkeyes. However, if Reiner gets hurt or fouls out, there really isn't a strong low-post presence behind Sonderleiter. Then what happens if Sonderleiter fouls out? Or gets hurt? Or needs a breather? While I think Iowa can "go small" and be effective, you never want to be FORCED into a decision. It's always better to have options.
2) Flying at jump shooters. A definite weakness the last four seasons (or so), Iowa needs to improve in this area this year. This is another category that simply takes discipline to take care of it. Officials LOVE to make the call where they hold three fingers up in the air to show that the offensive player gets THREE free throws. It's so exciting for them…or something. And it's such a BAD play by the defensive player that he normally deserves to watch his opponent shoot three free throws. Leaving your feet to "fly" at a jump shooter is simply a bad gamble. It also negates your ability to defend against penetration if it's a ball fake. Not good. I hope we see the Hawks do a better job this season of closing out, keeping their feet and contesting each shot with a hand in someone's face.
How would I defend against Iowa right now?
Against a lineup of Horner, Boyd, Pierce, Brunner and Reiner, I would start out in a 2-3 zone defense with four basic areas of emphasis…
1) Keep Pierce from penetrating.
2) Double down on Reiner when he gets the ball.
3) Identify Boyd and Horner as shooters.
4) Finish with a strong box out against the man in your area because Reiner, Brunner and Pierce are all productive offensive rebounders. Positioning is a key. Iowa's second-chance points are deadly. In fact, I fully expect Coach Rick Pitino to play plenty of zone against Iowa on Saturday. "What?" you ask. "Are you CRAZY? Pitino only plays a fullcourt, trapping man-to-man!" Well, I don't think he'll be able to play EXCLUSIVELY that style this season. His problem is a familiar one for Hawkeye fans…he's short on personnel.
The Cardinals will be playing without senior center Ellis Myles, who is injured and redshirting this year. Nouha Diakite, a 6-9 JC recruit, is sidelined with questions about his eligibility. Prileu Davis, a reserve guard, is out with an injury. This leaves Pitino with only nine scholarship players, including only two who are taller than 6-7. So, this isn't his typical roster.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure that Pitino will pressure Iowa in the backcourt anywhere from 30 to 60% of the time. And I'm sure that Louisville will play man-to-man defense quite a bit, as well. But, I would definitely look for some 2-3 zone from the Cardinals. And they will likely run a variety of traps out of this set.
Look for Louisville to trap Boyd (due to his size), Henderson (because he's a freshman), DeWitz and Brunner (they're not the strongest ballhandlers). They will be aggressively looking for turnovers out of these traps. But, you might also see the Cardinals trap Pierce and Horner with the thought of getting the ball out of their hands and making someone else create the offense for Iowa. A big key for Iowa against a zone is for the Hawkeyes to get the ball into the high-post area. Against Drake, this was a wide open territory that Iowa failed to capitalize on. Most zone defenses are weak in the high-post and/or mid-post areas. You'll usually see teams attack zones with a high-low pass that starts from the free-throw line or a pass to the mid-post from the "short corner" (about 10 feet away from the hoop on the baseline). With Iowa's personnel, I think the high post will be an effective place to attack from, but the Hawks must work to get the ball there. Otherwise, the zone gets stronger and the offense gets more passive.
When defending Iowa, I would think of the Hawkeyes as having three dangerous three-point shooters (Horner, Boyd and DeWitz). If those three guys were on the floor with Pierce and Reiner, I would HAVE to play man-to-man defense. No choice.
However, if the Hawks inserted Henderson, who I'm not sold on as a perimeter shooter, I would consider playing a triangle-and-two defense focusing on Pierce and Reiner. This is a page out of Jim O'Brien's book as Ohio State used this defense against Iowa in each of the last two seasons and was very effective with it. Two years ago, O'Brien went to a triangle-and-two against Recker and Evans when Pierce was playing the point because Pierce was not a legitimate perimeter shooting threat. The idea is to force the opponent to beat you with their third or fourth option.
By the same token, if Pierce was out of the game, a diamond-and-one focusing on Reiner might be a good idea. If Reiner was out of the game, a box-and-one focusing on Pierce may be effective. Utah's Rick Majerus is a coach who uses those "junk defenses" very well. If you're short on personnel and need to play more zone than you prefer, these are some ideas to turn to. They may sound a little off the wall, but how much time do you think teams spend practicing against these types of defenses?
In addition to the strategies listed above, I would sit down off of Henderson, Brunner, Pierce, Sonderleiter and Reiner and let them shoot from beyond 15 feet…in order to do everything I could to close down penetration lanes to the paint and passing lanes to the post. Of course, if Pierce were to knock down three bombs in the first five minutes, I would have to change up on that, but that hasn't happened yet. And until it does, I think that's the kind of thing that the Hawks can expect to see. How would I attack Iowa's defense right now?
If I had the size to match up against the Hawks, I would attack Reiner early and often in the low post. Not because I think he's a poor defender, but because I believe that Iowa would allow him to defend one-on-one and I would try to get him into some early foul trouble to either get him on the bench or make him less aggressive.
If I did NOT have the size to match up against Iowa (which Louisville doesn't), I would probably run a "T" set, with three perimeter players and two post players. I would have the post being guarded by Reiner play in the high post area in an effort to get the Hawkeye center away from the basket. Then, I would attack Brunner, DeWitz or Sonderleiter in the low post as much as possible. With a decent power forward, I think you could get any of those guys into some foul trouble. Of course, my center would need to be able to knock down the high-post jumper in order to keep Reiner from doubling down.
In addition, I would probably try to run Horner off of as many screens as possible…all game long. Try to wear him down physically at every opportunity. You know that he's going to be on the floor—barring injury or foul trouble—for 30+ minutes, so I would want his legs as tired as possible during the final three or four minutes of the game.
These are just some of my thoughts on the Hawkeye basketball team through a couple of games. Obviously, there are factors that could change these ideas in a hurry. For example, what if Pierce continues to shoot well from three-point land?
However it plays out, I am hoping that this winter will be an exciting one for Hawkeye fans everywhere. It would be fantastic to put a 20-win season together and make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
Hopefully, I've given you some things to watch for in the next few games as Iowa continues to improve and develop into—hopefully—a contender for the Big 10 title.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)