There appears to be a couple of camps of Hawkeye fans forming in the early part of this season and the result of Tuesday night's game against UNI has given both groups a reason to vocalize their opinions.
On one hand, you have the Iowa fans who believe the sky may be falling and that the Hawks are looking down the barrel of a FIFTH straight losing record in the Big 10. (Yikes!) On the other hand, you have the Iowa fans who think that 6-1 is a pretty good start, considering the exciting victory over Louisville.
So, is the glass half empty? Or half full?
First of all, I'm an optimist. As a lifelong Cub fan, there is no other way to be. After all, if you can convince yourself that a team with Barry Foote, Ivan DeJesus and Jerry Martin in the starting lineup has a chance for the playoffs, you have no trouble believing a lot of things.
So, at this point, I am trying to convince myself that the loss to UNI will be an aberration. Over the course of a college basketball season, almost EVERY team loses a few games that it shouldn't. Or loses a couple of games at the buzzer. Something that the fans will stew about for a few days, a few weeks, a few months…or, as in the case of the Elite Eight loss to UNLV in 1987…a few decades. That's simply the nature of the game.
To me, it's one of the greatest features of college basketball. The opportunity for David to beat Goliath is much, MUCH better in basketball than it is in football. This is why "March Madness" is the greatest event in sports. You really DON'T know what's going to happen. This is why your NCAA Tournament sheet is usually destroyed before the Sweet 16 is even determined.
I love college basketball because of this element. But obviously, you can't always be "David" in that scenario. Sometimes, your team is the one that gets knocked to the ground. It happens.
What have there been…four new top-ranked teams in the last four weeks?
OK, so we've established that upsets happen in college basketball. And that's all well and good. It makes for a greater show in the ultimate reality entertainment in America.
But, what did the Hawkeyes miss when preparing for the Panthers? There is no way that UNI somehow snuck up on Iowa, considering the success UNI has had in Cedar Falls against the Hawks in recent years. And the Panthers were a last-second three-pointer from taking Iowa State into overtime in Ames a few weeks ago. The element of surprise was not—or at least, should not—have been on UNI's side.
Here are a couple of things that I thought Iowa could have done differently…
1) With Iowa's size advantage, I was shocked that the Hawks didn't try to pound the ball inside to Jared Reiner against UNI and "wear 'em out, foul 'em out." As I've mentioned in earlier columns, Iowa has been a perennially poor team at feeding the post. Generally, the Hawks are poor at recognizing when there is an advantage and poor at executing the pass. Nevertheless, if there was ever a team for Iowa to pound the ball inside against, this was the one.
I'm taking absolutely nothing away from David Gruber (who is 6-6) or Matt Schneiderman (6-7), but Reiner is 6-11…four or five inches taller than either of the guys who would be guarding him. Last summer, I believe that Coach Steve Alford remarked that Reiner was one of the top five returning players in the Big 10. I may not agree with that assessment, but I agree that Reiner can be a pretty valuable weapon. So, why not utilize him against UNI?
In the game's first three possessions, Reiner got the ball on the low block twice. The results? Iowa's senior center made one field goal, drew a foul and made two free throws. Two touches, four points. Terrific. In the next five possessions, Reiner received the ball in the low post two more times. The results? Reiner made another field goal, drew another foul and turned it over once.
So, in the game's first eight possessions, Reiner caught the ball in the low post four times. He was 2-2 from the field, 2-2 from the line, drew a pair of fouls and made one turnover. Four touches…six points and one turnover, while drawing two fouls. UNI had NO CHANCE to defend Reiner one-on-one in the low post. The Panthers were going to either lose a few players to fouls…or be forced to double down on Reiner, which would open things up elsewhere (high post, cutter to opposite low block, perimeter, etc.). Because Reiner is a good passer, that would be a positive situation for Iowa either way.
But, did Iowa continue to exploit this obvious mismatch? No. During the rest of the game, Reiner received the ball in the low post only six more times. That's it. In fact—and I'm not sure why—the senior center only played 20 minutes. In that limited amount of playing time (half the game), Reiner finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds. He was 4-7 from the floor and 4-4 at the line. Did Iowa have ANYONE else on Tuesday night who was that productive?
Honesty compels me to report that Reiner also had four turnovers. However, two of those came on "flops" that UNI's post players took against Iowa's center. Good calls? Maybe, maybe not. But, when a defensive post player is overmatched physically, that's one of the things he must resort to. UNI was clearly coached to flop against Reiner, which was a good move. Perhaps because the Panthers didn't have a body to match up with him. (Jon Godfread is 6-10, but he only played 9 minutes and committed four fouls.)
2) I was surprised the Hawks didn't play more zone defense. This would have made sense for a number of reasons. For example…
- We heard all about the "four games in seven days" making Iowa's players a little fatigued.
- Iowa clearly had the size advantage in the interior.
- UNI had not been shooting the ball well from the perimeter and, in fact, missed its first 14 three-point attempts against Iowa.
- Iowa was one man short in its rotation, due to Mike Henderson not being available.
- UNI was winning the battle in the paint against Iowa's man-to-man defense and the Panthers were rebounding very well against the Hawks.
- A zone can help you "protect" a foul-prone player like Glen Worley, who had four fouls in nine minutes.
- A zone would have enabled Iowa to sag into the paint more effectively and take away some of the easy baskets that UNI was getting against the Hawkeyes' man-to-man.
I have no problem with Iowa being primarily a man-to-man defensive team, but there definitely are occasions when you need to adjust your strategy a bit. Tuesday night—for several reasons—appeared to be one of those times.
There were other things, of course, that Iowa could have—and should have—executed at a higher level. The Hawks did a poor job, I felt, of running their halfcourt offense. I thought that, especially in the second half, there was a lot more one-on-one stuff to create shots than there were post feeds, curling off of screens, pick-the-picker action, screen-and-rolls or any basic fundamental movements (with and without the ball) that lead directly to high-percentage shots. It just seemed far too helter-skelter for a team that has the experienced players that Iowa puts on the floor.
But, now is the time for the Iowa team and coaching staff to take what happened in Cedar Falls and turn it into a positive. What was learned? What adjustments could—or should—be made in similar games in the future? What areas should be focused on for the next few weeks before Big 10 games get underway? How can the Hawks do a better job of running their half court offense? How can Iowa improve its interior defense?
Two years ago, the loss in Cedar Falls led to a downward spiral that Iowa never recovered from. It's up to Coach Alford and his staff to make sure that doesn't happen again this season.
Although some losses may be tougher to swallow than others, there are always lessons learned in these games that should lead to an improved basketball team.
Undoubtedly, the coaching staff will use the 13 days between games to study and evaluate all the things the Hawkeyes have done well in the first seven games, as well as where they need to make improvements.
There are still a couple of very difficult games remaining—against Texas Tech and Missouri—before Iowa opens Big 10 play. There will definitely be more lessons for the Hawks to learn. And more improvements to be made.
How Iowa's team responds during the next few weeks will tell us a whole lot more about what kind of basketball team the Hawkeyes have than what happened in Cedar Falls.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)