For the second time in a week, the Hawkeyes came out and played a very good ballgame in an "almost-must-win" situation. That's a great thing. And THIS Iowa team that I saw on ESPN against Minnesota was FUN to watch.
Sandwiched between those two victories—over Purdue and Minnesota—was a dismal and uninspired loss in Iowa City to Northwestern, which had a 5-7 record at the time. That Hawkeye team was definitely not fun to watch…and did NOT look like it was having much fun on the floor.
So, what happened? How did Iowa hit such highs and lows in a seven-day stretch? And can the Hawkeyes somehow manage to play well consistently through the rest of the Big 10 schedule? Why hasn't this team won two games in a row in more than a month?
There is one very key factor with this team—and Iowa teams in the past few seasons—that seems to go a long way in determining its success on a given night: Getting the ball into the paint. Of course, MOST basketball teams are this way. Get the ball into the lane and you have a much better chance to be successful. Whether it's with a post feed or penetration, this is the best way to consistently break a defense down. When the Hawkeyes are focused on getting this accomplished, they are much more dangerous…and consistent.
There is no question that Iowa did a much, MUCH better job on Tuesday night of feeding the post. It was a night-and-day difference compared to the loss to Northwestern. Frankly, this has been a glaring weakness of the Hawkeyes for the last four seasons. But against Minnesota, it was very clear to me from the outset that the players were quite focused on getting the ball into the low- and mid-post areas…mostly with post feeds, but also with some penetration. And THIS is when Iowa's motion offense—or any offense—is most effective.
When I think about the games in the last few seasons when Iowa's half-court offense looked the best, there are a couple of games that immediately come to mind and both were two seasons ago: the blowout victories at Missouri and at Iowa State. Not coincidentally, the Hawkeyes did a great job of feeding the post and getting the ball into the lane in both of those games, as well.
Here's the thing… This team is built to be successful from the inside-out, not the outside-in. Its strength—especially compared to other Big 10 teams—is that it has some formidable post players with size, who have experience and the ability to score. During the frustrating times this season when the motion offense looks like a whole lot of running around with no purpose, I think you'll notice that the ball hasn't been going into the post…and not necessarily for a shot, either. As a result, the post players get a little frustrated and don't post up as aggressively. Then, a perimeter person usually has to either create a shot or force up a difficult shot. Not a good way to build a consistent offense.
Against Minnesota, though, Iowa did a very nice job of creating angles and spacing (two very key concepts) in order to get Reiner, Sonderleiter, Brunner and Worley the ball in positions where they could be successful. And guess what? It worked. These four guys got off 21 field goal attempts and drew enough fouls to go to the line 23 times. That's where the bread-and-butter of this Iowa team needs to be. Not only because these guys can get some high-percentage shots, draw fouls and make free throws (18 of 23 on Tuesday, 78%), but it also creates some opportunities for perimeter players to get some better looks. Jeff Horner, Brody Boyd and Pierre Pierce combined to make 14 of 22 FG attempts (64%) versus the Gophers.
As I said, this team is built to be successful from the inside-out. When Iowa plays with a definite focus on that concept, it seems to me the Hawkeyes are much more successful…and consistent. Oh yeah, and fun to watch.
Here are a handful of other thoughts I've had about Hawkeye basketball the last few days…
* It looked to me like Coach Alford and Reiner went out of their way to NOT acknowledge each other when the center came off the floor on Tuesday night. I saw this after a timeout in the first half, following a nice play by Reiner, and then later when the senior fouled out. No "good job," no handshake, no pat on the back. I hope this was just a coincidence or that there was nothing to it. If it was an intentional "snub," I just don't think this is the right message to send to a young man, his teammates or the Hawkeye Nation. If a guy is in the "doghouse" so much that you don't want to speak to him, maybe he shouldn't be on the floor at all. If he's in good enough graces to play, then I think that a pat on the back after a strong effort is in order. Normally, I wouldn't look for something like that, but after the way Coach Alford so publicly called out Reiner the last few days, I think that a visible "good job" was in order on Tuesday night. Just my two cents.
* Along those lines, I'm not a person who's real big on criticizing the athletes in public. I definitely have an appreciation for the way that Coach Kirk Ferentz handles his team…through thick and thin. I can't recall Iowa's football coach ever criticizing an individual player at a press conference as being a non-producer, or words to that effect. Even though you KNOW there are times he's not happy with someone's performance. I don't think it shows good leadership to publicly point fingers. Again, that's just me.
* I was happy to see Coach Alford decide to stick with the 2-3 zone for an extended period against Minnesota. I know that he would prefer to play man-to-man most of the time, but his post-game comment that you've got to do what you've got to do to win the game was on target. To me, when certain lineups are on the floor, a zone defense is the BEST fit for Iowa this season. Not always, but with certain lineups. When would a man-to-man be a better choice? It depends on who you're playing against, but when the lineup is Horner, Henderson, Pierce, Brunner and Reiner; I think a man-to-man could be a better option. Certainly when Pierce is NOT on the floor, I think Iowa is better served with a zone. You'll notice that Worley had his best all-around game at Minnesota (11 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 turnovers and only 2 fouls in 28 minutes) while playing mostly zone defense. The best coaches form their "system"—or plan of attack—based on their personnel…rather than forcing square pegs into round holes. I think Coach Alford did a nice job on Tuesday night of recognizing what was the best option and stuck with it.
* Earlier this season, I think Jeff Horner was receiving quite a bit of criticism from some Hawk fans. As I said at the time, he's a tremendous basketball player, who brings so much to the table with his ball handling and passing skills that he could very well be one of the most under-rated Iowa players of the last 25 years. Sure, I know he hasn't shot the ball particularly well from three-point land. Yet. But, maybe Tuesday night's performance (3 of 5 from downtown) will get him on track. Either way, he's still a terrific player who has fantastic court vision and puts as much pressure on opposing defenses with his passing as any Iowa player does in any other way. He has shown improvement defensively this season. He is rebounding like a power forward lately. He HAS to lead Iowa in diving for loose balls. He plays hurt. His eligibility is never in question. And he's unselfish. All those things add up to "leadership," in my book. So, I was very happy to see him put up some big numbers against Minnesota.
* It's great to see Sonderleiter and Worley put together solid performances, as well. For Iowa to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes will NEED these two guys to keep it going. Hopefully, we'll see several more outings from these two former Iowa preps like the one we saw on Tuesday night.
The schedule gets a little more difficult for the next few weeks. Five of the next eight games are on the road (at Illinois, at Iowa State, at Michigan, at Michigan State, at Indiana). The three home games are against Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. The schedule is much more favorable for Iowa in the final six regular-season games, so let's hope Coach Alford can keep the team afloat and have some success in the next eight games.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)