Defense Leads The Way For Big Ten Leaders

The saying 'Defense wins Championships' is certainly overplayed in this day and age. But when it comes to the rough and tumble life of Big Ten basketball, it usually rings true. All you had to do was take a look at this weekend's games in the league to see how accurate that statement is. We take a look at those numbers, in addition to some other stat sheet stuffers, Iowa's bucking its recent February trends & we also take a stab at the question related to improved coaching for Iowa this year.

I heard a piece of sound wisdom over the weekend as I scanned the college basketball landscape; shooting comes and goes, but if you are going to win your league, your defense had better remain a constant.

Iowa scored 70 points at Indiana and missed a bushel basket full of free throws, but they did hold Indiana to 41.1 percent from the floor in getting a big win at Assembly Hall.

Here is how the other would be title contenders faired this weekend:

Michigan State allowed the Golden Gophers to make 48 percent of their shots while Sparty made just 40.8 percent of their own attempts from the floor. RESULT: 14 point win for the home standing Gophers.

Purdue shot 61.2 percent from the floor in beating Michigan by 14 at home. Michigan made just 35 percent of its shot attempts. Earlier in the week, Michigan allowed Ohio State to make better than 60 percent from the floor, and the same can be said of last week's loss at Iowa.

Ohio State made 13 three-point shots against Illinois at home on 23 attempts. Illinois shot just 37.3 percent from the field. Illinois is definitely a team that needs consistent defense from night to night, as their offense has been erratic in Big Ten play; they are just 8th in the league in scoring offense.

Wisconsin made nearly 50 percent of its shots from the floor in a 20-point road win at Penn State.

It should come as no surprise that Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin were on the plus side of the ledger.

Defense CAN win championships in the Big Ten, and it most likely will be THE biggest factor in who wins the league; Ohio State cannot keep averaging 12.5 made three-point shots, as it has done over the course of its last four games. Ohio State's last poor shooting night? It's 35.1 percent from the floor against Iowa. However, OSU is #1 in the league in three-point percentage defense.

An ‘Oh by the Way' Stat split: Illinois and Wisconsin are 1-2 in the league in scoring defense but are just 10th and 11th in free throw percentage.

MORE TEA LEAVES FROM THE STAT SHEET

Iowa is third in the league in field goal percentage defense but just seventh in field goal percentage offense. The Hawks are also third in the league in free throw percentage, and that is huge for them because they are getting to the line more than anyone else in the league. Iowa has 260 attempts, with Wisconsin having the second most FTA's with 215. Illinois has gotten to the line just 149 times in league play, which is near the bottom of the list. That might not be a bad thing, as we showed you above that they are making just 63.1 percent of their attempts.

Illini fans are quick to say that Iowa is getting preferential treatment from the refs this year and they are not getting homered like most fan bases believe happens when you go on the road. But Illinois is clearly a guard dominated team; outside of Augustine, they have no consistent inside threat and their offense is 20 feet from the basket. It's ain't getting the reverse homer, Illini; you just aren't taking the ball inside. 36.9 of Illinois' shots come from beyond the arc while 31.4 of Iowa's shots come from three-point land. Iowa's 185 three-point attempts ranks 9th in the Big Ten and their percentage of three-pointers made to all field goals made is 10th in the league. THAT'S how you get to the foul line more, by taking things inside.

Teams have taken 244 three-point shots against Iowa this year, second most of any team in the league. Why is that? Perhaps it is a byproduct of Iowa's defense in the paint. Erek Hansen is the league's best shot blocker and even when he is not blocking shots, he is affecting them either in the game or in the game plan.

Here is a shocker, however; Penn State, a team that plays virtually a four guard lineup, has had the most three-point shots taken against it (283). THAT just doesn't have much of an explanation behind it.

Greg Brunner continues to lead the league in rebounding at 10.4 per game, the only player averaging double-digits in that category. Jeff Horner leads the league in assists at just under six per game and Erek Hansen is tops in the league in blocked shots.

Brunner is a surprising 12th in the league in free throw percentage, making .712 of his attempts. He also has the most attempts of the Top 15 shooters. Brunner is also 10th in steals. Horner is fourth in minutes played and Adam Haluska is 10th.

FEBRUARY MADE ME SHIVER

Now I remember why I liked February when I was younger.

I recall getting so revved up on winter nights of watching Iowa basketball that I would go outside at halftime and hit the flood lights on our basketball court and take 50-100 jumpers while donning gloves, moon boots and a winter coat. I would just ask someone to flicker the lights when halftime was over.

Lately, the month of February has been my least favorite month of the year, by far.

That has a lot to do with the amount of pain that has come as the Hawkeyes have suffered numerous late season calamities in the year's second month.

Here is a look at Iowa's numbers in February under Steve Alford, listing their record as they entered the month and their record at the end of the month and their record for the month:

2005: 15-5 / 17-10 (2-5)
2004: 11-7 / 15-10 (4-3)
2003: 11-5 / 14-10 (3-5)
2002: 14-8 / 16-13 (2-5)
2001: 17-4 / 18-9 (1-5)
2000: 9-10 / 12-14 (3-4)

All told, that is a combined record of 15-27 in February, which is to college basketball as Saturday is to the PGA Tour; Saturday is called ‘moving day' out on the links, because that is the day where you either move into or out of contention of the tournament you are playing. Iowa has moved out of contention in February in each year save the 2003-2004 season.

I promise you that this is NOT some sadistic exercise to bring up some bad memories of the past. What it IS, is an attempt to highlight what has taken place so far in February of 2006.

Iowa is 3-1 thus far for the month, and with two of those wins having come against ranked competition and two of the wins also coming on the road. Iowa still has three difficult games on the docket yet this month; Tuesday night's home game against Michigan State, then back to back roadies at Minnesota (2/18) and at Illinois (2/25). If the Hawks can finish the month going 2-1, they will have put themselves in perfect position to win their first regular season Big Ten title since the decade of the 1970's.

COACHING

A lot is being made right now about Iowa having better coaching this year than they have in the past. I don't know if that is true or not, but having four senior starters certainly helps. However, I have seen several instances of excellent leadership from the bench.

This assumption that there is better coaching would also imply that Iowa's coaching staff has not been up to snuff in recent years.

In looking up the information on February, a lot of things jumped out at me, things that certainly contributed to those seasons not being what the fans, players or staff had envisioned when those seasons began.

2005: Pierre Pierce is suspended from the team shortly following Iowa's loss at Northwestern on 1/26.
2004: Jared Reiner injury in November, Sean Sonderleiter quitting, Nick Dewitz & Mike Henderson being ruled academically ineligible for the second semester, which led to Dewitz transferring from Iowa.
2003: Pierce sits out that season due to disciplinary action from events of 2002, Marcellus Sommerville transfers before the school year begins. Erek Hansen plays at Kirkwood after being declared academically ineligible for the 2003-2004 season.
2001: Luke Recker goes down for the year with Iowa sitting at 16-4 in late January and Ryan Hogan would also be lost for the year shortly thereafter.

Again, you may be asking why I am bringing some of these things back up?

Well, in light of the aforementioned recent discussions about coaching, the 2003-2004 season certainly jumps out at me. That team finished 9-7 in the Big Ten despite being without four players it had to start the year, and that is the high water mark for Big Ten wins in the Alford era. Winning four games in four days at the 2001 Big Ten tourney was also an impressive feat by the players and coaches. Winning five of six down the stretch last year, including the win against Michigan State in the Big Ten tourney and qualifying for the NCAA tournament while losing your leading scoring before the month of February also sticks out in my mind.

Unfortunately, several instances of solid in season coaching have slipped back into the recesses of the mind due to adversity of the situations that are more easily remembered.

So in a year where there have been no off the court distractions, transfers and just the one injury to Jeff Horner that cost him four games, the Hawkeyes are flying high. I don't think it's a fluke on the player's end OR on the coaching end.


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