BLACKSBURG, Va. — When Fran McCaffery became Iowa’s basketball coach in March 2010, he arrived with an offense-first reputation. But after two trips through the Big Ten, McCaffery knows that defense is an equally necessary evil.
McCaffery entered his third season preaching the importance of playing defense. His 2011-12 Hawkeyes finished 18-17, even though they were statistically the worst defensive team in the Big Ten.
Iowa’s runner-up finish in last week’s Cancun Challenge showed the Hawkeyes have made a positive step on the defensive end. At the same time, the offense is anything but up-tempo. Iowa will be looking for the right balance of the two when it plays offensive juggernaut Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at 6:15 p.m. today in Cassell Coliseum.
The Hawkeyes are coming off their first loss, a 75-63 decision to Wichita State in the title game in Cancun.
“We competed hard defensively, which is a big step for us from where we were last year,” McCaffery said.
Wichita State shot 41.8 percent from the field against Iowa. The first five opponents had shot between 39.6 percent and 26.9 percent against an Iowa team that allowed opponents to shoot 45.7 percent last season. A Hawkeye team hasn’t held opponents below 40 percent for a season since 2005-06 (38 percent), the last time Iowa was in the NCAA Tournament.
Conversely, Iowa shot just 26.1 percent from the field against Wichita State. That, despite 8-of-15 shooting from 3-point distance. The Hawkeyes made just four out of 31 shots inside the arc. Eight of them were blocked. The Shockers also fouled Iowa on many drives to the basket, leading to an impressive 31-of-39 effort at the free-throw line.
“Our shot selection is fine,” said McCaffery, whose team is shooting just 41 percent from the field. “I’d like to make more shots, but we’re taking good shots.”
The Shockers were physical and aggressive on defense, the kind of bruising play the Hawkeyes will see a lot of once Big Ten play starts. Wichita State had a 30-6 advantage in points in the paint and an 11-0 edge in fast-break points.
The Cancun experience hammers home the point that this Hawkeye team is still a work in progress. Adam Woodbury has a skill set many 7-foot-1 centers don’t. But he’s a freshman, and there will be growing pains. Point guard Mike Gesell, another freshman, was terrific in a first-round win against Western Kentucky, scoring 19 points. But he got two quick fouls against Wichita State and had just two points and no assists in 12 minutes. He, too, will learn with his feet to the fire.
Devyn Marble, expected to take over the go-to guy role from Matt Gatens this season, is still adjusting to playing without the ball in his move from p
oint guard to shooting guard. Aaron White’s move from power forward to small forward has also been an adjustment. White, who had attempted at least seven shots in each of Iowa’s first four games, took just six in two games in Cancun. He did get to the line 12 times against Wichita State.
Cancun showed that McCaffery is also being challenged to find the right playing rotation on a deep team. Nine players are averaging at least 13.3 minutes a game, and the 10-man rotation grew to 11 when freshman guard Pat Ingram logged 8 minutes against Wichita State.
Today’s game will challenge this team’s defensive improvement. Virginia Tech is averaging 85.4 points a game under first-year coach James Johnson. Iowa is allowing 56.3 points a contest. The Hokies are shooting 42.7 percent from 3. Iowa’s first six opponents have shot 25.4 percent from distance.
“It better be good against this team,” McCaffery said of his team’s perimeter defense. “It is better than it was last year. Last year, it wasn’t good at all. It was one of our greatest weaknesses. It has been better this year, and this is a team that will challenge that particular aspect of our defense in a big way.”
Senior guard Erick Green leads the Hokies at 24.4 points a game and has scored at least 21 in every game.
“Green is as good as any guard I have watched on film in a long time,” McCaffery said. “He really understands how to play, makes shots, makes plays … really understands pace of the game, when to push it and when not to and he makes plays defensively. He really has control and command of the game.”
TODAY’S IOWA MEN’S GAME
WHO: Iowa (5-1) at Virginia Tech (5-0)
WHERE: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.
TIPOFF: 6:15 p.m.
RADIO: WHO-AM (1040) and Hawkeye Radio Network
STAT LEADERS: For Iowa — Devyn Marble 13.8 ppg; Aaron White 6.5 rpg; Mike Gesell 3.3 apg; for Virginia Tech — Erick Green 24.4 ppg; Cadarian Raines 7.4 rpg; Green 5.2 apg.
ABOUT THE HAWKEYES: Iowa is 2-9 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and hasn’t won since a 45-42 decision over North Carolina State in 2005. The Hawkeyes are 0-2 against Virginia Tech, losing 69-65 on the road in 2006 and 70-64 at home in 2009.
ABOUT THE HOKIES: Former Drake head coach Kurt Kanaskie is in his first season as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech, hired by first-year coach James Johnson.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Virginia Tech senior point guard Erick Green is coming off a career-high 27-point game against Appalachian State on Friday. He is tied for third nationally in scoring.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball