Forty-six days into his job as Iowa’s basketball coach, Fran McCaffery appeared at the Des Moines County I-Club in Burlington.
It was May of 2010, McCaffery’s first career I-Club. And the fans in attendance, numb to the sleepy brand of defense-first basketball that Todd Lickliter favored, were hungry for some optimism. McCaffery gave it to them.
“We’re going to get it and go,” he said after a standing ovation. “We’re going to try and score 90 every night.”
Now in his fourth season, McCaffery has lived up to his word. Iowa is leading the Big Ten in scoring at 79.1 points a game. The Hawkeyes haven’t led the conference in that statistic since 1996. Their scoring average will be the highest since Purdue’s 81.3 in 1998.
But there are two sides to every story. Iowa is last in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 73.1 points a game. And defense is why this team takes a three-game losing streak into Sunday’s must-win game with Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
After not allowing more than 76 points in a Big Ten game all season, Wisconsin had 79, Minnesota 95 and Indiana 93. Those three teams shot a combined 52.6 percent from the field, and Iowa’s defensive average jumped from 69.1 to 73.1.
Five players in those three games established career scoring highs. On Thursday, Iowa held Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell to a season-low eight points; limited Noah Vonleh, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, to five; and scored 86 points.
The Hawkeyes hadn’t allowed 93 points or more in back-to-back Big Ten games since 2001. On Thursday, McCaffery acknowledged the defense is an issue, but he pointed to some other areas that helped the Hoosiers run up and down the floor like a pinball machine.
First on his list was turnovers. Iowa gave it up 18 times, its high in a Big Ten game this season. This followed 13 turnovers at Minnesota. In the three games before that (Michigan, at Penn State, Wisconsin), Iowa had a total of 20 turnovers.
But the bottom line is this: This team hasn’t bought into the defensive end of the floor this season. This team’s defense isn’t grounded in toughness and desire.
Defense can be a great equalizer, home and away, even when shots aren’t falling. Last season, Iowa was sixth in scoring defense at 64.6 points a game. That was a big upgrade from the 2011-12 season, when the Hawkeyes yielded 71.6. And now that number is 73.1.
Iowa hasn’t been this accommodating since the 2000-01 team gave up 73.6 in league play.
The Hawkeyes have allowed at least 70 points in 11 of 15 Big Ten games this season. Last year’s team allowed five in conference play.
This Hawkeye team brought everyone back except Eric May. But May’s toughness and tenacity was apparently more important than I realized.
The Hawkeyes entered Tuesday’s game at Minnesota as one of three league teams that hadn’t lost back-to-back conference games all season. Michigan and Michigan State were the other two. Wisconsin lost three straight and five of six. Ohio State lost four straight, and also five of six. Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue have all lost at least three in a row.
“That’s what this league is,” McCaffery said Thursday.
Iowa’s slide is magnified because it’s coming late in the season, when every game is micro-analyzed because of NCAA Tournament implications.
“Peaked Too Soon?” was the headline on ESPN.com’s college basketball page after Thursday’s loss to the Hoosiers.
Iowa entered the week ranked 20th in The Associated Press poll. Their streak of 14 consecutive weeks in that survey is likely over. The Hawkeyes are still in good shape for their first NCAA bid since 2006, but taking care of the home court against the Boilermakers and Illinois on March 8 is highly recommended.
The Hawkeyes can still get the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes (19-9, 8-7 Big Ten), who also play at Michigan State on March 6, are likely competing with Ohio State (9-7) and Nebraska (8-7) for that final bye spot.
The Buckeyes play at Indiana on Sunday and host Michigan State on March 9. Nebraska hosts Northwestern today, travels to Indiana on March 5 and hosts Wisconsin on March 9. Iowa has the edge in all tiebreaker scenarios if Michigan wins the Big Ten title outright.
But that advantage will be null and void if Iowa doesn’t buckle down, take some pride in its defense and take care of the basketball.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter at Sunday’s Purdue game and all year long: @ByRickBrown.