Monday, January 20, 2014
Planning for success: Iowa comes in waves
By Eamonn Brennan
Now that Iowa has last Sunday’s win at Ohio State out of the way, we can officially say farewell to the Hawkeyes' well-earned narrative -- that they didn’t know how to finish games -- and get down to the much more enjoyable business of appreciation. And not a moment too soon.
If Iowa had made it this deep into its immensely promising season without a marquee victory, everyone would still be focusing on the results, fretting about when and how the Hawkeyes would get the wins they needed to guarantee an NCAA tournament berth. That win in Columbus (to say nothing of Sunday’s 94-73 drilling of Minnesota) gives us license to stop exclusively grading results and instead enjoy a face-first swan dive into Fran McCaffery’s glorious process.
After being relegated to the NIT last season due to an inability to finish close games, this season's Hawkeyes have plenty to smile about.
Last season, when a swath of close Big Ten losses really did resign a statistically impressive Hawks team to the NIT, Iowa made its transition from “rebuilding” to “hold on, Iowa might be pretty good!” primarily on the strength of its defense. That Iowa team shot abysmally from 3-point range and not much better inside the arc; it was a medium-tempo squad that played stout perimeter defense, not unlike most of the Big Ten.
This Iowa team, the 2013-14 version, is like a fever dream by comparison. The Hawkeyes average 73 possessions per game, according to kenpom.com, with an average offensive possession length of 14.3 seconds. That’s the third fastest in the country and the fastest of any high-major team. (Only BYU and Northeastern play at a faster pace.) This is head-turning stuff in any league. In the traditionally slow-paced Big Ten, it’s unheard of.
Still, pace is just speed. There’s no point to playing fast if all you’re doing is hustling up bad shots. Iowa is not that. Iowa, believe it or not, also happens to be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. These Hawkeyes shoot the ball vastly better than a year ago, they don’t turn it over often, they rebound their own misses and they draw fouls. Frankly, there isn’t an area of offensive basketball where they don’t excel.
And even with all of that said, the most impressive and surprising factor in Iowa’s offensive renaissance is its sheer strength in numbers. Guard Roy Devyn Marble uses 27.9 percent of possessions and takes 30 percent of Iowa’s shots; he’s the obvious featured weapon. But the Hawkeyes also have inside-out forward Aaron White, sharpshooter Zach McCabe, rebounding machine Melsahn Basabe, savvy point guard Mike Gesell and sophomore forward Jarrod Uthoff, the former Wisconsin transfer whose offensive rating of 129.4 trails only White (132.6) in the internal race for maximization of touches.
And those are just the starters. (Slight correction here: Woodbury actually starts, though Uthoff plays more minutes.) Center Adam Woodbury and forward Gabriel Olaseni are interior anchors off the bench, while Peter Jok and Anthony Clemmons provide a change of pace at guard. Even occasional fan punching-bag Josh Oglesby, now freed from the burden of more than a handful of minutes per game, has seen his offensive rating leap from 93.6 to 131.9 in the matter of just one season.
When McCaffery arrived at Iowa four years ago, he did so in the wake of the dreary Todd Lickliter disaster, and he promised a spiritual return to classic up-tempo Iowa teams of old. The Hawkeyes would run, he said, and they’d give fans something to cheer for. Plenty of coaches say the same thing in the early stages of a rebuild when there is little to lose by being less hard on the eyes. Few follow through on it quite so heartily.
The result is a team that can become almost impossible to plan for. For Michigan, where Iowa travels in search of another quality win Wednesday night, the hopes of slowing the Hawks down and playing a half-court game are barely more preferable (if at all) to the idea of getting into a perimeter footrace with one of the most willfully speedy teams in the country.
If Iowa goes another unlikely month without a marquee win, we can recommence the narrative nail-biting. But for now, just sit back and enjoy the ride.