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2015-2015 Iowa Basketball Autopsy

March 27, 2016

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

It’s been a week since Villanova kicked Iowa out of the NCAA Tournament with brutal efficiency.

Hopefully by now our emotional response to the Hawkeyes’ season-ending performance has subsided. Now, we can get to the business of dissecting Iowa’s season. There was more good than bad, but the bad all came at the end so its smell is the most pungent.

This will be more autopsy than obituary. Using statistics and anecdotes, we’ll figure out what happened this season, why it happened, and what it means.

First things first: Was Iowa’s season a success?

It depends how one defines success. If someone had told us before the season that Iowa would return to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year and win a game in the tourney for a second straight year, most of us would be have been satisfied. That would have been no small feat considering the losses of Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni to graduation.

Beyond that, the Hawkeyes enjoyed an amazing run of good health, other than Dale Jones’ injury. Their primary starting five started all but one game together. Iowa ran off a streak of 13 wins in 14 games. And Adam Woodbury’s buzzer-beating, put-back game-winner against Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament ensured him a permanent spot on Iowa’s historical highlight reel.

So in that regard, yes, the season was a success.

Except, Iowa raised expectations by starting 10-1 in the Big Ten and climbing to No. 3 in the country. Once that happened, we started talking about a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, and we *gasp* allowed ourselves to think Iowa might be a national title contender.

Then the Hawkeyes lost. Then they lost again, and again. They lost to lousy teams like Penn State and Illinois and fell to a No. 7 seed.

From that point of view – how far Iowa fell – the season missed expectations. But it missed expectations because the Hawkeyes set them so high to begin with. I suppose one’s overall feeling toward this season will have to do with whether they’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty personality.

Myth: Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok shot too much

Iowa started 10-1 in the Big Ten. It finished its season 3-7.

One theory floated by others and me for the collapse was that Iowa’s offensive stars, Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, shot too much. I even wrote that here.

The thought was that Uthoff and Jok’s teammates never touched the ball on offense, so they became disengaged during games. Or, their teammates were too deferential on offense, which put too much pressure on Uthoff and Jok, which made it far too easy for Iowa’s opponents to defend them.

Guard Uthoff and Jok and the rest will take care of itself, right?

Not exactly.

Uthoff and Jok took 46.6 percent of the Hawkeyes’ total shots during their 10-1 Big Ten start. That number rose to 49.5 percent during their 2-6 Big Ten finish.

On the surface, Uthoff and Jok looked like ball hogs. They took half their team’s shots and torpedoed the season. However, that’s not true. They should not have shot less. If anything, they should have shot more.

Over the Hawkeyes’ last 10 games, in which they went 3-7, Uthoff and Jok took at least 52 percent of their team’s shots in a game four times. Iowa went 3-1 in those games. Their only loss among those four games was Feb. 17 at Penn State. That was a four-point loss in which Penn State sunk 10-of-12 free throws down the stretch while Iowa managed only 3-of-6.

During the 3-7 finish Uthoff and Jok shot less than 52 percent of their team’s shots six times. Iowa went 0-6.

As it turns out, the Hawkeyes might have had a better chance of success down the stretch if they had asked their two stars to fire up even more shots.

What does that mean?

It means Uthoff and Jok’s teammates weren’t pulling their weight on offense. If you watched games this year, you already knew that, but it’s nice to have statistical evidence to back up what our eyes were telling us.

Here’s more evidence:

There were nine games played together by Uthoff and Jok this year in which neither scored 20 points. The Hawkeyes went 4-5 in those games. Let’s look deeper at those nine games.

Two of the four wins were against lower-level teams: University of Missouri-Kansas City and Drake. The other two wins – the first Michigan State win and home versus Penn State – required massive efforts from their teammates. Against Michigan State, Mike Gesell scored a career-high 25 points – 17 points more than the 8.1 he averaged this season. Against Penn State, Iowa’s bench scored 28 points – nearly 10 above their season average – while Anthony Clemmons scored 12, which was about four over his average.

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Put another way, if Uthoff and Jok were even the slightest bit off their games, it took above average or exceptional performances by their teammates for Iowa to be able to overcome it.

We need to make one last point on Uthoff and Jok’s offensive contribution and then we’ll move on to something else. There were four times this year in which Uthoff and Jok each scored at least 20 points in the same game.

Iowa went 3-1 in those games. The Hawkeyes’ one loss came to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament after Iowa’s other three starters – Gesell, Clemmons, and Woodbury – combined for only five points on 2-of-20 shooting. Not even Uthoff and Jok, who scored 76 percent of their team’s points against Illinois, could overcome such gross ineffectiveness on offense by their teammates.

Free throws

If you got the impression Iowa struggled to shoot free throws late in games this season, congratulations. You were right.

There’s not much to say here, so we’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Iowa shot 73.2 percent from the free-throw line in its 22 wins and 68.4 percent in its 11 losses.

A near 5 percent drop is a lot. And that was just the average. Consider:

* Iowa’s FT percentage dropped to 60 percent in a six-point loss at Maryland.

* Iowa’s FT percentage dropped to 56.5 percent in a seven-point loss at Indiana.

* Iowa shot 83 percent from the FT line in the first half against Wisconsin and trailed by only one at halftime. The Hawkeyes’ FT shooting fell to 61.5 percent in the second half, and they lost by eight.

* The Hawkeyes shot 58.3 percent from the FT line in the second half of their three-point home loss to Indiana.

As evidenced by losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, and Indiana, the Hawkeyes’ free-throw shooting was far worse when the game was on the line than in the early moments.

I can’t play pop psychologist and say the pressure got to them, or they didn’t have a killer instinct, or whatever. But we can say that they hurt themselves because they couldn’t sink free throws at the ends of games.

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Behind the scenes

Not everything about the Hawkeyes can be measured on an Excel spreadsheet.

At least three occurrences this year suggest there was more going on behind the scenes with the Hawkeyes than fans or media understood.

1. Players-only meeting

On Feb. 20, a few days after the loss at Penn State, Iowa players met without coaches and staff. That signaled discord.

I’ve covered Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, NHL, and college sports. There has never been, since the beginning of time, a players-only meeting to discuss the complexities of the interior bounce pass or proper shooting form.

It’s always something more. Woodbury, an intelligent and media savvy person, characterized the meeting as Iowa’s version of “America’s Got Talent.” I’m not buying it. No one calls a players-only meeting to make freshmen dance.

The Hawkeyes followed up their players-only meeting with three more losses in a row.

2. Ohio State confusion

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has never wavered in giving Uthoff the green light to shoot whenever he feels he can make it. Which is why it was so … odd … when Uthoff didn’t attempt a shot in Iowa’s last nine possessions of a four-point loss at Ohio State.

Uthoff’s vague response to the Des Moines Register’s Chad Leistikow about why he stopped shooting – “The ball ended up in other people’s hands” – was even more odd.

Uthoff missed a layup with just over 6 minutes remaining, then didn’t attempt another shot. An argument that Uthoff couldn’t get off a shot in six minutes is implausible.

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Did Uthoff’s teammates decide to commit a Michael Jordan-like freeze out and stop passing him the ball? Highly doubtful. Did Uthoff pull a Kobe Bryant and stop shooting to prove a point to his teammates? Again, highly doubtful.

So what happened? Why did Uthoff stop shooting? What was with McCaffery’s blunt “Ask him?” And what was with Uthoff’s distant response?

3.  McCaffery lashes out

Following Iowa’s 68-66 loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, a reporter asked if Gesell would mind submitting himself to DNA and blood tests to detect genetic abnormalities. Then, the reporter asked Gesell what mistakes his parents made when they raised him and questioned whether there might have been criminal activity in the household.

Thankfully, McCaffery stepped in and sternly told the reporter, “It’s none of your business!”

Actually, I made the first part of that up. I’m sure the Gesells are a wonderful family. The reporter really asked Gesell what play Iowa tried to run at the end of the game, to which McCaffery interrupted, “It’s none of your business what the play call was!

Reporters stalking Michael Jordan around a golf course was intrusive. A reporter making an appointment for Sammy Sosa at a urine-testing facility was intrusive. A reporter asking what play was called is more on par with seeing a co-worker in the elevator and asking, “How’s your day?”

Media members get yelled at all the time. It’s fine. Whatever.

The big deal here was McCaffery, his face red, his temper boiling, a good 10-15 minutes after the game had ended. This was a grown man, whose job description includes serving as a representative of the University of Iowa, embarrassing himself. Again.

We all love passion, but there’s a difference between passion and rage. Most importantly, it makes one wonder what his temper is like when the cameras are off. At practice. During team meetings. Is he prone to irrational outbursts then, too?

Longtime coach George Karl once said time away from the NBA (1988-92) helped him learn to not get so worked up. Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said he learned how to mellow out during his time away from coaching. I like McCaffery as a coach and hope he stays another 10-15 years, but I desperately hope he learns some sort of coping mechanism so that his temper doesn’t override his ability.

I acknowledge I might be making too much out of this. Maybe McCaffery’s players just smile at his temper like Anthony Clemmons did in this moment captured by the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s David Scrivner.

Or, maybe the players tense up when McCaffery tenses up, especially during stressful moments like, say, free throws near the end of a game. It’s hard to say whether McCaffery’s temper factors into his team’s performance, and obviously the evidence is inconclusive, but the possibility merits consideration.

Final autopsy report

What we know: Offensively, the 2015-16 Hawkeyes were a two-man team capable of overcoming struggles only when their teammates overachieved. Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok took most of their team’s shots not because they wanted to, but because they had to. There was no consistent third scoring option.

The season had beautiful moments. Woodbury’s buzzer-beater against Temple and a hot start to the Big Ten season gave fans joy.

The later into a game the Hawkeyes were, the worse free-throw shooters they became. Two, maybe three, losses could have been wins if they could have hit their season average from the line.

Something was going on with the team that made the players call a players-only meeting. The meeting didn’t work; Iowa kept losing.

What is indeterminate: We’ll never know what, exactly, got into the heads of the Iowa players. We won’t know what was said in the meeting. That, as McCaffery might say, is none of our business.

We’ll also never know for certain why Uthoff stopped shooting against Ohio State. It will go down as one of those great Hawkeye mysteries to rehash over tailgates.

How much does McCaffery’s temper impact his team? People are who they are; if McCaffery acts out in public settings, we can bet he acts out other times.

Lastly, did this team meet expectations, exceed them, or fall short? The fact that this is the question we’re left with confirms how crazy of a year it was. It definitely wasn’t boring.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz

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