Preview: Improved Iowa Defense Faces Tough Test in Ohio State

January 11, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

Fran McCaffery Press Conference

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IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa is riding its first two-game, Big Ten winning streak in two years. Improved defense is playing a big role in the recent success.

While it’s far from being a lock-down system, the Hawkeyes have made strides in limiting opponents, particularly from the perimeter. Nebraska and at Northwestern shot a combined 11 of 50 on three-pointers during the win streak. Those performances were miles ahead of that at Purdue last week when they yielded 52 first-half points.

Iowa has leaned heavily on its zone, in which it’s been much more active and connected than it was last year or even earlier this season. They’ve complemented that alignment with some man-to-man and a three quarter-court trap that, while not producing a lot of steals, shaves seconds off the shot clock, limiting the amount of time it plays defense in the half court.

“I think being more comfortable with it and understanding our rotations better,” senior Nicholas Baer said of improved zone play. “I think we’re doing a better job of anticipating the next pass or the next play. That’s important.

“I think when you look at how we’re able to hold teams to a (lower) field goal percentage, playing an active zone is a big part of that. It’s been integral for our success.”

The Hawkeyes ranked 313th (37.6 percent) nationally in three-point field goal defense last year. They have improved to 39th (29.8 percent) so far this season.

Overall, Iowa ranks 206th (43.8) in field goal percentage defense, which is up from 287 (46.2) a year ago. With its potent offense, a competent defense works.

The Hawkeyes face a stiff challenge Saturday (1:30 p.m. CT, BTN) when No. 16 Ohio State comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Buckeyes boast a low-post force in Kaleb Wesson (17.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG) along with a couple of three-point threats in C.J. Jackson (30 made) and Duane Washington Jr. (23).

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“They’ve got some veterans, they’ve got some young guys, they’ve got some speed and quickness. They’ve got a low-post game. When you put a team together, you’ve got all the pieces that you want to fill all the positions that you need,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.

Iowa should have the services of its leading scorer and rebounder, Tyler Cook, who missed Wednesday’s game at Northwestern with a sore knee.

“I feel a lot better now. I feel great. So I should be good to go for (Saturday),” he said Friday afternoon.

The Buckeyes (12-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) come into Iowa City on a two-game skid, losing at home to No. 6 Michigan State before being upset at Rutgers on Wednesday. As of Friday, they sit at No. 26 in the KenPom.com rankings, while Iowa (13-3, 2-3) checks in at 36th.

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“They’ve got good length, good size. They change defenses and mix it up and keep you off balance and they’re good at playing multiple defenses, including man and different zones,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said.

Holtmann thinks a key to slowing down the Hawkeyes’ potent offense attack (82.3 PPG, 34th nationally) will be limiting the amount of times they go to the foul line. They lead the country in makes (22.0) per game and are second in attempts (28.9).

“They’re really physical. In order to get to the line, you have to have seekers and not avoiders. And they have big-bodied seekers that are seeking contact,” Holtmann said.

Iowa center Luka Garza sank 10 of 11 foul shots at Northwestern and created foul trouble for the Wildcats. Their center, Dererk Pardon was held to six points, seven fewer than he averages, before fouling out.

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The Garza-Wesson matchup should be a good one. The sophomores are familiar with each other having met twice last season and during their AAU days. Garza’s grassroots team came out on top.

“We won but he got me twice last year (when the Buckeyes swept Iowa). So, we’re trying to make up for that now,” Garza said.

Ohio State defends well. It’s ranked third in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense (39.3 percent). The Hawkeyes shoot 46.7.

After Saturday, the Buckeyes return home for games against Maryland and Purdue, when they should be favored. However, the focus now is on halting the losing streak and staying in contention for a conference title with a road contest in Iowa City.

“We’re not treating it special. Obviously we know that we need to go get this one but we’re just treating it like every other game. We’re going to take the same approach and we’re going to go there and do what we’ve got to do,” Washington Jr. said.

Iowa already has dropped a conference home game against Wisconsin and can’t afford another setback on Saturday.

“That was one game we wish we had back just because it kind of changed the scope of how we start the Big Ten conference. This game is another big game for us. It’s a home game and we’re just trying to complete our resume so the NCAA hopefully looks into our resume to put us into the tournament. That’s our end goal and to try to get the highest seed as possible,” junior guard Jordan Bohannon said.

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