BASKETBALL

How Iowa Became March Capable

After their overtime loss at Penn State on January 31st, the Iowa men’s basketball team was at a bit of a crossroads.

Most bracketologists had them very near the NCAA tournament bubble at that point in time, their defensive efficiency rating was around 120th in the nation, they were an average three point shooting team (173rd out of 358 Division 1 teams, and making 33.6% of their threes) and they were 4-6 in Big Ten play.

I recorded a podcast after the home Purdue loss, saying that Iowa was about what I thought they were going to be.  No, I didn’t anticipate that Keegan Murray would be a National Player of the Year candidate.  After all, in an item I wrote in April of 2021, I projected Murray to average 14 points per game and 8 rebounds per game for his sophomore season…and before you pile on say ‘Wow Jon, you are an idiot, you really missed that one.’ consider that just 13 Big Ten sophomores had done since at least 1992.  The list included Chris Weber, Glen Robinson, Jared Sullinger, Caleb Swanigan, Jalen Smith, Rashard Griffith, Joel Pryzbilla and Trace Jackson-Davis.  When I added in the 1.7 blocks per game I felt Murray would mix in, that list dropped down to just five players.

In that podcast, I also said that Connor McCaffery should not shoot three point shots, because he’s just not good at it.  I had three and a half years worth of data to support my assertion and he was one of his previous nine threes prior to the Penn State game, including 0 of 3 vs Purdue.

Some things I did not say on that podcast, but had been saying to friends, that I was having a very hard time connecting with this year’s Iowa basketball team, but that was not their fault.  It was a lingering hangover of unmet expectations from last year’s team…a team that I felt was one for the Iowa ages, the one to bust through to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, at a minimum….but after Iowa was boat raced by Oregon, for many of the same reasons that have limited past Iowa teams (lack of dribble drive skill sets, lack of perimeter on ball defenders, lack of playmakers in general), I sort of went into a hoops funk…because if last year’s Iowa team, that was ranked in the Top Ten for much of the season and had two-NBA players on the team couldn’t make it to second weekend…well, you know.

Then rolling into the 2021-2022 season, Iowa lost Garza, Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge.   I felt this team was going to get killed on the glass and I was concerned that they didn’t have enough accurate shooters from range and they would be too easy to defend and not have enough firepower on offense to make teams pay.  I also felt the soft non-conference schedule would put them at risk of missing the dance because I felt they were likely a .500 Big Ten team at best.

And through the 20th game of a 31 game regular season, I think I was mostly correct in my pre-season notions.

However, something happened.  I don’t know that I will ever be able to put my finger on exactly what happened, because it’s not just one thing. But Fran McCaffery made some changes.   Let’s talk through some possible catalysts for the incredible turn of fortune that has seen Iowa win 11 of its last 13 Big Ten games, 10 of those wins by double digits and move their NCAA stock from the 10, 11 or out line without any Quad 1 wins, to a five-seed with some prognosticators talking about them as a dark horse Final Four Squad.

Let’s begin with Fran’s decision to move Jordan Bohannon from the two-guard position, move Joe Toussaint to a coming off the bench role and moving Tony Perkins into the starting lineup.

Bohannon had logged a lot of minutes in his career, but through 20 games, which was the loss at Penn State, he was averaging 25.6/mpg game in all games, which would have been the low average for his Iowa career.  Perhaps Jordan was feeling better physically than any other point in his career…perhaps his legs were still ‘fresh’…perhaps he had grown accustomed to finding more shots from the point than the two?  Perhaps Tony Perkins emergence as a legitimate scouting report threat helped…perhaps a lot of things.   But let’s take a look at some numbers.

The stat boxes I am going to share the rest of the way show players numbers in BIG TEN GAMES ONLY through the Penn State loss, and then what they have done after the Penn State loss, through the win against Indiana in the Big Ten semifinal on Saturday.

Bohannon MP 3P 3PA 3P% TRB AST STL TOV PTS
Before 2/1 27.80 14 55 0.255 1.10 1.5 0.60 0.80 7.60
After 2/1 28.23 43 95 0.453 1.62 2.2 0.85 1.31 13.23

 

Bohannon’s minutes are very similar, an increase of just 1.8%.  However, look at the increase in his production.  His three-point shooting numbers are through the roof, including his accuracy.  His scoring nearly doubled.  I think for the first half of this after 2/1 portion, Bohannon was definitely handling the ball more.  But from the win at Nebraska onward, he hasn’t…Tony Perkins has been handling the ball more, often running the one position even more than Bohannon.  Let’s take a look at Tony’s numbers.

Perkins MP 3P 3PA 3P% TRB AST STL TOV PTS
Before 2/1 15.10 3 13 0.231 1.60 0.8 0.70 0.90 5.90
After 2/1 20.54 9 18 0.500 3.38 2.4 0.85 0.92 8.46

 

Again, we are talking Big Ten games only relative to these stats.  Perkins minutes per game increased 35%, but his overall statistical production is up far more than 35%…so his growth has not been linear, it has been exponential.   What does not show up in these numbers is how well his Basketball IQ game has been.  I have noticed so many instances where he has held back from attacking, where he has chosen to make a pass as opposed to force a bad shot…and where he has seen that the specific circumstance has called for him to attack and make a play.  This happens a lot in ever game.

Also, the first half of this second half, from the home win against Minnesota on 2.6 through the home win against Michigan State on 2.22, a full six games, Perkins was averaging 14.8 minutes per game.  From the ‘Tony Perkins Game’ at Nebraska where he scored 20 points, he has averaged 25.4 minutes per game.   In other words, Tony became a made man.   His points per game were at 4 during that Minnesota through MSU stretch, but 12.2 after it.

I don’t think it’s prudent to say ‘Bohannon’s move to the point’ was the catalyst for Iowa’s turnaround.  I think it’s Tony Perkins becoming a starter, and what his skill set brings to the table, the spacing that has created since Perkins is now on the scouting report and Perkins ability to dribble drive and take it all the way to the rack, one of the most athletic players with the ball in his hands who is a capable dribbler that Iowa has had since Devin Marble.

I have been thinking long and hard about a player from Iowa’s past that Perkins reminds me of…and it’s hard.  But I have landed on an Andre Woolridge starter kit.  He doesn’t have the wizard-like handles that Woolridge have, but Perkins is strong, as was Woolridge.  He’s also athletic, more so than Woolridge.  If Perkins can get up 1,000 three’s a day in the offseason, and become a a 38% shooter from three with higher volume, I think he is Iowa’s next 1st Team All Big Ten player and your starting point guard next season.   Keep in mind, that ‘starting point guard’ in Fran’s motion system doesn’t mean that Perkins and Joe Toussaint can’t play alongside one another.

On to another key evolution, and that is Connor McCaffery.  Connor is simply one of the toughest players to ever put on an Iowa uniform, and that’s not debatable.  No, he doesn’t have the most refined offensive game that we are used to seeing out of Big Ten players.  I realize this is cliche, but there are so man things that Connor does that go into the recipe of Iowa’s successful run late this year.

Connor McCaffery MP 3P 3PA 3P% TRB AST STL TOV PTS
Before 2/1 15.3 6 23 0.261 2.00 1.11 1.11 0.33 2.33
After 2/1 18.8 14 28 0.500 2.17 2.17 0.25 0.42 4.00

 

Connor’s minutes are up 25% pre-PSU loss.  His scoring has nearly doubled, his assists are doubled but his three-point percentage has crept into the ‘Hey, we may need to guard Connor from three’ on the opposing team’s scouting report.  But as I said earlier, it’s just more than that with Connor.  He’s still a great post feeder, and he is one of the best post re-feeders I have ever seen.  He doesn’t give up on the post when they kick it back out to him, he waits for the post to reposition and if the post does that, Connor gets him the ball back.  Connor also has so much old man’s wisdom to his game.  He plays physical defense on the block with his legs and UPPER body, a savvy move that is hard for officials to see, banging your torso into the defender as they try to back you down, but not reaching.   Connor is listed at 205 points, and he has been assigned to guard many a forward this year…and he has done a really good job.   His move to pass the ball to officials before the five-second count starts on inbounds plays, his court vision….Iowa would not have won 11 of 13 were it not for Connor’s contributions.  That is the best way to say it.  He’s one of the smartest on-court players I have ever seen.

The last set of player stats I am going to bring up are those of Keegan Murray.  Keegan has simply taken his game to a level that has seldom been seen in the Big Ten over the past 30 years, with  only Glenn Robinson and Alan Henderson having done what he is doing.  Here are his numbers, up to the loss at Penn State and after it.

Keegan Murray MP 3P 3PA 3P% TRB AST STL TOV PTS
Before 2/1 32.89 17 45 0.3778 7.78 0.56 1.33 1.22 20.11
After 2/1 33.38 31 61 0.5082 9.00 1.92 1.08 0.92 25.85

 

He was clearly no slouch before the Penn State game, and these numbers again are just Big Ten games only.  However, since that loss at Penn State, Murray has been on a tear the likes I have seldom seen from a college basketball player in my 40 years of watching the sport.  His minutes are nearly identical, up just 1.49%.  But look at his production.  He is averaging nearly 1.25 more rebounds per game, he is averaging over five more points per game, he is hitting 50% from three on 4.7 attempts per game, his turnovers are lower and he is averaging four times as many assists!

As good as Luka Garza was, Keegan is better.  As good as Roy Marble was, Keegan is better.  As good as Ronnie Lester was, Keegan is better.   We are witness to one of the most incredible stretch runs by a college basketball player in a generation….and he happens to be wearing an Iowa uniform.  I don’t even think I am fully appreciating the greatness on display.

Which brings me back around full circle to what this Iowa TEAM is accomplishing.  Make no mistake, Joe T, Ulis, Sandfort, Patrick and Filip have all made impactful contributions, too.

Let me repost the stats I shared at the start of this piece, Iowa’s analytics from game one through the Penn State game, all games played (not just Big Ten).  Their defensive efficiency rating was around 120th in the nation, they were an average three point shooting team (173rd out of 358 Division 1 teams, and making 33.6% of their threes) and they were 4-6 in Big Ten play and ranked #25 in Bart Torvik’s analytics stats.

Since then (through the win against Indiana on Saturday)?  From the Minnesota game on February 6th through yesterday, Iowa is ranked as the second best team in the sport, trailing just Gonzaga.  Iowa’s Offensive Efficiency is #1 in the sport during that time, and their adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked 72nd.  They are the 49th best offensive rebounding team (86th before the home game vs Minnesota dating back to the start of the year) and they have been the 6th best three-point shooting team in college basketball since 2/1/21, hitting a blistering 42.5%.

Keep in mind that the 2/1 through current statistical profile and rankings are against Big Ten teams only, and go up against other teams that were likely playing all of their games against conference foes.

However, last year’s Iowa team, from February 1st, 2021 through their loss to Oregon, was ranked the 6th best team, their offensive efficiency rating was 4th in the nation (but nowhere near as good as how the current Iowa team has been playing since 2/1/22) and they were playing ‘better’ defense, statistically than this year’s team.  Iowa was also hitting 38.7% of their threes over that same stretch, good for 40th in the nation.

I keep asking myself if Lucy is going to pull away the proverbial football on us again….is this all just fool’s black and gold?  Why is this Iowa team any different?

Well, because they are different.  They are a harder team to defend than last year’s team.  This is not an inside-out based offensive team, the way that it was last year.  Iowa has a handful of players that can attack the rim with the ball in their hands; Keegan, Kris, Patrick, Tony and Joe.  Every one of those players is also a plus defender, at a minimum.

Iowa has the ingredients we have seen from past Sweet 16 teams…they have a deep guard court…they have players that can score off the dribble…they are shooting it a very high clip from three (Kris is hitting 41% from three since 2/1/22)…

It’s hard to imagine that Iowa will keep making 40% or better from three…but they can guard opposing guards better this year, and score more efficiently off the dribble, so they are better equipped to survive a game where they make just 6 of 21 from three as was the case in their 75-62 win at Ohio State.

It would be so sweet to see Iowa beat Purdue today and cut down the nets…and give those players, and Iowa fans, a lifetime memory…but it’s not likely to impact seeding either way.  Lose, and they are likely a five, as seems to be the case right now.  Win, and perhaps they could get swapped out to the four-line with someone else, say, Providence.   The four and five seeds typically meet up in the second round of the tournament….the five plays a 12 and the four plays a 13 in the opening round so yes, you would prefer to be a four.   However, I just don’t see this team losing in the first round…

March is all about matchups, stylistic matchups, as we saw last year when Iowa drew an under-seeded Oregon team who also didn’t have to play their opening round game because of COVID.

I think Iowa’s worst type of matchup is against what they will be facing later this afternoon against Purdue, a team that can really hurt them on the glass.   But I just feel that this team is equipped for most of what will come at them…and they have been playing at an insanely high level over their last 13 games, all against Big Ten competition.

I didn’t believe in this team for most of the season…or rather, they were what I thought they were going to be.  But for the last six weeks, they have been better than last year’s team that earned a two-seed…and what a magical ride this has been.   The unexpected pleasant surprises are always the sweetest.

 

 

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