The Iowa Hawkeyes (8-6) played perhaps their best game of the season last night in their Big Ten conference opener, yet the defense consistently failed at the worst possible times in a 79-76 loss to the Purdue Boilermakers (11-3). The student section chanted “ACL” when Purdue senior Robbie Hummel took the free throw line, which was bad, and Devyn Marble continued his torrid play to contribute 17 points, six assists, and zero turnovers, which was good. But do Hawkeye fans really know any more about their team then they did at the beginning of the season? And with road contests in three of the next four games at Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan State, the Hawkeyes need to find those answers if they don’t want to start 0-5 in the Big Ten. Here are five reasons Iowa lost to the Boilermakers last night:
1) The defense. Coach Fran McCaffery is notorious for showering hyperbolic praise upon his players, even in time of defeat, but White Magic didn’t mince words last night when discussing Iowa’s poor defensive performance.
“It was disappointing the way we defended in the second half,” McCaffery said. “It was disappointing the way we defended the whole game.”
The Boilermakers shot 50 percent for the game, which included a near-60 percent clip in the first half, when Purdue scored 45 points. The main problem was allowing penetration; Purdue sliced into the lane with ease throughout the game, and Iowa allowed them to make gut-wrenching lay-ups in the closing minutes when the paint should have been off-limits. Fran tried multiple defensive formations, but the 2-3 zone left the corner three wide-open and the Hawkeyes don’t have the athletes across the board to prevent their man from driving deep into the heart of the lane with a man-to-man defense. When Melsahn Basabe was in the game, Iowa had the luxury of a shot blocker lurking behind on help-side defense (he finished with two swats), but when he was out of the game, the Hawks lost that threat and appeared soft around the hoop. It was really a shame that Iowa could not stop Purdue consistently — it seemed as if their best defense was praying for a miss. But Iowa’s offense was at-time brilliant last night, with Basabe and Marble seemingly scoring at will throughout the first half. The Carver crowd, which was relatively full for a holiday game, appeared ready to burst at the seams when Iowa tied the game at 52 apiece midway through the second half, and multiple other times when Iowa got within two-to-four points. But the Hawkeyes could never get over that hump and take a solid lead, which could be attributed to an inability to get stops when they needed them.
2) Lack of clutch, big-game scoring experience. Iowa doesn’t have a go-to scorer on the roster who can be relied on for instant buckets in clutch situations. Matt Gatens can shoot, and he proved that with a ballsy pull-up triple last night to cut the deficit to three with 15 seconds left. But he lacks the athleticism to consistently free himself of his defender. Cartwright became that man for Iowa last season, and he has the guts of steel, but the awkward release on his shot has prevented him from consistently draining jumpers in 2011. Any Lickliter-era player can probably be ruled out for this role seeing as the copious amounts of losing has permanently damaged their psyche (see Eric May). Marble and Basabe are Iowa’s best bets at entering into the role of clutch scorer, but they are still young, learning how to win, and developing consistent identities on the floor. Look for Marble to start taking the last shots for the Hawks — he is becoming a stud right before fans’ eyes, averaging double-digit points throughout December and handling the point with poise as if it were his natural position. He has one of the top-five assist-to-turnover ratios in the country.
3) Iowa’s bench. Outside of Aaron White, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week, the Hawkeye bench has not provided a spark lately. White’s athleticism, active hands, and outside touch have given the Hawks an injection of energy after a series of stale starts lately, and he should continue to do so — White’s style of play is better coming off the bench instead of starting, and he seems comfortable in that role. And Oglesby can really shoot it from deep downtown. But whenever Iowa’s starters, specifically Marble and Basabe, left the game last night, the drop-off in production and ability was painful. Brommer looked slow and uncomfortable, failing to provide the help-side defense of Basabe, and the second-team had difficulty creating their own shot. Gatens is solid but isn’t exactly a playmaker out there. The overall defensive level dropped significantly too. The only cure for this is garnering more players, and thankfully for Hawkeye fans the cavalry is coming in 2012 with a star-studded recruiting class. Until then, the starters are going to have to play huge minutes for Iowa to win conference ball games because the depth isn’t there yet.
4) Eric May. The junior should have played football, which was his other notable sport coming out of Dubuque Wahlert. It appears he chose the wrong sport for his athlete strengths. The Iowa coaching staff keeps giving the poor guy a chance — he’s literally had every opportunity to show he’s capable — yet May continues to display the same flaws to his basketball game as he did last season. We all know he’s an outstanding athlete as far as dunking and what not. And last night, he wasn’t exactly terrible — he drained the three-pointer that tied the game at 52 points. But it’s apparent for anyone watching Iowa’s games that May often looks lost, awkward, and uncomfortable on the basketball court. He doesn’t have a good feel for the game, and although he has great power and jumping ability, for some reason he is unable to translate this to the basketball court. May has a plodding first step, often dribbles aimlessly sideways, and usually loses confidence after early misses. His movements and “basketball moves” are never fluid or comfortable looking. If you’ve ever played hoops with a football player, you’ll know what I’m talking about. May is a great athlete and he’s good for a couple “Maygasms” every season, but he looks like a football player on the basketball court, and that is not always a pretty thing to watch.
5) Luck. They say it’s better to be lucky than good, and although Purdue obviously has better all-around scorers on their roster than Iowa, it would be foolish to say the Boilermakers didn’t benefit from some lucky bounces last night. They made a series of difficult threes, and Hummel drained his share of difficult end-of-shot clock jumpers despite solid defense, but one player stands out to me as beneficiary of that luck. That would be D.J. Byrd. The stumpy Paul Wall lookalike scored 14 points on six of nine shooting, including a gut-punching lay-up he blindly threw over his head to notch a late six-point lead for Purdue. Byrd is a talented basketball player, but the guy who looks like a run of the mill Indiana redneck shouldn’t be the one killing the defense. It’s difficult to lose the home games in Big Ten play because it’s nearly impossible to win on the road. It’s even more difficult to digest when a guy like Byrd is the one getting lucky bounces on your own home floor.