IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa basketball right now is a brush twisted three times into a mound of thick, frizzy hair with only two options going forward.
One, grab and yank. But that’s painful, unnecessary and counterproductive. Two, you turn it slightly, you delicately loosen the hairs a strand at a time and hope to avoid serious damage. That’s where patience is required in an impatient world.
The Hawkeyes fell to 0-4 in Big Ten play Thursday night with a 92-81 loss to Ohio State. It’s the worst start to a Big Ten campaign since 2010-11 — Fran McCaffery’s first year — when Iowa opened 0-6. The Hawkeyes were outmanned in most contests that season, which was a natural considering the tire fire McCaffery inherited.
This season is way different. Expectations were high. Iowa was one of the top four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament last March. True, the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Peter Jok graduated, but the nucleus of a pretty decent team was intact.
Many people — myself included — thought Iowa could challenge for an upper-division slot. Instead, the Hawkeyes’ offense is tangled with no safe way to extricate it without a tug. Too often the ball gets trapped, the motion grinds without proper movement and someone takes a bail-out shot. It happens in way-too-long spurts and winnable games turn into quagmires.
The offense’s inability to score efficiently has led to transition breakdowns on defense. That’s not Iowa’s forte under McCaffery, which is more of a style recognition rather than a criticism. Then when opponents move into the half-court, the Hawkeyes struggle stopping the ball, which leads to overhelping on defense, which too often leads to open 3-point shots.
In double-digit losses to Michigan on Tuesday and Ohio State on Thursday, Iowa competed early on. Against the Wolverines, Iowa led 10-7 six minutes into the game. Against the Buckeyes, Iowa was up 12-9 four minutes in. Then both opponents went on long runs to put Iowa way behind. Michigan soared to a 19-4 run, while Ohio State’s was 16-1.
Both games followed a similar pattern, and this is Iowa’s problem right now. The offensive consistency just isn’t there. They get bogged down in the half-court. Players come in off the bench and there’s no chemistry. In some possessions they end up at the same spot on the floor or someone dribbles into traffic or another makes a sloppy pass.
“We struggled on offense big time,” said McCaffery about those spurts. “They got running a little bit, and they scored some buckets. It’s problematic on both ends.
“We had that one stretch where it seemed like we couldn’t score. So we went to changing personnel, changing the offense and different stuff and it was a real struggle for us in that stretch. Same thing the other night, [a] big-time struggle.
“On those runs everybody points to the defense and the defense wasn’t as good as it needed to be, but the offense was worse.”
There’s plenty of criticism to go around. The roster remains young, with only one junior starter and two juniors seeing action. But youth does not justify Iowa’s predicament. All three sophomore starters opened the majority of games last season as freshmen. So have other prominent bench players. They should know how to execute against good defenses or in scramble situations.
But fingers absolutely should point at McCaffery, too. His roster management the last few years has left the Hawkeyes in this quandry. Although every player has talent, the Hawkeyes brought in an overabundance of post players the last two years. In the 2016 class, Iowa signed five players, which included three forwards (Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener), a combo guard (Maishe Dailey) and a point guard (Jordan Bohannon). This year, it was a center (Luka Garza), another forward (Jack Nunge) and a 4-star walk-on guard in Connor McCaffery.
After graduating two point guards in 2016, Iowa rostered only one other one in Christian Williams, who decided to transfer last fall. Connor McCaffery has dealt with multiple health issues, from a sprained ankle to mono to now two tonsillectomies, and he’s likely to redshirt.
That leaves the backcourt with Bohannon at point guard, Dailey as the backup point and shooting guard Brady Ellingson occasionally sliding over. There’s nobody else. First, it doesn’t enhance Bohannon’s skill set by playing strictly point guard. He’s one of the Big Ten’s best pure shooters and a prime facilitator. If he ever gets hurt, this team could go from woe-is-me to woe-is-everything very quickly.
The front court is clogged with good-to-adequate players depending on the day. Cook is a star, but Pemsl, Kriener, Nunge, Garza and junior Ahmad Wagner all have moments where they are terrific. And other times when they’re just taking space. Outside of Cook, Bohannon and wing Nicholas Baer, the rest of the team is inconsistent. One player is on one night and below-average the next. That’s why there’s no rotation pattern.
There are too many post players and not enough guards. There aren’t enough minutes to give to the right players and not enough consistency from them to justify their happiness. It’s a tangled mess.
Some fans are calling for McCaffery’s ouster, which I find preposterous at this time. Sure, the criticism is warranted and the mulligans from digging out of Todd Lickliter’s disaster no longer are relevant. But in his last five seasons, McCaffery took Iowa to three NCAA Tournaments and within a whisker of two others. He’s earned the right to have a bad season.
People forget in Tom Davis’ fourth season in 1989-90, Iowa was 12-16 overall and 4-14 in Big Ten play. Iowa lost some of the best players in school history — which Davis didn’t recruit — and the Hawkeyes dropped eight of their last nine games. But that struggling team turned into an NCAA squad the next three seasons. Sometimes you whiff and you come back better for it.
Calling for McCaffery’s firing is like pulling out the hairbrush with no disregard for the fallout, which usually is much worse than just leaving it in there. Yes, untangling this mess is difficult and time-consuming. But it’s also worth it. If all the problems resume next year, then that’s the time to have a much stronger conversation. But for now, a knee-jerk reaction makes the situation worse, not better.