Iowa may have the National Player of the Year in college basketball this season in Luka Garza with the senior All-American going into the last day of February leading the nation with a 24.3 Points-Per-Game scoring average. He leads a Hawkeyes’ attack that makes 40.4% of their 3-pointers, good for fourth-best in the nation. Fran McCaffrey’s team also assists on 63.5% of their made baskets with this exquisite ball movement ranking seventh-best nationally. For a team that scores 85.2 Points-Per-Game while ranking second in the nation in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, perhaps it is these elite numbers that draw attention to their meager numbers on the other end of the court.
Iowa is just 59th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 48.3% against them, ranking 104th nationally. The Hawkeyes do not attempt to force turnovers with their opponents only losing possession 16.2% of the time before a shot, 318th lowest nationally. And Iowa’s opponents nail 34.9% of their shots from behind the arc, 239th in the nation. These opponents are also taking 40.0% of their shots from downtown, with that mark being the 260th highest in the country. Perhaps the elite shooting Iowa brings to games is compelling their opponents to take more 3s to keep up? Maybe. But Iowa is clearly much better on offense with their liabilities on defense a red flag regarding their NCAA Tournament potential to make a deep run.
The above seems to be fair criticism and assessment of the 2020-21 college basketball team entering March. But why have fellow Big Ten and nationally-ranked peers in Ohio State escaped similar scrutiny? The Buckeyes began the week as the number four ranked team in the nation and the de-facto fourth number one season in the NCAA Tournament — even after losing to third-ranked Michigan on February 21st. Sure, there is no shame in losing to this Wolverines team that is tearing up the Big Ten while only losing once all season even after a three-week COVID pause in the middle of the Big Ten season. Michigan scored 92 points against them while generating 1.37 Points-Per-Possession. Yet, the Wolverines got the credit and the Buckeyes got a pass since it was considered by many to be the best basketball game of the season. However, Ohio State entered their February 28th showdown with Iowa with worse defensive numbers across-the-board.
The Buckeyes rank 81st in the nation in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency along with eighth in the Big Ten in that metric (just behind Iowa in the conference). Opponents have an opponent’s effective field goal percentage of 49.1%, ranking 136th nationally. Like the Hawkeyes, Ohio State does not attempt to force many turnovers with their opponents only coughing it up in 15.6% of their possessions, 328th nationally. The Buckeyes do perform a bit better than Iowa in a 3-point defense. Their opponents make 34.4% of their 3-pointers, 215th nationally, while taking 38.6% of their shots from downtown, the 215th lowest rate. Generally, the analytics folks consider 3-point percentage defense to be a function of luck but limiting 3-point attempts more a function of skill. Maybe … the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer would likely quarrel with that diagnosis since his system tries to lull opponents into taking bad 3-point shots. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense at Syracuse attempts to accomplish the same task. Needless to say, Ohio State’s defense appears on paper to be performing worse than the Iowa defense.
And at least the Hawkeyes thrive in one area: they do a good job of defending inside the arc. Their opponents are along only 45.6 % of their 2-point shots, 38th best in the nation. The Buckeyes’ opponents are making 47.5% of their shots inside the arc which ranks a respectable 97th in the nation. But that number declines to a 50.1% clip in Big Ten play, good for 9th best, while Iowa still holds their conference foes to 46.2% shooting of their 2s in conference play, ranking third best.
These numbers helped to set the stage for their clash earlier today where Iowa upset Ohio State in Columbus, 73-57, as a 3-point underdog. The Buckeyes did little to stop the Hawkeyes scoring attack. Iowa shot 47% from the field while nailing 10 of 24 (42%) of their 3-pointers. Iowa scored at a healthy 1.11 Points-Per-Possession clip which was not far below their Adjusted Offensive Efficiency projected rate of 1.249. However, Ohio State made only 5 of their 17 (29%) 3-point attempts en route to a 45% shooting performance. The Buckeyes scored at just a 0.86 Points-Per-Possession clip which was well below their projected Adjusted Offensive Efficiency of 1.226 per possession.
Perhaps Ohio State just had a cold night shooting? Or perhaps the Iowa defense is steadily improving while the Buckeyes’ defense gets a pass due to their top-four ranking? During the Hawkeyes’ recent four-game winning streak, before losing at Michigan on Thursday, they had not allowed more than 68 points and 1.02 Points-Per-Possession during that stretch before the Wolverines scored 79 points at a 1.18 PPP rate. Now after their performance against the third-most efficient offense in the nation in the Buckeyes, Iowa has held five of their last six opponents below 69 points and 1.02 PPG.
The Hawkeyes’ defense may be their Achilles’ heel in the Big Dance later this month. But the concerns they have on defense pale in comparison to the issues Chris Holtmann has with his Ohio State team right now.
Best of luck — Frank.