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Inside the defensive transformation that has Iowa basketball poised for a postseason run

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The film didn’t lie. Neither did the ugly analytics.

And with the painful losses piling up quickly, there was a cold, hard truth facing the Iowa basketball team on the night of Feb. 4.

It was time to make a change.

It was time to defend.

Led by all-American center Luka Garza and sweet-shooting Joe Wieskamp, the Hawkeyes’ prolific offense was never in question. But after raining in 14 3-pointers and scoring 85 points yet allowing Ohio State to score 89 in a high-profile ESPN game, the Hawkeyes’ 12-2 start had become a troubling 13-5.

“The whole team just understood that there’s one thing holding us back,” Garza said, “and that’s our ability to get stops.”

Everyone who predicted defense would hold Fran McCaffery’s team back from meeting high expectations were being proven correct. Over a four-game stretch — losses to Indiana and Illinois, a choppy win vs. Michigan State, then the home loss to Ohio State — the Hawkeyes’ defense was downright ugly.

In those four games: Iowa allowed points on 54.7% of opponent possessions; 1.24 points per possession; and 82.0 points per game. The Hawkeyes’ adjusted defense on plummeted to No. 122 nationally.

But Iowa has achieved a remarkable reversal in the nine games since: Allowing points on 42.7% of opponent possessions; 0.98 points per possession; and 66.0 points per game. The Hawkeyes’ adjusted defense is now No. 61 nationally as they charge into this week's Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis with momentum and the No. 3 seed.

What is Iowa doing differently? Just how good has the defense been? And is the change sustainable?

Let’s dig in a little deeper.

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The transformation began just 2½ days after that Ohio State loss.

And even though the Hawkeyes would lose that Super Bowl Sunday game at Indiana, 67-65, for their fourth loss in five outings … players were perceptive enough to realize they were on the right track defensively.

To open that game in Bloomington, Iowa played aggressive man-to-man defense. All five starters — Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, Wieskamp, Keegan Murray and Garza — bought in from the get-go.

This was a departure from the Ohio State game about 63 hours earlier, when the Hawkeyes squandered a 61-50 second-half lead with porous zone defense. Iowa (perhaps inexplicably) played 18 straight Ohio State possessions in zone, and the Buckeyes scored 31 points on those trips. E.J. Liddell found open space in the lane to operate, and Justin Ahrens and Duane Washington Jr. capitalized from the 3-point line. There was one play in which Jack Nunge left Washington, one of the conference's streakiest 3-point shooters, to drift toward zone assignment. Connor McCaffery was unable to recover, and Washington buried an open 3.

But when you play man defense, the accountability for mistakes is higher. The intensity must increase, or you’ll get beat, embarrassed and possibly benched. Iowa players embraced that challenge at Indiana, holding the Hoosiers to 1-for-12 shooting on their first 11 possessions — while playing man-to-man. The Hawkeyes jumped to a 17-4 lead in the first seven minutes.

"Our offense wasn’t even great in that stretch," Garza said. "It was our ability to stop (them) from scoring.”

But then Garza got his second foul and sat the final 12:30 of the first half. Fran McCaffery got a technical foul with Iowa still leading, 23-11. Four Hawkeyes got two first-half fouls. It became a weird game, one that Indiana would win on a last-second shot.

But while the fan base panicked as Iowa fell to 13-6 overall and 7-5 in the Big Ten, players knew they were playing winning defense. They knew if they could hold every opponent to .97 points per possession, like it did at Indiana, they would win almost every time.

The man-to-man principles paid off in Iowa's next game, three days later vs. Rutgers. The Hawkeyes missed their first eight shot attempts of the game, yet only trailed 3-0 because they held Rutgers to 1-for-9 shooting out of the gate. Iowa would get its offense going, as it usually does, and cruise to a 79-66 victory. That would begin a stretch of 26 days in which Iowa went 7-1 to close the regular season.

After Rutgers, Iowa routed Michigan State, 88-58, while allowing .906 points per possession in East Lansing.

In a rousing 77-62 win at Wisconsin, the number was .984.

Then in a 74-68 win vs. Penn State, it was .971. If you recall, that was the day Garza set Iowa’s all-time scoring record. The score was stuck at 54-54 in the second half for nearly four minutes. Iowa got 10 consecutive defensive stops to finally take control of the game. One day later, national writer Rob Dauster, who in the preseason outlined Iowa’s defensive efficiencies that couldn’t be corrected, wrote a piece titled, “Is Iowa’s defense … good now?”

The numbers don’t lie, just like they didn't Feb. 4. The Hawkeyes are 20-7 overall after going 14-6 in the toughest conference in the country … and are probably going to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

They owe that rise to their defense.

The man-to-man commitment is the biggest thing, but there are other factors in the improvement.

As is his style, Fran McCaffery still changes up defenses frequently. But he’s gaining more confidence and reliance on the man-to-man, particularly with CJ Fredrick back in the fold. Fredrick is one of Iowa’s top defenders, and his absence to plantar fasciitis contributed to four of the seven losses. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is rarely out of position and stabilizes Iowa’s defense.

Two other elements have been key to improvement.

“Our ball-screen defense has been dramatically better,” Fran McCaffery said recently on his radio show. “It really has been.”

That's important, considering some Big Ten teams run almost exclusively ball-screen action. That means guards like Bohannon and Joe Toussaint have to be aggressive getting around screens and/or communicating for help.

And then there’s defensive rebounding. This has been a work in progress, considering Iowa allowed 20 offensive rebounds in a Feb. 2 home win vs. Michigan State. It allowed 15 in that two-point loss at Indiana. But after losing 6-foot-11 Nunge to a season-ending meniscus injury Feb. 25 at Michigan, the Hawkeyes seemed to collectively grasp the importance of keeping opponents off the offensive glass.

“You know what happens if you give up second shots. They put it back in, which is a high percentage shot. Or they kick it out for a wide-open 3, which is a high percentage shot,” McCaffery said. “That is a key component to any defense. Finish off the possession.”

In the three games since Nunge’s injury, Iowa has allowed an average of only 5.3 offensive rebounds per game — two by Ohio State, eight by Nebraska, six by Wisconsin — and only 12 total second-chance points. Wieskamp, Murray and even Bohannon have done a great job joining Garza on the defensive glass. An adherence to man-to-man principles — when you know you’re responsible for a single guy, not an area — goes hand-in-hand with blocking out for a rebound when a shot goes up.

“If we want to run, we’ve got to be able to rebound the ball,” McCaffery said. “Rebound misses and get our break going.”

Iowa’s adjusted offense remains No. 2 nationally. But how good is this defense, really?

To climb from 122 to 61 in adjusted defense (and it was at 56 before a poor second half Sunday vs. Wisconsin, which can be attributed to Wieskamp’s absence due to a sprained ankle) is an exceptional rise this late in the season.

To get an idea where Iowa’s last nine games — starting with that Indiana loss — would rank, I dug into the defensive numbers of another projected No. 2 seed, Alabama. Why the Crimson Tide? Because they play at a fast pace like Iowa does … and own KenPom's No. 3 adjusted defensive efficiency.

Here are Alabama’s defensive numbers over its last 10 games: Allowing points on 44.3% of opponent possessions, .947 points per possession and 70.9 points per game.  Recall, Iowa’s figures over its last nine: 42.7%, .980 and 66.0.

That’s evidence that Iowa’s defense has been only slightly behind a top-five national defense over the past month. Even a top-30 defense (as Iowa has had twice under McCaffery, in 2013 and 2016) would be great to pair with an elite offense that is behind only No. 1 Gonzaga and its roster stocked with future NBA players.

A 73-57 win at Ohio State, then ranked No. 5 nationally, revealed Iowa’s full-circle defensive transformation. Instead of a reliance on zone that doomed the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, they played man-to-man on 26 of their first 30 defensive possessions … and got stops on 20 of those 26. Considering Iowa opened the game just 6-for-19 from the floor, that was the type of defense that kept the Hawkeyes competitive before their offense broke out in one of the top McCaffery-era wins.

Their offense rarely stays down for long. They pushed their lead from 15-11 at that point to 42-28 at halftime … and, perhaps just to show off, held the vaunted Buckeyes to one basket (and just six points) over the final 10 minutes. It was a stifling defensive show.

Sustainable? A second-half meltdown at Michigan raises some concerns. But even in that game, the Hawkeyes led, 37-36, in the second half amid offensive struggles. Injuries to Nunge and Connor McCaffery in that game can’t be discounted as factors in the 22-point loss.

But the evidence is in: Overall, the defense is better. Is it good enough to get to the program's first Sweet 16 since 1999? First Final Four since 1980? We'll have to see.

But a very good defense combined with a great offense certainly provides optimism entering the postseason.

“We really committed to bettering ourselves as a defensive team,” Garza said. “We’re going to continue to do that, because we know the better our defense gets, the better we’ll be. And the farther we’ll make it.”

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.