010218-IOWA-BASKETBALL-018

Michigan's Charles Matthews (1) and Iowa's Nicholas Baer (51) reach for a rebound during the second half of their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in January. Michigan won the game 75-68, and the teams meet again tonight in Ann Arbor.

Andy Abeyta, Quad-City Times

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has spent a lot of time answering questions about his team’s defense this season and that didn’t change Tuesday.

As McCaffery prepared his team for another challenging road game tonight at No. 22 Michigan, he admitted that the Hawkeyes have disappointed in that area most of the season.

“We weren’t a great defensive team last year, but we were better than we are this year …’’ McCaffery said during a teleconference with reporters.

“I thought we’d be better than we are now. I thought with our size and our length, we’d be better than we are. We’re continuing to work to that end to shore up some of our deficiencies in certain areas. I think we’re making progress at times. We certainly are in practice, but it’s not evident in the games.’’

The numbers tell the story pretty well. The Hawkeyes are the lowest ranking major conference team in the country in defensive efficiency, according to the formula used by statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy.

They are 12-15, 3-11 in Big Ten play, and are 0-12 when they fail to score 80 or more points.

In other words, the games they have won have mostly been accomplished with exceptional offense, not solid defense.

It’s not as though McCaffery and his staff haven’t addressed the issues. He said there has been a concerted effort to focus on defensive fundamentals in practice, especially lately.

But he reiterated what he has said all season, that it’s not just as simple as playing poorly on defense. There is a correlation between how well the Hawkeyes play offensively and defensively.

He admitted that the defensive consistency should not be impacted by the natural ebb and flow of the offense.

“But the reality of it is it’s a lot harder than it sounds,’’ he said. “I can tell you that not just with this team but from experience through the years. When you’re cooking on offense, your effort level, your enthusiasm, your ability to stay connected, is at its height. And when you’re spitting it up in the middle of the floor or your offense is sputtering … that’s really hard.’’

He said this Iowa team also has had a tendency to let things “snowball.’’

“There’s been a number of games where there’s a run or two runs in a game that really is the only difference in the game,’’ McCaffery said. “They go on a 14-4 run and you end up losing by 10 or 12.’’

The first meeting between Iowa and Michigan this season, on Jan. 2, was a prime example. There was a six-minute stretch of the first half in which the Hawkeyes did very little right on offense or defense and were outscored by the Wolverines 22-4. They ended up losing the game by only seven points, 75-68.

“To solve the problem, we really have to do it from both ends, not just the defensive end,’’ he said.

McCaffery added that he thinks Michigan (20-7 overall, 9-5 Big Ten) is a better team than it was six weeks ago.

Junior center Mo Wagner was just coming back from an ankle injury at that point and was not 100 percent. And he said that game was the “coming-out party’’ for sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, who is now entrenched as a starter.

McCaffery hinted that he may tweak his starting lineup again for tonight’s 5:30 p.m. battle at the Crisler Center.

He inserted Ahmad Wagner into the lineup at the small forward position in Saturday’s 82-64 loss to Ohio State, ending a string of 16 consecutive starts by Bettendorf’s Nicholas Baer.

He said he’s not sure who will start there tonight — one possibility is freshman Jack Nunge, who scored 18 points against Ohio State — but he indicated it definitely will not be Baer, who was honored last season as the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year.

“I’ll bring Nicholas Baer off the bench moving forward,’’ McCaffery said. “We’ll decide who starts in that other spot. We’re still in the process of figuring that out.’’

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