The Iowa basketball team is a puzzle right now.
You never know what you’re going to see from game to game.
Just when the Hawkeyes seem to have their turnover problem fixed, they’ll give it away 18 or 19 times in a game.
Their two primary post players have had several games in which they’ve dominated, but they combined for just 13 points and two rebounds Sunday against Maryland.
Iowa’s offensive movement was so good in late December that it matched a school record for assists in a game. Then, the offense was as stale as month-old bread in the next game.
The inconsistency has been exasperating for head coach Fran McCaffery, who shattered a couple of clipboards during games last week and was kicked out of the Maryland game in the final minute of the first half.
But there really is one primary reason the Hawkeyes find themselves at the bottom of the Big Ten at 0-5, 9-9 overall, and possibly in danger of not making any postseason tournament at all.
It’s defense. That’s the one constant. It's been bad almost every game.
In three Big Ten losses over the past week, opposing teams shot a combined 53 percent from the field.
The Hawkeyes have given up 90-plus points in back-to-back games. They allowed 90-plus in three Big Ten games last season but all of those games went overtime. In the two seasons before that, there wasn’t a single conference game in which the opponent scored 90.
A 91-73 loss to Maryland on Sunday night may have been the worst effort yet. The Terrapins shot 56.7 percent from the field, largely because they made 15 layups and eight dunks. Let’s just say they were getting really, really high percentage shots.
There was only one stretch in the entire game — early in the second half — in which Iowa was able to hold Maryland scoreless for a three-minute stretch. There were only three times in the first half in which the Hawkeyes got consecutive defensive stops. There was one stretch of nearly five minutes in which they didn’t get a single stop.
The Hawkeyes have a prime chance to end their Big Ten losing streak Thursday when they visit the league’s only other winless team, Illinois, but they’re going to have trouble beating anyone playing this kind of defense.
Maybe it’s time for a strategic adjustment.
McCaffery takes pride in having his teams change defenses frequently in an effort to confuse the opposition, but this season it often seems as though the opposition isn’t the one that’s confused. After a game, he often will go through and assess how the 3-2 zone worked compared to the 2-3 and the man-to-man and the different presses the Hawkeyes use.
Why not just pick one defense and get really good at it? This is a relatively young team with a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and they’re being asked to master eight or 10 defenses and flip between them on the fly during the course of a game. Maybe it’s time to simplify things.
The Hawkeyes need to do something because time is running out.
Their season already has become something of a salvage operation. The lofty preseason goals have had to be adjusted.
Iowa would need to win 10 or 11 of its remaining 13 Big Ten games to even be considered for a berth in the NCAA tournament. That just doesn’t seem possible now.
For that matter, even making the NIT for a second year in a row could be a challenge. Going 16-15 and finishing 10th in the Big Ten isn’t going to be good enough this time. The league is projected to only have four or five teams in the NCAA tournament and only another three or four would make the NIT. The Hawkeyes will need to climb into the first division or close to it to make any postseason tournament.
Right now, that's a pretty long climb.
Tough competition: While the Hawkeyes dug themselves a huge hole by losing three Big Ten games in the past week, there is some consolation in knowing those losses all were to good teams.
Ohio State is tied for first in the Big Ten, Michigan is tied for third and Maryland is alone in fifth place.
Subtle swipe: McCaffery and his players couldn’t openly criticize the head-scratching officiating that was part of their loss at Maryland, but guard Jordan Bohannon used some subtle sarcasm on Twitter to express his thoughts while also relating some news about the team’s trip home.
His post-game tweet: “Can’t fly out tonight. Just found out our plane got hit on the tarmac, no foul was called. Contemplating retirement. Thanks, @NCAA!’’
Disappearing PT: Freshman Jack Nunge played 41 minutes in the first two Big Ten games in early December and started eight games in a row. But in three league games last week, he played a grand total of 19 minutes, including only three in the second half.
His offensive confidence seemingly is gone and his defensive deficiencies as a 6-foot-11 small forward have been exposed. He’s going to be a very good player eventually, but he’s not there yet.
Big Ten honors: In one of the no-brainers of the season, Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop was named Big Ten player of the week.
Bates-Diop collected 59 points and 20 rebounds in win over Iowa and No. 1-ranked Michigan State, and seems well on his way to a first team All-Big Ten season. The guy may have the best mid-range game of any player in the country.
The league’s freshman of the week was Maryland center Bruno Fernando, who outplayed Iowa’s big men Sunday night.
TV Teddy ticked off: Ted Valentine may be the best known college basketball official in the country. He has worked 10 Final Fours and four national championship games.
Many times through the years we’ve seen him turn his back on some coach or player who was trying to voice a complaint. Valentine said it’s a tactic he learned in conflict resolution classes.
But when he did it in a rather theatrical way in a game between North Carolina and Florida State last Wednesday, it caused a huge uproar. It got overblown enough that Valentine reportedly was removed from working a couple of Big Ten games over the weekend and is threatening to retire.
"I've had enough of people blowing up stuff,’’ Valentine said in an interview with The Athletic. “I think I've had a stellar career, and I think it's time to get ready to walk away."
Valentine does have a reputation for drama so it’s doubtful he actually will retire. But it does show just how much unwarranted scrutiny and criticism officials are subjected to these days.