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Monday, December 05, 2005
 
We're #1! We're #1!
With all attentions focused on criticizing Iowa's offensive struggles (and there have been struggles), I doubt many Hawk-watchers are tuned in to the fact that they've been following one of the best defensive teams in the country. I'm not immune, either - images of missed open jumpers and passes thrown out of bounds tend to linger in my head and limit my ability to process the good things happening at the other end of the court.

I knew the Hawks were putting up good numbers on defense, but since I figured that that was common for most major conference teams this early in the year, I didn't give it much thought. So it was with some surprise that I found Iowa at the top of the list when I clicked over to Ken Pomeroy's rankings of points allowed per possession (through Saturday's games).

While their spot in the ranking was a bit unexpected, it's not that surprising that Iowa is quite good defensively. They finished last year ranked #29 in Ken's list, which sorts teams by defensive efficiency and adjusts for the strength of the offenses they played. The players they return from that squad include two great defensive rebounders, a terrific shot blocker, and some pesky guards, and the recruiting class added another quick on-the-ball defender.

Can Iowa maintain this strong start? Well, first we should establish what is at the root of this performance level. Here are the team's national rankings in the four most important areas -

eFG% allowed - 7
TO forced - 76
Def Reb% - 57
Opp FTA/FGA - 17

I don't think they'll be #1-good all season, but there's no reason they can't be in the top 10 or 15. For starters, it's seems unlikely that Iowa will continue to rank this high in turnovers forced. There aren't many Maryland-Eastern Shores or Texas-San Antonios left on the schedule, and Iowa doesn't usually go out of their way to force turnovers.

It's interesting that Iowa ranks so high in last category, which measures how often the opponent shoots free throws. With Erek Hansen and Doug Thomas constantly in foul trouble last year, this was a bit of a problem. Through 8 games, both guys have gotten called for far fewer fouls. Here are the main post players' fouls per 40 minutes -

Player.............PF/40, 04-05......PF/40, 05-06
Thomas.................7.0......................5.3
Hansen..................6.7......................5.7
Brunner..................3.8......................3.0

That's a very nice development, and probably has a lot to do with the first category (eFG%), at least for Iowa. Fewer fouls means Hansen can play more mintues. When he's in the lineup, opposing teams are having a very tough time getting a good shot in the paint. You might remember the shutdown job he had at the end of the Kentucky game, but the job he did against Texas stands out, too. Hansen was keeping LaMarcus Aldridge from doing much damage (despite a poster dunk or two), but then he picked up his third foul early in the second half and took a long seat. While he was gone, Aldridge put his height advantage to good use against Iowa's shorter forwards. The final numbers from that game were telling -

IA Defense, vs Texas........Pts....Poss....Efficiency
with Hansen........................32.......39..........84.2
w/o Hansen.........................36.......29........124.1

As long as Hansen can keep himself on the court, Iowa should hold its opponent to a low eFG%, which is the most important part of defense.

As for the remaining category - defensive rebounding - Iowa looks to be in good shape. Brunner and Thomas were both among the Big Ten's best defensive rebounders last year, and Hansen has been contributing more on the glass this year than ever before. It's no sure thing that he'll maintain that feistiness against some of the tough Big Ten guys, but several of the opposing centers this year haven't exactly been pushovers.

Now let's just hope the guys can get their offense back to last year's level so they don't have to always play lights-out defense to win.
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