What's Wrong With Iowa Basketball?

After starting the season as one of the best teams in college basketball, Iowa has lost five of its last six games. What happened?

We’re less than a month removed from February 7th, but it has to feel like an eternity ago for Iowa fans.

On that Sunday, the Hawkeyes defeated Illinois, 77-65, improving to 19-4 overall and 10-1 in the Big Ten. The following day, Iowa was ranked fourth in the country in the AP Poll, receiving 11 first-place votes.

The praise was deserved, as Iowa had outscored its first 23 opponents by almost 19 points per 100 possessions, and was winning 16.6 points/100 in conference play.

The numbers have not been pretty since.

Iowa has lost five of its last six games, and has been outscored by 6.8 points per 100 trips. It began the skid with a loss at Indiana, and after beating Minnesota, it fell to Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana.

The team that seemed like a slam-dunk one-seed is now projected by our algorithms to get a seven-seed. At the Bracket Matrix, a composite of the leading bracket-projections, Iowa is projected to be a six-seed.

The Hawkeyes remain one of the better teams in the nation, and rank 16th nationally in our power ratings. Still, their apparent collapse is distressing, so it’s worth a closer look at what has gone wrong and whether or they can get back on track.

Inside The Slump

Iowa’s recent struggles have come on both sides of the ball, but a decline in defensive efficiency has been the bigger problem. Have a look at how their offensive stats in the first 23 games compare to their numbers in the last six.

Span PTS/100 poss. eFG% 2P% 3PA/FGA 3P% FTA/FGA FT% ORB% TOV%
First 23 games 112.8 0.535 0.510 0.357 0.397 0.317 0.728 0.286 0.134
Last 6 Games 104.6 0.457 0.435 0.317 0.336 0.467 0.691 0.37 0.159
Division I average 103.8 0.499 0.487 0.354 0.347 0.367 0.698 0.298 0.182

As we can see, the drop off here is considerable, as the Hawkeyes are averaging more than eight points per 100 possessions fewer over their last six games compared to how they started the season.

The problem has been a sharp decline in efficiency from the field, as their two-point and three-point shooting percentages have fallen dramatically. The former is the more distressing of the two, as three-point tends to be prone to random variation, particularly in small samples.

Two-point shooting, though, is usually more consistent, but this is where Iowa has fallen the most. If somehow sustained for the whole season, its 43.5% two-point percentage over the last six games would rank 336th out of the 351 Division I teams.

Fortunately for Iowa, its surprising struggles from the field have corresponded with equally dramatic spikes in free throw attempt rate and offensive rebounding rate. During Iowa’s terrific start, the Hawkeyes were below average in both stats; over their last six games, they have posted offensive rebounding and free throw attempt rates that would rank in the 95th and 99th percentiles nationally, respectively, if sustained for the whole season.

These high marks have allowed Iowa to maintain an above average offense despite the dismal shooting from the field.

Things have been much worse on defense, though. Here are the numbers for Iowa’s last six opponents, contrasted with those of their first 23.

Span PTS/100 poss. eFG% 2P% 3PA/FGA 3P% FTA/FGA FT% ORB% TOV%
First 23 games 94 0.461 0.473 0.379 0.294 0.245 0.666 0.291 0.18
Last 6 Games 111.4 0.528 0.512 0.393 0.37 0.316 0.721 0.352 0.173
Division I average 103.8 0.499 0.487 0.354 0.347 0.367 0.698 0.298 0.182


The 17.4 points per 100 possessions dropoff has led to a 111.4 defensive rating for Iowa, which would rank 331st in the country if somehow sustained for the season.

This was not a great defensive rebounding team to start with, but the Hawkeyes have been even worse on the defensive glass lately.

The biggest problem, however, has been field goal shooting allowed, but while the decline is significant, this might be the least surprising aspect of Iowa’s recent problems.

Granted, the two-point decline is admittedly unexpected, but you could have seen the problems with three-pointers from a mile away.

Even when things were going well for the Hawkeyes, they were allowing an alarming number of three-point attempts. They were not truly harmed by this at the time, considering opponents were shooting an ungodly low 29.4% from beyond the arc through 23 games.

This is not a recipe for sustainable success, though. While defensives have a fair degree of control over the three-point attempts they allow, the percentage of these shots that actually go through the net is very random.

Sure enough, after spending most of the season playing with fire, Iowa has now been getting burned. In its recent losses, the Hawkeyes allowed Wisconsin to shoot 43.5% from beyond the arc, Indiana to shoot 36.0% and 50.0%, and Penn State to shoot 35.7% (especially bad, given Penn State ranks 315th in the country with a 31.0% three-point percentage).

Opponents probably won’t keep shooting 37.0% from down-town, but the sheer volume of shots from long range they have been able to get bodes poorly for Iowa looking ahead.

Before going on, you might be wondering if this decline has something to do with Iowa moving from non-league to Big Ten play, since these numbers are not adjusted for opponent. It’s a good question, but the splits are nearly as drastic if we only look at conference games.

Iowa began conference play 11-1, averaging 111.3 and allowing 94.8 points per 100 possessions. The Hawkeyes had a 52.2% effective field goal percentage, while shooting nearly 40% from three-point range. On defense, they allowed an eFG% of 46.9%, as opponents shot 28.7% from beyond the arc.

This really has been a recent phenomenon.

Looking Ahead

So which one is the real Iowa, the team that was blazing hot from November through January, or the squad that hasn’t been able to stop a paper cut since mid-February?

While recency bias can be a strong thing, in the absence of a major injury or personnel change causing the recent struggles, the prudent answer is probably neither.

Iowa is not the world-beater that shoots 40% from three and keeps opponents under 30% from long range, nor is it the squad that has lost five of its last six games.

Expect the three-point shooting to regress to the mean on both sides of the ball, but as mentioned, if Iowa continues to allow such a high volume of threes, this regression won’t be enough.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that we have a 23-game sample telling us Iowa is a very good team, and six games that tell us they are poor. Weigh the two together and you have a team that is not quite elite, but is still a very good one.

Unfortunately, there is one more bit of bad news for Iowa fans. Regardless of what Iowa’s true talent level is, by playing themselves off the one-line and into the five/six/seven-seed range, they have gutted their national championship hopes.

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, top seeds have gone 415-105 (a 79.8% winning percentage), and 2 seeds have gone 296-120 (71.1%). 5 seeds, meanwhile are 138-124 (52.7%), 6 seeds are 141-123 (53.4%), and 7 seeds are 111-123 (47.4%).

Anything can happen once the Madness beings, but contrary to what we might like to think, where you are seeded matters. 

This where Iowa’s late-season skid hurts the most.