Believe in the Cyclones because you should believe in the Hawkeyes

For a lot of poll voters, Iowa St.’s home victory over Iowa won’t be that impressive. Many observers will say this was just another case of “Hilton Magic”. They will say weird things happen in that loud arena and that led Iowa’s Mike Gesell to miss two free throws in the final minute.

But I think that sells this game short. This game wasn’t defined by Hilton Magic as some of Iowa St.’s other games have been. This wasn’t a game with a bunch of huge three point shots, a huge run for the home team, and a road team looking shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the arena wasn’t rocking. From the opening tipoff, the fans were loud. They were as passionate as any fans will ever be in December. But this game was not about Iowa being rattled. For most of the game, the Hawkeyes played like a veteran team. They executed beautiful out-of-bounds plays, including one gorgeous lob in the second half. They ran the secondary break so well, with Aaron White constantly finding defenders out of position, that Tar Heel fans would have been jealous. And when things got stuck in the half-court, Roy Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell were effective at getting into the lane and finding cutters. Iowa’s consistent effort and execution was at a much higher level than what we have seen from any Iowa St. opponent this year. For 38 minutes, every time Iowa St. went on a run, Iowa had an answer.

The announcers seemed surprised by this. Perhaps Iowa is sneaking up on people because they missed the NCAA tournament last year. But by almost every statistical measure, Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding project is reaching the end. The next table shows how Iowa’s Efficiency Margin (opponent adjusted offense minus opponent adjusted defense) has improved since McCaffery became head coach in 2010-11. The table also shows how McCaffery has reinstated the fast-paced style of basketball that made Iowa a joy to watch in earlier eras.





Eff. Margin


Todd Lickliter




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery



The reason Iowa is not getting more credit is because as good as they have looked in most games, Iowa simply does not have the resume wins against quality teams. Last year in Big Ten play against NCAA tournament teams, Iowa picked up three quality wins. They beat Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. But against most of the NCAA tournament teams the Hawkeyes faced, they lost nail-biters. Iowa lost to Michigan St. by three points twice, lost to Indiana by four, lost to Minnesota by three, and lost to Wisconsin in 2OTs. And because they could not finish those games, a lot of people were unwilling to acknowledge how well the team was playing.

Those same skeptics will be out again this year. In Iowa’s two games against elite competition this season, against Villanova and Iowa St., Iowa came up short. The Hawkeyes lost in OT and lost by three points on the road. To some observers, Iowa’s inability to win close games against elite teams proves that this is not a quality team.

There is one part of that poor close game execution story that I buy. This isn’t so much about Gesell missing those two free throws, but it is about Iowa’s extreme balance. Balance is a great thing when the team is playing well. But it can be a problem in close games. Iowa does not have a Keith Appling type closer, a guy who can get into the lane in crunch time and punish his opponent by knocking down his free throws. (Roy Devyn Marble should be that guy, as his driving has reached another level this season. But Marble’s free throw stroke has been off this year, and he doesn’t have the confidence in close games right now.) Perhaps, the lack of a “closer” is a real concern.

But this emphasis on Iowa’s flaws undersells what Iowa St. did to win this game. Dustin Hogue, the undersized JUCO forward at 6’6”, played like the biggest man on the floor, dominating the boards and being strong at the free throw line in crunch time. DeAndre Kane couldn’t make a basket, but he didn’t let it stop him from playing smart basketball. Kane penetrated and dished out 9 assists, and his inbounds pass off of Adam Woodbury’s back for a lay-up was brilliant. But most importantly, Georges Niang was the closer that Iowa wishes they had. Niang got the ball time-and-time again down the stretch, and no one on Iowa could keep him out of the lane.

And when I looked up the Sagarin Ratings on Sunday morning, according to Sagarin’s margin-of-victory based predictor, Iowa St. and Iowa are both in the Top 10. It is early, and I am skeptical that both teams will be there in March. But after watching these two teams play polished basketball on a Friday night in December, it felt about right.

On the Flip Side

At some point during Saturday’s North Carolina vs Kentucky game, Dick Vitale said we should all call our friends and tell them that the game was close. Suffice it to say, I passed on that recommendation. Whatever you think about these two teams, this was not a fun basketball game. There were way too many fouls and way too many free throws. And it didn’t feel like a game with athletic plays and fierce defense leading to more free throws. It just felt like a lot of bodies running into one another with no continuity. (Worse yet, the foul shooting wasn’t even that great. North Carolina was 26 of 45, while Kentucky was 29 of 43 from the charity stripe.)

Now, I don’t want to say there were not some surprising performances. Kentucky’s Alex Poythress seemed to be playing inspired basketball for once, before he fouled out. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison got into the lane and found his big men for a few highlight reel buckets. North Carolina’s JP Tokoto proved that we shouldn’t yell “terrible shot” every time he jacks up a long range jumper.  And North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo, went back in a time machine and started playing like he did last season when he was often the most important player on his team.

But this was still a game where neither team seemed to “get it.”

-Kentucky threw so many lazy passes that I thought John Calipari’s head was going to explode.

-Meanwhile North Carolina seemed unable to take advantage of Kentucky’s constant switching on defense. The Harrison twins are tall at 6’6”, but they shouldn’t be able to guard North Carolina’s forwards in the paint.

-Projected top NBA draft pick Julius Randle struggled against a team that could throw multiple big bodies at him in the paint.

-And North Carolina walk-on Jackson Simmons and 6th UNC forward Desmond Hubert were two of the most impressive players on the day, in no small part because they simply knew where to be offensively and defensively.

If ESPN’s speculation is correct, and PJ Hairston will be back in January, I still like the upside for both these teams. But at one point, Dick Vitale leaned over and said, “I don’t really like Kentucky’s offense here. They don’t seem to have any rhythm.” Kentucky was leading in the game at this point. And the comment was pretty much spot on. Nothing that happened in this game looked like a finished product.

Coaches Whose Teams Do Not Get Better

Last week I showed the list of coaches whose teams tend to improve the most in-season. Today I show the list of coaches whose teams usually peak early. Some of these coaches will make sense. There is a reason Dayton fans were happy to see Brian Gregory leave. There is a reason Paul Hewitt was forced out at Georgia Tech. More often than not, their teams built high expectations early in the year, and then faded.

But some names will be a surprise. Over the last 10 years, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has never played better after January 1st than before January 1st. This is true even after adjusting for opponent and venue which is what the Pythagorean winning percentage measures.

But I also want to say that these lists are not necessarily predictive of future results. Part of the reason Krzyzewski shows up on this list is that his teams have historically been dominant in November and December. Even his national title team from 2010 started hot at 11-1, with the only loss coming by a narrow margin in a road-game at Wisconsin. Because Duke has started so hot, there has been nowhere to go but down. With a weaker start this season, Duke does have room for improvement, and I expect we will see it. Still, the last two columns of this chart are fairly amazing:

Mike Krzyzewski

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later







































































Overall, here are the coaches with the biggest average drop in production from early in the season until later in the year. (Note: I only count seasons while coaching in a major conference and only show coaches with at least 4 years of data.)

In-Season Drops


Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later


Brian Gregory

Georgia Tech/Dayton




Ken Bone

Washington St.




L. Eustachy

Colorado St./S. Miss




M. Anderson





Tom Crean





Rick Barnes





Dave Rose





Tim Miles

Nebraska/Colorado St.




M. Krzyzewski





Paul Hewitt

G. Mason/Georgia Tech




Tim Miles is a bit of a surprise given that he tends to rebuild programs, but oddly last year at Nebraska was the first time in six years that his team played better after January 1st than before January 1st.


-Big Ten teams didn’t necessarily look horrible this weekend, but their failure to pick up a signature win may be costly in March. Iowa narrowly lost at Iowa St. Michigan lost to Arizona at home. Illinois lost to Oregon. Indiana lost to Notre Dame. Purdue lost to Butler. And Penn St. lost in OT at home to Princeton. The league had lost 23 games through the first five weeks of the season and lost 6 games in the span of 27 hours.

-Indiana’s offense was always going to be a work in progress with so many new players, but it is a bad sign that the team could not find a way to score against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish defense had been a sieve against the team’s four previous Top 100 opponents.

-Boise St. and La Salle were trendy mid-major NCAA tournament picks in the pre-season. Both were guard-led teams that played well late last season and brought just about everyone back this season. But right now I can feel people jumping off the band-wagon for both teams. After La Salle lost its fifth non-conference game on Sunday to Villanova, and after Boise St. lost at home to St. Mary’s neither team has any remaining shot to build a tournament worthy non-conference profile.

-I really enjoyed Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery’s call of the St. John’s vs Syracuse game on Sunday. But it is hilarious to hear the two together because they both like to emote after the game’s biggest plays. You could really tell Johnson was deferring to Raftery more than he normally would as St. John’s cut into the lead. Syracuse eventually won the game thanks to two huge baseline shots from CJ Fair.

-This week PG Tom Maayan left the Seton Hall team to return to military service in Israel. I’ve gone on the record before to say that Maayan’s departure should not be devastating to the Pirates. His turnover rate the last two years has been 54 percent and 45 percent. But then PG Sterling Gibbs went down with a knee injury in Seton Hall’s OT loss to St. Peter’s. And Gibbs is a huge loss. He led the team in percentage of possessions used, led all starters in efficiency, led the team in assist rate, and was one of the Top-5 players in the nation at getting to the free throw line this year. For the second season in a row unexpected player losses might stop Seton Hall from being competitive in the Big East.

-The calf injury to Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler is also worth watching. Seldom-used senior forward Tyler Neal picked up the rebounding slack after Spangler went down, but Oklahoma can ill-afford to be missing its only clear post-defender and rebounder for an extended period of time.

-When Rutgers hired Eddie Jordan, I thought he would face an uphill climb due to all the roster attrition. But he did a brilliant job bringing players back who planned to transfer, and adding key pieces like JJ Moore. (This week the team also announced the addition of Georgetown transfer Greg Whittington.) It certainly seemed like Rutgers had a lineup that could compete in the AAC this year. But unfortunately, Jordan doesn’t seem to know how to teach defense right now.  This is the worst Scarlet Knights defense in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of tempo free stats. For a power conference bottom feeder, it is never good to be setting a new standard of poor play. But that is exactly why Rutgers keeps dropping non-conference games.