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November 14, 2013

Inside the numbers

Psst, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The Iowa basketball team is suffering through poor perimeter shooting - again.

All right, all right, it's not much of a secret. It was the Hawkeyes' most glaring weakness last season and perhaps the biggest reason they fell short of the NCAA Tournament.

We're only two games into the 2013-14 season, but the early signs suggest little improvement. In fact, we've actually seen regression.

Iowa has hit just seven of its 26 3-point attempts thus far for a 26.9 percent clip - tied for 256th nationally out of 342 teams following Tuesday's games. Fran McCaffery's team shot just 29.9 percent from beyond the arc in regular-season games in 2012-13, finishing 318th nationally and second-to-last in the Big Ten.

It's well-documented that the next step for this program is an NCAA berth. McCaffery has talked about it, the players have talked about it, the fans have talked about it and most media types have pegged them to reach this goal. Everyone can see the potential this team possesses.

It's also clear that that the 3-point shooting is going to have to improve for the Hawkeyes to fulfill that potential.

The most likely road to an NCAA berth for Iowa is with an at-large selection. So I compiled the regular-season 3-point shooting percentages last year by all the teams that wound up as at-large selections for the NCAA Tournament. I specifically noted where the qualifying Big Ten schools' percentages ranked (Ohio State is not included because they won the Big Ten Tournament, thus receiving an automatic bid to the Dance):




















































I calculated the average 3-point percentage for all 37 at-large teams, which came out to 35.3 percent - 5.6 percent better than Iowa shot last season. The Hawkeyes would have had to hit 30 more 3-pointers of the 542 they attempted in the regular-season (they hit 162) to reach this average.

As you can plainly see, Iowa would have been quite the outlier among at-large teams last season had it qualified for the dance. Only one qualifying at-large team (Marquette) shot as poorly from 3-point range, with the Golden Eagles also hitting 29.9 percent of their attempts.

The difference between Marquette and Iowa, of course, is that the Golden Eagles boasted a much more efficient offense overall. KenPom ratings ranked Marquette as having the 25th-best offense nationally, while Iowa was 51st.

Put simply, Marquette was more cognizant of its identity and did a better job of playing to its strengths. While Iowa was 582 of 1,217 on 2-point attempts (47.8 percent), Marquette was 694 of 1,348 (51.6 percent).

The discrepancy for 2-point attempts between Iowa and Marquette wasn't at all due to the differences in games played or tempo, either. The KenPom ratings evaluated all of the teams' games played, including postseason tournaments. Iowa played 38 games compared to Marquette's 35. The Golden Eagles also played at a pace of 64.4 possessions per 40 minutes, while Iowa was noticeably faster with 67.4, again according to KenPom.

They may have been just as poor at 3-point shooting, but they did a better job of masking that deficiency by attacking the basket more and shooter fewer 3-pointers, thus somewhat reducing the penalty that comes with being a poor perimeter shooting team.

For another visual representation of Iowa's 3-point shooting last season, here's how the Hawkeyes stacked up against the rest of the conference. The other highlighted teams indicate schools that finished ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten standings:

















The fact that Iowa was right behind these teams in terms of standings despite ranking behind almost the enire conference in 3-point shooting is impressive in itself.

It also means this: Had Iowa been a good 3-point shooting team last season - or even a mediocre one - the team likely would have considerably more success.

I did some research further back and found that 3-point shooting has been a more substantial issue throughout the McCaffery era than I would have guessed.

Beginning with Fran's first season at the helm (2010-11) through last season, Iowa ranked 58th among 75 major conference teams in 3-point shooting at 33.0 percent. St. John's was at the bottom (29.5 percent) while Indiana was at the top (39.4 percent).

Now, I'm not suggesting that this is a catastrophic problem under McCaffery. After all, despite placing a much bigger emphasis on 3-point shooting in terms of scheme and personnel, Todd Lickliter's teams weren't all that better, shooting 34.2 percent from 3-point range in three seasons. And the wins aren't close - Iowa won 38 regular-season games in three seasons under Lickliter compared to 47 in McCaffery's first three years.

But the weak 3-point shooting is certainly an interesting point for consideration. Is it a matter of the type of players that McCaffery recruits - players that are a better fit in his more up-tempo scheme which places a bigger premium on athleticism as opposed to shooting? Maybe.

Then again, the players are the ones on the floor taking these shots. After a solid freshman season in which he shot 37.2 percent from 3-point range, Josh Oglesby wasn't nearly the shooter he has been advertised to be, seeing his percentage plummet to 26.9 percent. Zach McCabe also saw some notable regression with his 3-point shot last season as his percentage dropped from 44.9 to 32.0.

As for this season specifically, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the 3-point shooting will improve. Devyn Marble is off to a slow start, going 1 for 8 from long distance. Jarrod Uthoff's reputation as a 3-point shooter precedes him, but we haven't been able to see much as he's just 1 for 2. Peter Jok has also started off in a bit of a slump going 2 for 8, though like Marble, that's an incredibly small sample size to draw any conclusions from. And Mike Gesell - Iowa's third leader in terms of 3-pointers made last season - has only attempted one.

So it's ridiculously early to draw any conclusions and say with any certainty that this group of Hawkeyes is bound to struggle from 3-point range all season long. But their chances at an NCAA Tournament berth - as well as their chances at competing in the Big Ten - will certainly fade the longer the struggles continue.


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