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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery explains why he benched his starters and what was wrong with the Hawkeye defense against Minnesota. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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Even though it’s lost back-to-back games entering the halfway point of the Big Ten Conference season, this is no time to panic for the Iowa basketball team. The Hawkeyes entered Tuesday owning an NCAA NET ranking of 28, which would put them solidly into the NCAA Tournament if that holds through mid-March.

Still, there were concerning signs in setbacks to Michigan State on Thursday and Minnesota on Sunday — particularly with that matador defense — that need to be addressed immediately.

The Hawkeyes, now 16-5 overall and 5-5 in Big Ten play, catch a little down time in the schedule. Their only game in a span of 10 days is Friday’s 6 p.m. home matchup with fifth-ranked Michigan (19-1, 8-1).

The Wolverines are fundamentally sound and won’t let Iowa get away with the same old mistakes. So, it’s a perfect time to clean some things up and make some changes.

Here are five simple ones that Fran McCaffery and his players can implement right away.

1. When the shot clock is winding down, give Isaiah Moss the basketball.

How often have we watched the shot clock go under 10 seconds, only to see an Iowa player force a low-percentage, desperation shot in a clutch moment? That’s been a yearslong issue under McCaffery, but this Iowa team has a player who can not only create his own shot but has proven he can knock down tough 3-pointers and drive the lane to draw contact. And he’s an 85-percent free-throw shooter.

Moss, a 6-foot-5 junior, is playing some of the best basketball of his life. Yet despite connecting on 15 of 22 3-pointers in Iowa’s last four games, he often finds himself sitting for long stretches on the bench. It’s time to change that. Moss has struggled with consistency over the years, but part of the problem is inconsistency in his playing time.

A more confident reliance on Moss would do everybody well, especially late in the shot clock.

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Iowa forward Nicholas Baer talks about the defensive woes that led to Sunday's loss at Minnesota Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

2. Stop playing man-to-man defense.

This would be sacrilege to many Division I head coaches, and there’s about as much chance of McCaffery abandoning man-to-man as there is a heat wave coming through Iowa City this week. But while better than last year, the Hawkeyes still aren’t a good man-to-man team.

They dug a big hole at Penn State by playing almost exclusively man in the first half. Their man defense was burned for a decisive 14-0 second-half run against Michigan State. Their man was torched by a very pedestrian Minnesota offense Sunday.

Iowa’s adjusted defensive efficiency is by far the worst in the Big Ten, at No. 126 nationally entering Tuesday, according to KenPom.com. (Illinois is next-worst, at No. 73.)

So, this isn’t to say Iowa’s zone is great. It’s not. But McCaffery has even explained that it takes his players years to learn all the defensive concepts he deploys. No sense being a jack of all trades but a master of none.

The Hawkeyes don’t have great individual defenders, but a zone gives their sum a chance to better than their parts. And by fully buying into zone principles, they can theoretically limit the number of incredibly easy lay-ups (that Michigan State and Minnesota got) while also doing a better job on the defensive glass (Michigan State out-rebounded Iowa by 16).

If an opponent knocks down 12 of 24 contested 3-pointers, tip your cap to them.

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Iowa center Luka Garza on the impact of the starters getting benched, and a scoring streak that he'd rather not discuss Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

3. Eliminate total bench banishment for a second foul.

Against Minnesota, Luka Garza picked up his first foul 40 seconds into the game. From that point on, it was obvious that Garza’s post defense was cautious and insufficient in stopping easy interior buckets. There were many occasions when Garza (and others) stood straight up and simply allowed an offensive player to go around them for an easy two.

Statistician Ken Pomeroy does a great job explaining how players are less effective when they're worried about getting into foul trouble. It’s human nature. And McCaffery’s reputation of putting a player with two fouls on the bench is well-known. Iowa ranks 331st out of 353 Division I teams, according to Pomeroy, at utilizing players with two fouls in the first half. In seven of McCaffery’s nine years, Iowa has ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the nation in this category.

It’s often said, the coach in this case ends up fouling out his own player more than the officials do.

Players want to play. But they won’t play with the aggression that’s needed on defense if they already have one first-half foul, knowing a second will get them benched. If McCaffery instructs his guys to worry more about challenging shots than picking up a foul (Nicholas Baer does a good job of this), that could have a positive ripple effect. Players would compete with less worry of being punished for fouling. Opponents would know they’ll be challenged at the hoop. And the defense would have more teeth.

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Iowa forward Tyler Cook explains why he tried to dribble downcourt late against Minnesota, and his confidence in his ball-handling skills in general. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

4. Give Tyler Cook clear consequences for unforced errors.

I re-watched the film from the Michigan State and Minnesota games, and it jumped out how much more effective Cook — Iowa’s leading scorer — is when he gets the ball deep into the post vs. how ineffective he’s been when getting the ball outside, which results in a low-percentage jump shot or charging into the lane.

Before the first media timeout against Minnesota, Cook got the ball five times 12-plus feet away from the basket. Four times, the play had negative outcomes — missed shots and turnovers. On the three times he started with the ball close to the basket, each had a positive outcome — Cook himself scored twice, and he assisted a Moss 3-pointer.

Cook’s 3.3 turnovers per game leads all Big Ten players. With Iowa trailing, 84-80, and a minute to play, Cook made a futile coast-to-coast drive into a double team and turned it over as Moss (who went 6-for-10 from 3 in the game) stood wide open on the wing.

It’s those kind of teaching moments that need to be stressed to all post players — and, if not followed, punished with a seat on the bench.

5. More Jordan Bohannon, period.

As is the case with Moss, Iowa is under-utilizing what Bohannon brings to the table. Part of that is his own doing — the guy who is on pace to shatter Iowa’s all-time record for 3-pointers didn’t try a 3-pointer at Minnesota.

Part of it is Bohannon’s playing time. In Iowa’s last three games, he’s averaging 25.6 minutes compared with Connor McCaffery’s 20.3. That’s not enough. Here’s a heady player who is also on pace to crush Jeff Horner’s school assist record and has the ability to stretch opposing defenses with his deep shooting range.

Bohannon is a big-game, big-moment player. And Iowa sure could use a lot of him in a big game Friday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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