EVANSTON, Ill. -- Not a lot was going right for Devyn Marble at halftime of No. 10 Iowa’s game at Northwestern Saturday. The Hawkeyes’ senior guard had taken three shots in seven minutes and missed all of them. He hadn’t attempted any free throws. His team had shot 50 percent from the field but committed 10 turnovers and was up just six against the Wildcats. That might explain why, after the game, Marble said he was “irritable.”
It's hard to believe Marble could find much fault with how he performed in the second half: he made seven free throws and scored 14 points to help the Hawkeyes bounce back from Wednesday’s loss at No. 21 Michigan and roll to a 76-50 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“The way he played in the second half is indicative of who he is and he recognizes what we need,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said afterward.
Marble has been the driving force behind Iowa’s 16-4 (5-2 Big Ten) start. The Hawkeyes’ have 11 players who average at least 12 minutes a game, a bevy of scoring threats and an abundance of size and athleticism. They might be deeper than any other top-10 team, but Marble is their alpha dog. “He’s our go-to guy,” McCaffery said.
Marble leads the Hawkeyes in points (16.2 per game), steals (2.1) and minutes (27.5) and is second in assists (2.3). He is taking a larger percentage of his team’s shots (27.1 to 29.9) while he’s on the floor, turning the ball over less frequently and getting to the free throw line at a much higher rate than last season. Marble has managed to walk the tricky tightrope of taking on a bigger share of his team’s offense while also becoming more efficient; both his usage rate (25.8 to 28.2) and offensive rating (107.3 to 111.9) have increased.
At times it’s been difficult for Marble to both assert himself on the offensive end and facilitate for teammates. One of his goals entering the season was to take the work he did as a distributor his sophomore season, when he assisted on 24.0 percent of his team’s baskets while he was on the floor, and his scoring from last season, when he jumped from 11.0 to 15.0 points per game, and combine them. While Marble’s assist numbers have kept him from actualizing his idealized sophomore-junior hybrid, Marble is having his best season yet.
Marble attributes his improvement this season to increased confidence. “I’m just more comfortable, more confident,” he told SI.com.
As his confidence has grown, so has the potential of the team he has helped push into the top 10 of both major polls. Iowa is getting to the free throw line at a higher rate than any other Big Ten team during conference play, ranks third in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency and is averaging the most possessions per 40 minutes (70.2).
Last season, when only the Hawkeyes’ computer numbers suggested they were one of the better teams in the Big Ten, Iowa failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament largely because it suffered a number of close losses in conference play.
Now, Iowa is one of the three best teams in the Big Ten -- its computer numbers say so -- and most important, the Hawkeyes have the resumé to back it up. They have already beaten likely tournament teams Minnesota and No. 17 Ohio State and have remaining home games against the No. 3 Spartans, the Buckeyes, No. 21 Michigan and No. 9 Wisconsin.
“We’re sharing the ball, we’re getting out and running and getting easy buckets in transition, creating easier opportunities,” Marble said. “I think we’ve got a nice balance of everything.”
In the first half Saturday, Northwestern was able to slow the Hawkeyes down and limit their opportunities on the break; the Hawkeyes scored zero fast-break points. But the flood gates opened after the break, as the game more closely resembled the type of fast-paced track meet Iowa thrives in.
It didn’t hurt that Marble got a stern talking-to from McCaffery after his lackluster first half. The Iowa coach said he “jumped [on]” Marble when he removed him from the game in the first half and at half time.
“Dev did not have a particularly good first half,” McCaffery said. “But he is incredibly confident in himself and has the ability to take it and come back.”
The results are hard to argue with. It’s a testament to Iowa’s depth that it was able to take a six-point lead into halftime despite Marble and junior forward Aaron White, the Hawkeyes’ other top player, combining for two points on 1-for-7 from the field.
When Marble turned it on in the second half, Northwestern’s stout defense – which had held Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue to 0.74, 1.00, 0.73 and 0.83 point per possession, respectively – collapsed. Iowa blitzed the Wildcats with 1.17 PPP.
“We felt like if we didn’t turn it over, we got stops, we could run and the game completely changed then,” McCaffery said.
In order for Iowa to beat better teams, Marble needs to play well for 40 minutes. The Hawkeyes face a huge test on Tuesday, when they host Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
With the possible exception of Iowa's Feb. 8 home meeting with Michigan, there may be no game more important to Marble’s goal of winning a Big Ten championship.
“They’re a team right now that’s a little banged up, but they’re still a top-five program and they’ve got one of the best coaches in the game coaching them,” Marble said. “It’s going to be a challenge.” One the Hawkeyes will be prepared to face if Marble doesn’t take 20 minutes to wake up. When he’s on, Iowa’s tough to stop.