IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — For much of coach Fran McCaffery's eight-year tenure at Iowa, things seemed to be moving in the right direction.

This season has gone sideways.

The Hawkeyes have surprisingly lost their way after returning almost the entire team that nearly made the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Granted, the starter they lost was Peter Jok, the Big Ten's leading scorer. But Iowa still looked like an up-and-coming squad with a bright future.

Instead, the young Hawkeyes have paired an up-and-down offense with a terrible defense, and have sunk to the bottom of the league after five straight upper-division finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa (10-10, 1-6 Big Ten), fresh off an ugly 80-64 loss at Rutgers, hosts third-ranked Purdue (18-2, 7-0) on Saturday.

"I'm going to keep going at guys that I think have ability and I think have prepared and worked hard enough to deserve an opportunity to play in that game. So I'll keep putting him in. I won't just give up on a guy," said McCaffery, who has gone deep into the bench at times in an effort to find a rotation that works. "I might move a guy ahead of another guy. That's bound to happen, especially when you're losing some games like we have. You're going to make some adjustments."

What's so strange about Iowa's slide is that there doesn't seem to be many clear answers as to why the team has played so poorly.

The lack of a true point guard beyond Jordan Bohannon has been a problem. Still, Iowa is sixth nationally with 18.6 assists per game, so it's not as though sharing the ball has been a major issue.

Iowa does need a lead guard who breaks down opposing defenses while protecting the ball, creates more space for talented big men Luka Garza and Tyler Cook, and frees up Bohannon to focus more on scoring.

McCaffery's son, Connor, a true freshman, might someday be that guy. But McCaffery has had an awful start this winter, missing 10 games because of a sprained ankle and mononucleosis, and then undergoing a tonsillectomy in late December.

"Sometimes we're playing fast. We've got to slow it down a little. And veteran teams understand that a little bit better," McCaffery said. "The other thing is if we're having an off night. Can we pound the glass? Can we get some of them back? We have done that in some games, and we have not done that in some games."

The good news for Iowa fans is that McCaffery's track record — and the talent he'll bring back in 2018-19 — suggests that this season could prove to be a fluke.

Cook (14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds a game) has blossomed into one of the Big Ten's better big men. The 6-foot-11 Garza (10.5 points, 6.5 rebounds a game), a freshman, has the potential to join Cook in that category as early as next season, and Bohannon is shooting 44.5 percent on 3s even though stopping him from shooting 3s is often the top priority on opposing scouting reports.

"He's developed ways to get open. I think the tendency is, when you're a really good shooter, to force and just jack. He doesn't do that because, if he did, he wouldn't be shooting 45 percent. So he'll wait, and it will come eventually," McCaffery said.

Iowa will also add prep star Joe Weiskamp, a four-star shooting guard who is expected to give the Hawkeyes a badly-needed presence on the wing.

But nothing will change until the Hawkeyes start playing much better defense. Until that happens, a program that seemed destined to be a NCAA Tournament threat for years to come will instead occupy the Big Ten basement.

"We've got to be more focused and give a better effort defensively," Cook said. "We haven't played hard enough consistently to win games against good teams."

___

More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25