As Iowa Hawkeyes finish up lost basketball season, here's a path to a better future
MINNEAPOLIS — There is one week left in what has been a lost season for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
A single road game remains, at 8 p.m. Wednesday against Minnesota, another team surprised to find itself at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference standings. Both teams are 3-13 in the league and riding long losing streaks. This game will not be a ratings bonanza for the Big Ten Network.
Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday his focus remains on the rest of this year’s schedule, which includes a Sunday home finale against Northwestern and a trip to New York for the league tournament, beginning next Wednesday night against an opponent also in the bottom four of the Big Ten.
A victory there would mean the Hawkeyes will at least still be playing in March. That would be small consolation for a team that entered the season expecting to be competing in the NCAA Tournament.
“What I want to see is a group of individuals that keep grinding so that our team gets better. That’s all that I’m looking for,” McCaffery said of his 12-17 team, which is on a five-game skid.
“You look at each person individually and try to help them eliminate one or two things, and continue to do the good things they’re doing. That’s where we are right now.”
That may be where the Hawkeyes are, but many fans have already checked out. It’s not too soon to start wondering about 2018-19, and what has to happen if Iowa is to become the Big Ten contender it was expected to be this year.
The answer: a lot, and it starts with improved defense, particularly on the perimeter. Iowa will add one big-time recruit, but figures to need a bigger roster overhaul than that to be a legitimate threat come March 2019.
Here’s an early look ahead:
New kid at the arc
Muscatine’s Joe Wieskamp committed to play at Iowa before his freshman season. He is wrapping up a career that has seen him become the highest scorer in Class 4A history in the state, averaging 33.5 points as a senior. There is little doubt that he’ll make an immediate impact for the Hawkeyes.
“He legitimately stretches the floor out. He’ll open the post for (Tyler) Cook and (Luka) Garza,” said Paul Biancardi, the national director of recruiting at ESPN, who has seen Wieskamp often.
“I think he can knock down shots. He’s got range to 20 feet. Like any other freshman, you’ve got to polish it up. But if I was an opposing coach, I wouldn’t leave him open. I wouldn’t help off him.”
A 3-point threat alongside point guard Jordan Bohannon has been lacking for Iowa after Peter Jok graduated following the 2016-17 season. Wieskamp, at 6-foot-6, figures to earn a starting spot at one of the wing positions currently manned by Isaiah Moss and Jack Nunge. He can help take pressure off of Bohannon while making teams think twice about double-teaming Cook and Garza inside.
Wieskamp excels at coming off screens, but is also adept at driving to his right if defenders crowd him at the arc. He’ll need to work on going to his left.
Still, “It’s amazing what shooting does for a team,” Biancardi notes.
But it’s unfair to expect Wieskamp as a freshman to produce what Jok did two years ago for Iowa, when he led the conference in scoring. Wieskamp alone is not the cure to what ails this team.
Backcourt must step up
Bohannon is averaging 13.2 points and 5.3 assists as a sophomore. The 6-footer out of Linn-Mar is a keeper. It’s what around him that has been lacking. The Hawkeyes’ other guard options figure to include Moss, Brady Ellingson, Maishe Dailey, Connor McCaffery and incoming freshman C.J. Frederick of Kentucky.
“If that group doesn’t get significantly better, I don’t think anything else matters,” was the blunt assessment of Jess Settles, a former Hawkeye player and current Big Ten Network analyst.
To do so, Iowa might need to add a graduate transfer, which would be a departure from what Fran McCaffery has done in his previous eight seasons as head coach. That’s much easier said than done. First, it would require an open scholarship, which the Hawkeyes currently don’t have. Second, graduate transfers good enough to make an immediate impact are in short supply.
But Iowa has much to sell for someone looking to make a move.
“It’s a fun style of play. You’re running up and down. You’re leading the conference in scoring (Iowa is currently second, at 76.4 points per game),” Settles said. “If those opportunities do open up, that guy out there around the country who wants to be a part of something special would certainly be smart to look at Iowa.”
The Hawkeyes desperately need a point guard who can drive to the rim, get to the free-throw line, end some of the lengthy scoring droughts that have plagued this year’s team. And, of course, be a lockdown defender. Bohannon, for all his talents, is not that kind of player. Neither is anyone on the current roster.
An answer from within?
If the Hawkeyes don’t get a transfer, then Dailey is the most likely in-house option to become a difference-maker. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is the best athlete in Iowa’s backcourt. He has shown an ability to be disruptive on the perimeter (though, at just 195 pounds, he has trouble fighting through screens) and a reliable shooting stroke (he’s at 41.9 percent from 3, second only to Bohannon).
What Dailey hasn’t shown is the determination to be a go-to player. Yet.
“He’s the one guy on the team that can play above the rim in the backcourt,” Settles said. “If he has a good summer and comes back with the mentality that ‘I can get this done; I’m coming back here to make things happen’ then he can help this team win games. Sometimes it takes a summer of playing to say, ‘I belong.’”
In short, Dailey needs to take the leap forward that last year’s sophomore class did not.
Dailey, who barely played as a freshman, is still getting acclimated to the Division I game. He is averaging only 5.2 points per game, but scored 16 points in a win over Colorado and had 13 in a recent loss to Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes could sorely use him to score like that more often next season.
A defense that never rests
Finally, Iowa must address its biggest problem: a defense that has invited easy baskets all season. The Hawkeyes are a distant last in the conference by surrendering 83.8 points in Big Ten games. That effort has included allowing opponents to make 42.9 percent of their 3-pointers, which means they’re giving up long-distance shots at roughly the same rate that their best shooter (Bohannon) can make them.
McCaffery has used a man-to-man defense and four versions of a zone. None has worked for long. Opponents find it too easy to drive into the middle of the Iowa defense. If Hawkeye defenders collapse to plug that breach, shooters are left open at the arc. The good ones don’t miss.
“Until defensively you can prove over a three-week period that your life depends on that, things won’t change,” Settles said.
“Fran McCaffery’s teams have thrived so much on pressure defense, mixing defenses up and turning guys over, and then getting out and running. If you can’t guard anybody, you can’t run. You can’t get 3-on-2s and you become a jump-shooting team.
“I think everybody is going to have to individually study a lot of tape. I think athletically, they are good enough to be a solid defensive team.”
Solid is a team goal. A player such as Wieskamp can help primarily by making enough shots to at least allow the Hawkeyes to get back and into a defensive set. Iowa has suffered the most after missed shots and mounting turnovers allow opponents to get into transition. That double-edged sword — of empty possession followed by fast-break basket, on repeat — has sliced up the Hawkeyes all year.
“He’s a good athlete. He’s not a great athlete,” Biancardi said of Wieskamp. “He’s going to have to play good positional defense. He’s going to have to stay in his stance.”
Settles takes the optimist’s view of what his alma mater soon could be.
“It’s a coachable group. There’s a brotherhood there,” he said. “So I think if any group can turn this around, they can. If they don’t get that (transfer) point guard, then everybody just has to play better and hopefully Wieskamp can come in and be a gunslinger.”
That’s two “ifs” and a “hopefully.”
And that’s the best that can be said for the Hawkeyes after a long, disappointing winter.