Leistikow: Hawkeyes basketball must use NCAA Tournament as minimum measuring stick

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

All week long, 16 universities have been showered with national media coverage as the only schools remaining with a chance to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

The Sweet 16.

When will it be Iowa’s turn?

That’s a fair question Hawkeye hoops fans should have this week.

And it sparks a conversation about what expectations for this program should be entering Year 9 of the Fran McCaffery era.

Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes played some of their best basketball in the final three games of a disappointing 14-19 season.

As I thought about this — and as I looked at a blown-up NCAA Tournament bracket that has just seven of 16 top-four seeds remaining — something that fifth-year Hawkeye baseball coach Rick Heller said recently popped into my mind.

Heller, like McCaffery, took over an Iowa program in shambles. Baseball’s postseason tournament invites 64 teams, similar to basketball’s 68.

Heller has done an admirable job rebuilding the Hawkeye baseball program; as has McCaffery with basketball. Recruiting for both programs appears better than ever.

Of his annual expectation, Heller said last month it was getting into that top 64.

After that, he understands: Anything goes.

Just like we've seen in March Madness.

“But if you can get there year after year,” Heller noted, “you eventually catch a break and things go your way. Next thing you know, you’re in a super regional."

(That's the equivalent of basketball’s Sweet 16.)

“That’s what we’re pushing for," Heller continued. "Getting our program to a point where we can consistently count on getting into a regional each and every year.”

Nailed it.

So just because McCaffery’s Hawkeye hoopsters are coming off a disappointing 14-19 season doesn’t mean he, the players or fans should downgrade expectations.

The starting point this deep into a coaching regime must be getting to the NCAA Tournament.

That’s where the bar should be set in 2019 by you the fans and us the media, whether star forward Tyler Cook (who is testing the NBA Draft process without hiring an agent) returns to the Hawkeyes or not.

If those inside the program or Iowa’s administration aren’t on the same page, that’s a problem. Athletics director Gary Barta, who awarded McCaffery a lucrative contract extension in November, said a few weeks ago: “The level we played at this year was not acceptable to (McCaffery) or me.”

A no-brainer statement for Year 8; but still, good to hear.

When McCaffery did his final interview of the 2017-18 season in New York City, he affirmed his upward outlook in 12 words.

“I’m really optimistic moving forward,” he said after an overtime loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament, “with the character in that locker room.”

Even with the defections of guard Brady Ellingson and forward Ahmad Wagner this week, his optimism is based in reality. 

He brings back a slew of motivated, high-character, talented guys: Building around Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery (a top-150 national recruit who has submitted paperwork for a medical-hardship waiver to preserve his four years of eligibility), Jack Nunge and Luka Garza is an excellent starting point.

If Cook comes back (let’s put that prospect at 50-50 for now), consider that a big bonus. Plus, 2017 Big Ten Sixth Man award winner Nicholas Baer and high-potential guard Isaiah Moss are proven contributors.

Adding 6-foot-7 guard Joe Wieskamp, the top recruit to date of the Fran McCaffery era who will become a fan favorite, and sneaky-good shooter C.J. Fredrick to the mix is an encouraging proposition.

After two straight years of being one of college basketball’s least-experienced teams — and two straight years of missing the NCAA Tournament — the Hawkeyes should be growing up. And the expectations should be going up.

There are three steps the Iowa program can take between now and the official start of practice in October to help get where it needs to go.

Develop and embrace a defensive identity

You don’t need’s analytics to tell you Iowa stunk at defense last season. But how bad was it? The Hawkeyes’ national ranking of 245 in KenPom's adjusted defense was the second-worst of any “Power Six” team — only Washington State of the Pac-12 was lower, at 274.

The second-worst Big Ten team was 91 spots ahead of Iowa (Minnesota, at 154).

Identify a team that plays great zone defense. Go study what they do, coach what they do, embrace what they do. Look at Syracuse. The 11th-seeded Orange stifled Michigan State to head to the Sweet 16 with an oppressive 2-3 zone defense.

The Hawkeyes have a lot of long bodies — Wieskamp, Baer, Maishe Dailey, Nunge, Garza and Ryan Kriener among them — and have the capability to be disruptive on defense. From coaches on down, they all have to commit to such a disruption.

Get a grad-transfer guard who can defend

With two open scholarships (at minimum), one should go to Connor McCaffery (who was walking on to make room for a fully stocked roster). The other should be used to recruit the first graduate transfer of the Fran McCaffery era.

Find a guard who can handle the basketball and run an offense. But first and foremost, make sure he can defend. The transfer list of guards around the country who could be immediately eligible elsewhere next season is already dozens deep.

The Hawkeyes played outstanding defense in 2015 (KenPom rating of 34) and 2016 (30) — their last two NCAA Tournament seasons. A common thread? Iowa had Anthony Clemmons, a defensive-minded guard who was able to suffocate the opponents’ top ball-handler ... and score on occasion.

And by finding a one-and-done grad transfer — someone who can give you 10 to 15 stingy-defense minutes a game — you can continue to aggressively pursue a point guard in the recruiting class of 2019.

Button up and bolster the schedule

Although Iowa was miles from the NCAA bubble this past season, a nonconference schedule that featured four of college basketball’s bottom 37 RPI teams wouldn't have helped.

Look at Nebraska. Even a 13-5 Big Ten record wasn’t good enough to get the Huskers in, largely because playing three bottom-28 cream-puffs became RPI killers.

The good news is the base of Hawkeyes’ 2018-19 schedule is solid. The Big Ten is going up to a 20-game schedule; the 2K Classic in New York is on the books and presents credible opponents (two of three among Connecticut, Oregon and Syracuse); the Hawkeyes will host a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game and Iowa State; plus, they get what figures to be an improved Northern Iowa team in the Big Four Classic.

But if I’m McCaffery and Barta, when I go to complete the 31-game schedule, I first look at the bottom 50 of the RPI. Then I cross those teams off the list. Then I start making calls.

So, wrapping up ... Iowa has now been to only one Sweet 16 in the past 29 seasons (Dr. Tom Davis' final team, in 1999). That's a tougher place to annually reach, even for college basketball's blue-bloods. Let alone Iowa.

But to enjoy a trip to the Sweet 16, you first have to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Hawkeye fans, coaches and players should all expect at least that much in 2019.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.