Leistikow: Time is now for Iowa basketball's junior class to make NCAA Tournament
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In one of the team’s first meetings as they re-convened this summer, Iowa basketball coaches delivered a message that stuck with a humbled group of players.
Let’s go somewhere cold for spring break.
Translation: The Hawkeyes, coming off an under-performing season, plan to be selected for the 2019 NCAA Tournament in mid-March.
“We’re going to attack every game,” forward Ryan Kriener says, “with that mentality.”
To go from 4-14 in Big Ten Conference play and 14-19 overall to the Big Dance with largely the same roster sounds like an ambitious jump. But that’s exactly where the bar should be in head coach Fran McCaffery’s ninth season.
This may seem harsh: But, barring major injuries, if this team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament, something is systemically wrong with the Iowa basketball program.
This isn’t a young team anymore.
This marks the third season together for five Class of 2016 recruits that arrived with big goals: Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Maishe Dailey, Cordell Pemsl and Kriener.
Final Four was on the list, and they believed it.
They had watched a senior class of Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury elevate McCaffery’s program. That class finished with three straight NCAA Tournament appearances but never got past the round of 32.
The new crop of talent, led by a premier recruit in Cook, created almost instant optimism. A stirring late-season surge as freshmen put Iowa on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. Bohannon and Cook landed on the all-Big Ten freshman team. Nicholas Baer, now a senior, won the league’s Sixth Man award.
A 19-win season that netted a No. 1 seed in the NIT seemed like a certain launching point for bigger things ahead.
Then … thud. Hopes of an NCAA Tournament were all but finished by mid-January.
“It sucks, knowing the season we had last year. We had the talent to be there,” Bohannon says. “Talent can only take you so far.”
A March 1 loss in the Big Ten Tournament mercifully ended a long season. A longer offseason of speculation and reflection was about to begin.
Pemsl admitted he considered all his options. Cook tested the NBA Draft process and didn’t opt to return to college until hours before the deadline. But ultimately, the five-man junior class — six, if you want to include fourth-year junior Isaiah Moss — all decided to make another run together with the Hawkeyes.
“We’re all still great friends, great teammates,” Bohannon says. “I think at the end of the day that’ll help push us to the next level. Same core guys, the same mindset that we had coming in; that we wanted to do something special and win a championship here.”
In today’s transfer culture, a program returning its top nine scorers is unheard of.
“I think it says a lot about them as individuals. They love each other. They love being a part of this program,” McCaffery says. “They believe in each other. They believe in our ability to be better.”
The quickest way to fast progress is obvious.
Most troubling about last year’s huge step back was the margins of defeat. Alarm bells should have been sounding in the early Cayman Islands tournament, when Louisiana-Lafayette dominated Iowa from the get-go, and Bohannon tweeted afterward to a nervous fan base, “Relax.”
Ten of Iowa's 19 losses came by double digits. The failures were stunning. Even McCaffery’s early teams, which had far less talent than this one, could keep games close.
Dailey spent the offseason watching last year’s games — two or three times each. It was a humbling but necessary exercise. It finally clicked. He knew the Hawkeyes were deficient on the defensive end; but he didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.
“Just watching our defensive breakdowns, now I know what everybody was talking about,” Dailey says. “I understood (then), but I didn’t see the breakdowns every possession. Seeing that, it was kind of hard to watch.”
Starting with McCaffery, a team-wide buy-in on defense was needed. Core juniors think they can lead the transformation.
Dailey, a 6-foot-7 wing who plays a selfless brand of basketball, is determined to be a leader on defense.
Pemsl, a 6-9 forward, significantly slimmed down his body in an effort to get quicker on defense.
Kriener, a 6-9 center, went the other way physically to help Iowa’s interior defense. He bulked up. His deadlift in the offseason increased from one rep at 475 pounds to seven reps.
Those are three juniors who understand that playing time can be earned through exponentially better defense.
“Even though there’s 10-plus guys who can, not everyone needs to get 20 points,” Pemsl says.
For this Iowa team to be successful, Bohannon and Cook still need to score. It was no secret, both were defensive liabilities last season. Cook says his NBA workouts helped emphasize the need to play defense with sustained effort.
They all seem to understand their shortcomings and the consequences.
“Outscoring a team isn’t enough, and we figured out the hard way last year. Not making it to the tournament isn’t fun,” Pemsl says. “I think if we stick together, it could be a good season.”
What constitutes a good season?
Dailey flashes back to what this junior class discussed as freshmen: Winning a Big Ten championship.
On the heels of 14-19, that goal hasn’t changed.
“We’re going to put it all together this year,” Dailey says. “This is the year.”
It may seem laughable to think that a team picked by the media to finish 10th in the league’s preseason poll could finish first come March. But as Bohannon says, the talent is there.
I need to see it before believing it. I put the Hawkeyes 11th on my preseason ballot, maybe because last year I fell for the preseason optimism and picked them to finish fourth. Hard evidence of a defensive transformation from offense-minded McCaffery needs to emerge before that opinion is adjusted.
There’s a wide lane for upward Big Ten mobility. While the middle of the league will be good, the top doesn't look to be as strong as it was last year.
Iowa has a potential star in Cook, the first Hawkeye sophomore in 22 years to top 500 points in a season. If the 6-9 power forward has the season he expects to have, this will be Cook’s last season as a Hawkeye.
That’s a reminder that time is running out for this junior class to do something special together.
Somewhere cold in March?
How about downtown Des Moines?
Wells Fargo Arena is hosting first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games this year.
“Another go-round, another chance to go get it,” Kriener says. “It’s not our last chance yet, but if this is TC’s last year, we want to do it for him. We push each other every day to be the best we can be.”
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.