Leistikow's 10 thoughts entering Iowa's 2019-20 basketball season
Iowa's basketball season unofficially begins with Monday's exhibition game against Lindsey Wilson College. It officially begins with the Nov. 8 regular-season opener against SIU-Edwardsville, an 8 p.m. tip-off at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Here are 10 thoughts ahead of the Hawkeyes' 2019-20 campaign.
1. Joe Wieskamp can be a superstar, and this team probably needs him to be.
It may seem crazy to think that the Hawkeyes’ fortunes will rise or crumble depending on a player who averaged 11.1 points a game as a freshman. But that’s the reality — and I do think Wieskamp can absolutely handle the spotlight role.
He is the best recruit of the Fran McCaffery era, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be around after this season. The 6-foot-6 sophomore wing has 3-point shooting touch, the ability to create his own shot, a knack for rebounding and now 35 games of starting experience in his arsenal. He absolutely could be a first-team all-Big Ten Conference player and push for 20 points a night.
If Wieskamp suffers an injury or is only incrementally better than last year, Iowa will struggle. The only “3” behind him is Patrick McCaffery, and the skinny freshman (6-9, 190 pounds) needs more time to bulk up and get acclimated to the physical Big Ten.
2. Jordan Bohannon probably isn’t going to play a full season, but crazier things have happened.
The senior point guard, already Iowa’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, is going to give it a go with his surgically repaired right hip early in the season. But both he and Fran McCaffery are talking about “shutting it down” if Bohannon is not rounding into form, and they’re justifiably confident he would receive a medical-hardship waiver as long as he doesn’t play more than nine regular-season games.
Bohannon is known to pull a surprise, as he did with the intentionally-missed-free-throw-heard-round-the-college-world two seasons ago. But he has openly talked about wanting to play a full senior season healthy, and it’s more likely that occurs in 2020-21 than in 2019-20.
3. McCaffery predicts that Iowa will be a good rebounding team, but that will require adequately replacing Tyler Cook.
Cook — now with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers — was by far Iowa’s top rebounder a season ago. Yet even with the 6-9, 250 power forward, the Hawkeyes were an average rebounding team (with a minus-0.6 average margin in Big Ten play).
Certainly, third-year starting center Luka Garza (13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds as a sophomore) will be the most relied-upon big man. The best bet is that Cook’s production is collectively replaced by senior Ryan Kriener plus redshirted forwards Jack Nunge (a bulked-up, 6-11 shooter) and Cordell Pemsl (a gritty interior player).
Of those three, Nunge provides the most intrigue while Kriener (6-10, 255) provides the most tenacity and muscle. McCaffery has never consistently given Kriener a heavy workload, and now seems like the time. When given at least 20 minutes of playing time against a Big Ten opponent, Kriener in six opportunities over three years has averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 76% from the floor (35-for-46).
4. If I had to guess a starting five?
I think it’ll be Bohannon (when playing) or sophomore Connor McCaffery (when Bohannon's not) at the "1"; redshirt freshman CJ Fredrick at the “2”; Wieskamp at the “3”; Nunge at the “4”; and Garza at the “5”.
Fran McCaffery did say this week he thinks the depth on this team will surprise outsiders.
"I think a lot of people look at your first five, but we have a lot of really good players," McCaffery said. "We have a lot of really good shooters."
5. On that note, Fredrick is my unheralded pick to click for the Hawkeyes.
The 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman came to Iowa with a sharpshooting reputation and was the 2018 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year. That gets your attention. So does the fact that McCaffery says Fredrick is probably Iowa’s best backcourt defender.
“He stays in his stance and is always where he is supposed to be,” McCaffery said. “He gets deflections and steals. He fights through screens. And at his position, he has to be able to handle screens.”
This sounds like a guy that was going to get a lot of minutes, even if Isaiah Moss (now at Kansas) had stuck around. It would not stun me if Fredrick is in the running for the Big Ten’s all-freshmen team.
6. Assuming Bohannon doesn't play into January, do the Hawkeyes have enough point-guard play to survive the Big Ten?
None of the three options — Connor McCaffery, grad transfer Bakari Evelyn and true freshman Joe Toussaint — are acclaimed scoring threats. Defenses aren't yet worried about their 3-point shots, which wouldn't be the case with Bohannon.
The best-case scenario for Iowa is that all three guys can limit turnovers, play solid defense and set up Wieskamp and Garza ... while occasionally finding a way to score enough to keep teams honest. A collective average of 12 points, eight assists and two turnovers from the non-Bohannon trio would be a within-reason goal.
Where Iowa would miss Bohannon the most is during clutch moments down the stretch. The Hawkeyes' 10-10 Big Ten record (and NCAA Tournament bid) a year ago would've been 6-14 without Bohannon's late-game heroics. Point guards matter in the most critical moments. A lot.
7. A selfless team is Iowa’s best chance at being successful.
McCaffery is praising this team for its ability to move the ball efficiently. It’s true, there are a lot of unselfish players on this roster — including the star in Wieskamp and McCaffery's two sons. The best way for Wieskamp (and Garza, one of four Hawkeyes all-time to have 800 points and 350 rebounds through his sophomore season) to enjoy career-best years is if several other Hawkeyes can become on-court threats to score.
Too often a year ago, the ball would get stuck in the post with Cook, and the offense would stall and force a contested shot or turn it over. The more ball movement, the better for a team with fewer go-to options.
"You can have a lot of good players, but if there is any level of selfishness, then you aren’t going to be any good," McCaffery said. "This team is a very unselfish group, and I have been impressed and pleased by that."
8. Being a better (and more willing) defensive team would be a helpful Band-aid for growing pains.
According to KenPom.com, the Hawkeyes have had the Big Ten’s worst adjusted-defense rating in each of the last three seasons. Ouch. It was especially bad in 2017-18, when Iowa went 14-19.
The best hope for changing that trend is the updated roster.
McCaffery’s 2016 team had the nation’s No. 30-ranked adjusted defense; that was when seniors Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury were willing-and-able defenders. So, it’s not like McCaffery teams are eternally incapable of playing defense.
Once again, it requires a roster of selfless players.
9. Does the difficult schedule help or hurt a team with so many unknowns?
Depends how the coach and players handle adversity.
They and the fans need to understand it's going to get hairy in a hurry. Starting with the Las Vegas tournament Nov. 28-29, the Hawkeyes will play seven straight difficult games (and could be an underdog in five or six of those) before Christmas.
The good news is that Bohannon might be around to help during that stretch; the bad news is that an untested team could realistically have a 6-6 record or worse by that time.
Patience will be required. This team might have a 2016-17 vibe — a young group that started slowly (remember the home loss to Omaha?) but slowly found its identity and jelled nicely in February and played its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
10. Year 10 is an important one for the Fran McCaffery era.
I get asked a lot about expectations. McCaffery expects the NCAA Tournament. That’s good; he should keep the bar high. I picked Iowa to finish 10th in the Big Ten, but that's not counting promising stories. How much player development shows up will tell the story of this team ... and maybe McCaffery's future at Iowa.
That’s where I’m at. Let’s just watch and see what happens. The trajectory could be much different in mid-February than mid-December. If this becomes a healthy and selfless team determined to defend, there might be some important, exciting games come March.
If any fractures become apparent within the team, this could fall apart in a hurry, because there's not a lot of apparent help on the way. It’s a crucial year for McCaffery to hold it all together. Even if he doesn't make the NCAA Tournament, he needs to provide his players and fan base valid reasons for optimism in the near future.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.