Leistikow: 10 Iowa basketball topics, including the progress of Patrick McCaffery and Jordan Bohannon
It’s way too early to have any idea what the 2020-21 college basketball season entails, but there is incremental clarity about what Iowa's 2020-21 roster does.
All-Big Ten guard Joe Wieskamp has already announced he’s returning to school for his junior season. And while we can't definitively say that consensus first-team all-American Luka Garza and guard Jordan Bohannon will be back, the odds seem far better than 50/50 that they will be. Both have been serving as offseason team captains (along with Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery), with at least one eye on what's on the table if everyone returns.
"They all recognize,” coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday afternoon, “the opportunity before us."
McCaffery indicated that there is no roster scrambling or contingency plans, further cementing the idea of a settled roster. With Cordell Pemsl’s transfer to Virginia Tech, Iowa would have 13 scholarship players — the maximum allowed — if Garza, Bohannon and everyone else returns.
“We’re not looking at any transfer pools or anything,” McCaffery said. “We’re at 13. We’re set at 13.”
There you have it.
If that’s the case, the Hawkeyes would be a preseason top-10 team and Big Ten Conference title contenders ... if not favorites.
As McCaffery said: What an opportunity.
On that note, let’s ride with McCaffery to take a deeper dive into 10 offseason topics surrounding Hawkeye basketball.
No. 1: The Garza situation, impact.
Imagine the LSU football team bringing back Joe Burrow for one more year. Seems unthinkable, right? Yet if Garza returns, the impact on Iowa basketball would be similar. It would be returning someone who assembled the most prolific season by any Hawkeye men's player — a school-record 740 points, a total that could have pushed 900 if there was a postseason.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pretty much eliminated the valuable parts of the NBA Draft exploratory process for guys like Garza and Wieskamp, which makes staying in school more attractive.
“It’s not the optimum situation for somebody who put their name in,” McCaffery said. “…I think both felt confident if given those opportunities, they would have performed well. And I agree, they would have.”
Stadium’s Jeff Goodman on Wednesday reported that after speaking to multiple NBA executives, the verdict on Garza was “unanimous” that he should stay in school. (And Garza has said he wouldn’t make the jump without a roster guarantee.) Goodman quoted the unnamed executive as saying 6-foot-11, 260-pound Garza needed “to work on his body, his perimeter shot and his defense. Then maybe he gets drafted.”
Bottom line: Boy, what a gift it would be for McCaffery’s 11th Iowa team to return the Big Ten player of the year who has off-the-charts work ethic. What an example he would set for five incoming freshmen.
“Whenever you get a guy like Luka, you hope to coach him for four years,” McCaffery said. “You’d love to coach him for 40 years. That’s how great he is to be around.”
No. 2: How’s Patrick doing?
This question rivals “is Luka coming back?” as the most-asked I've received from Hawkeye fans lately.
Patrick McCaffery, the coach’s ultra-talented middle son, is doing very well. He was sidelined for all but two games of his true freshman season as he battled issues related to past thyroid cancer. (He is still waiting to hear about a medical-hardship waiver, which should be a formality.)
But now, his father reports, 6-foot-9 Patrick isn’t as skinny as he used to be: He’s surpassed 200 pounds for the first time in his life. What a huge development if Patrick — a top-75 national recruit — is a full go 2020-21.
McCaffery said his home has a basketball court and lifting area, and that reminded me: Iowa actually has a huge advantage during this COVID-19 isolation, considering 25% of its returning scholarship players (two of eight) live with the head coach. Connor (who will be a redshirt junior) and Patrick are performing daily workouts, with youngest son Jack also involved at times.
“Connor and Patrick have kind of pushed each other,” their dad said.
No. 3: Jack Nunge's smooth rehab.
You’re going to notice a positive theme continuing here, even with the hard-luck case of Nunge, who tore his ACL in late November and missed the rest of the season. He is continuing to rehab back home in Indiana, where he is fortunate to have an indoor court to stay sharp.
“Has had no setbacks from his knee. He’s been running. That’s a good sign,” McCaffery said. “But we’re not rushing anything.”
While Nunge (6-11, 245) has only played five games over the last two seasons (he redshirted in Year 2), it’s easy to forget he, Garza and Connor McCaffery arrived in the same recruiting class. So he's a veteran presence who started 14 games as a true freshman. If Garza did depart for a pro opportunity, Nunge would be the top front-court replacement plan. At minimum, he’s tracking to be a rotation contributor — perhaps gobbling up the departed minutes of Ryan Kriener (who averaged 18.2) — in 2020-21.
No. 4: How good can Bohannon be?
OK, I cannot actually answer that with specificity. Can anyone? None of us have yet truly seen Bohannon at full strength, save perhaps a few stretches as a freshman when he was reeling off nightly double-doubles. Considering he’s played through significant pain for the past three seasons (well, 2½), there’s anticipation to see what the sharpshooting guard can do with two healthy hips and without plantar fasciitis.
McCaffery reports that Bohannon “has probably felt the best he has in a really long time” after left-hip surgery in late December. Rehab has been faster than from last May's right-hip surgery. The next step in his return to the court is his medical-hardship waiver — he played the maximum-allowed 10 games to qualify — to be permitted a fifth year of eligibility.
Assuming good news on that front comes in the next few weeks, McCaffery plans to have Iowa’s all-time leader in 3-pointers with 284 (90 shy of the Big Ten record) at his best level yet. The surgery timing, McCaffery said, “had to be done for him to max out this opportunity. It gave him enough time to really get ready for next year.”
No. 5: The schedule
Last season’s gauntlet bolstered Iowa’s metrics to the point that, even with a 20-11 record, it was projected to be a top-seven NCAA Tournament seed. The 2020-21 schedule won’t be as difficult, it seems, after McCaffery confirmed that instead of traveling to an exempt tournament (like to the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Las Vegas in recent years), Iowa will be hosting one of its own. The details are thin, but The Athletic has reported South Dakota and Alabama State are among the opponents.
Before you yawn, let’s take a step back. Iowa still will play 20 Big Ten games, and the league should again be strong. Given Iowa’s preseason expectations, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge should bring a premier program to Carver-Hawkeye Arena (maybe Louisville or North Carolina, which both hosted Challenge games last year while Iowa went on the road to Syracuse). Plus, a Dec. 10 home date vs. Iowa State is secured. A probable Gavitt Games road matchup (Villanova? Creighton? Butler?) is in the 31-game mix as well. The schedule will be plenty tough overall, and it’s OK if there are a few breathers mixed in.
If Iowa is as good as advertised, the results (and NET rankings) will take care of themselves.
No. 6: Is this McCaffery’s best roster yet? (*if everyone returns)
Yes, I think it would be*, because in Garza and Bohannon you have two of the greats of the McCaffery era, plus Wieskamp, who has a high ceiling in Iowa City and at the next level. An argument could be made for the 2013-14 team — when Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury and a young Peter Jok were among the key contributors — but 2020-21 has a chance to be the gold standard.
A starting five of Bohannon, CJ Fredrick, Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery and Garza, plus a bench of Joe Toussaint (speaking of high ceilings), Nunge and Patrick McCaffery would provide a versatile and potent top eight before any of the incoming freshmen (more on them later) are factored in. And honestly, if those eight stay healthy, Fran McCaffery might not need to expand the rotation.
Iowa's experience and leadership* will become an even bigger factor the more the COVID-19 pandemic limits on-court time. These guys know the offense, know what’s expected, and they’re motivated self-starters. These are probably the last college hurrahs for Garza, Bohannon and Wieskamp.
“They’re locked in. And when you’re locked in like that, you have a credibility (with) your teammates,” McCaffery said. “I think we all recognize the challenge that’s ahead in terms of (2020-21) expectation."
No. 7: Challenges for the five new faces.
A large freshman class is on the way. Typically, they would arrive on campus in early June and begin working out with their new teammates. There’s no guarantee that’ll happen, of course, particularly for the Class of 2020’s lone big man.
Josh Ogundele is back in his native London, England, with his family amid the pandemic. McCaffery isn't sure when the 6-foot-11 center will be cleared to return to the U.S., where he played his high-school ball. McCaffery said he’s been in regular touch with incoming guards Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins, as well as Keegan and Kris Murray.
The latter two might be most interesting, considering they spent a year at the DME Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida, after graduating from Cedar Rapids Prairie. Their father is former Hawkeye Kenyon Murray, so the 6-foot-8 twins have had a foot in the program already.
“They’re from here, they’ve already been out of school for one year and kind of understand what we’re doing,” McCaffery said. “They used to come in last year and play with our guys in open gym. They know all our players.”
No. 8: What’s the recruiting plan?
McCaffery only anticipates recruiting behind Garza and Bohannon after next season, though it seems like Wieskamp — with a strong season — is ready to jump to the next level. Iowa has no commitments for the Class of 2021 or beyond.
McCaffery would be wise to max out this 2020-21 season with his veterans while letting his youngsters learn the system and fight for niche roles.
“Maybe we get one (2021 recruit), maybe we get two when it’s over,” McCaffery said. “Maybe we sign one and carry one to the following year because we redshirt a guy in this class. There’s a lot of ways to look at it."
No. 9: Has the team moved past the sting of a lost postseason?
In some ways, no. And that could be a good thing.
Weekly Zoom calls have affirmed to McCaffery that his guys are driven. Players felt like they were well-positioned (as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and with one of the nation’s top players) for a fruitful postseason run. A coach that puts a premium on high-character recruits is seeing continued hunger during the pandemic.
And that should be encouraging to fans excitedly waiting for their next dose of Hawkeye hoops.
“This is a self-motivated group. They put the time in. They take care of their bodies. They live their life the right way,” McCaffery, who turns 61 later this month, said. “Most importantly, they’re connected as friends, teammates and competitors. To be truthful, that’s when it’s fun to coach.”
No. 10: What could hold this team back?
Roster-wise, Garza going pro would be the biggest blow. That would dial expectations way back.
Defense remains an ongoing McCaffery-era concern. But don’t forget, Fredrick (who McCaffery thinks is one of Iowa’s best defenders) and Bohannon have barely been healthy during their playing careers.
And the offense should be better than last season, when it was No. 5 (out of 353) nationally in efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
There’s a lot to be excited about. Now we wait … to see what Garza decides, to see Bohannon’s fate. Then, let’s hope there is a 2020-21 season to see how this all plays out.
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.