Leistikow: If Garza returns, how would Iowa's 2020-21 basketball rotation look?
The word “if” carries unprecedented weight when it comes to discussing sports these days. Every thought about what’s ahead amid the COVID-19 pandemic must be accompanied by the “if” caveat, it seems.
“If” there are college sports this fall.
“If” fans will be in the stands.
“If” things will feel normal again.
But, as revealed in recent weeks when it comes to discussing Iowa Hawkeyes basketball in 2020-21, “if” can carry the weight of excitement, too.
With Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon declaring they’re all-in for the Hawkeyes next season — rather than taking their basketball skills elsewhere — the possibilities seem tantalizing … especially if first-team all-American center Luka Garza is back, too.
And, you could say, the possibilities are unprecedented.
Because if that all occurs, Fran McCaffery’s 11th Hawkeye team will have … wait for it … seven returning starters.
In the modern era of college basketball with revolving-door transfers and so many early-professional departures every year, the idea of five returning starters seems like a pipe dream ... let alone having seven.
Yet there are 350 collegiate starts among the group of Bohannon (102 in his three-plus seasons), Garza (87), Wieskamp (66), Connor McCaffery (31), CJ Fredrick (25), Joe Toussaint (20) and Jack Nunge (19). Six of the seven will be at least 21 years old for the scheduled early-November start to the season. Bohannon will be 23, McCaffery 22. Garza turns 22 in December.
You definitely won't see this kind of veteran presence on an Iowa roster again; you might never see anything like it in the men's game, period.
"I honestly don’t think, 1 through 5, there’s a team that stands with us in the country,” Bohannon told me Friday, a quote that has been excitedly distributed among Hawkeye fans. “I don’t think there’s a team that has what we have, experience-wise, talent-wise coming back.”
Add to those seven the return of 6-foot-9 wing Patrick McCaffery, the coach’s son and a top-75 national recruit whose body weight has surpassed 200 pounds, and Iowa's roster has the potential to bring the program its first Sweet 16 trip in 21 years and maybe more.
For the purposes of this conversation, let’s assume the five incoming freshmen are minor players in the rotation. We’ll know more when we see them on campus, but it’s safe to say instant contributions from Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, Keegan and Kris Murray and Josh Ogundele would be a bonus but aren't required.
So, how would the rotation look?
With Bohannon (whose 504 career assists are within striking distance of Jeff Horner’s school-record 612) and Toussaint (a lightning-quick rising sophomore), the point-guard spot is in good hands. That allows 6-5 Connor McCaffery to settle in as a ball-distributing forward.
McCaffery’s 4.59 assist-to-turnover ratio (124 assists, 27 turnovers) was easily the best in the country last season while ably alternating from point guard to power forward. McCaffery brings toughness, reliable free-throw shooting and a knack for finding open teammates to the floor. Surrounded by three outside marksmen plus Garza, he could see his assist numbers soar to seven or eight a game as a distributing forward in his father's wide-open offense. Plus, he could always slide back to the point if needed.
A starting five of Bohannon at the 1, Fredrick at the 2, Wieskamp at the 3, McCaffery at the 4 and Garza at the 5 presents opponents with no-win defensive decisions. One of the few times that group has been together? Iowa's 84-68 rout of Iowa State on Dec. 13 in Ames.
Bringing Toussaint off the bench at the 1 allows Bohannon to get a breather or slide to the 2.
Patrick McCaffery is being groomed as an ideal "3" for Iowa. He can back-fill the minutes of Wieskamp and his brother as his body and game mature.
At 6-11, Nunge fits best as a stretch-4 option. He allows Iowa to “go big” when needed and, presumably with a little help from Ogundele (6-11, 255), can relieve Garza from the 39-minute nights he experienced down the stretch of the Big Ten season.
Iowa’s adjusted offense, according to KenPom.com, ranked fifth nationally last season — and that was with an injury-decimated team sometimes taking the floor. Figuring that the Hawkeyes can be a top-three national offense, climbing to a top-50 defense (it was 97th, per KenPom, last season) is a necessary and realistic goal.
If Garza does return, demonstrating his improvement as a defender will be key to unlocking a long pro career. Bohannon's defense gets knocked, but I believe his healthy hips will reveal a much-improved defender. Fredrick, Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery are already solid in the department of defense.
There's little reason for Fran McCaffery to deviate beyond his returning top eight.
Ride this unprecedented group, then enjoy the ride.
When will we hear about Garza? It likely won't be this week; he has until June to make a decision.
As for the 2020-21 basketball season?
Given what's possible, Hawkeye players and fans no doubt carry great hope that "if" it happens becomes "when."
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.