Leistikow: 10 thoughts ahead of Iowa's highly anticipated basketball season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The most anticipated Iowa men's basketball season is almost here, with Wednesday's 3 p.m. home matchup against North Carolina-Central serving as the scheduled opener.

Here are 10 thoughts about the Hawkeyes, who have Final Four aspirations. 

No. 1: If Luka Garza is averaging 23.8 points and 9.8 rebounds a game like he did last year, that’ll be a bad sign.

I expect Garza to be even more efficient offensively and improved on defense after another rigorous offseason of training. But the 6-foot-11 center had to be a one-man show during multiple stretches last year (particularly as Joe Wieskamp struggled down the stretch). He played 38-39 minutes many nights and averaged 19 shots in conference games.

He shouldn’t need to play that much or shoot that much this season, and that’s just fine with him. For Iowa to be a dominant team, Garza will need robust production from his supporting cast. Garza actually could be an easy first-team all-American again if he’s “just” putting up 19 points and eight rebounds a game, and the Hawkeyes match their preseason No. 5 Associated Press ranking. I think you’ll see him break his career-high for assists (four) multiple times.

“My main focus going into the season is winning. I want to win, a lot, as much as I can,” Garza said. “As an individual player, I’ve done a lot, so it doesn’t matter what happens individually this year as long as the team succeeds. That’s why I came back. I (already) put up enough good numbers to make it to the next level.”

Jordan Bohannon has made 24 consecutive free throws, dating to the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

No. 2: This Iowa team could legitimately shoot 80% from the free-throw line for the season.

The Hawkeyes’ 75.0% mark from a year ago was the program’s highest since Ralph Miller’s legendary “Six Pack” team of 1969-70 blistered the nets at a rate of 78.0% from the charity stripe.

Garza is the key to 80%. The all-American believes he can return to his sophomore free-throw rate of 80.4%, rather than his junior regression to 65.1% (on a whopping 195 attempts in 31 games). If he does, the rest of Iowa’s returning top seven are proven proficient. Jordan Bohannon is near automatic, 88.6% for his career and has made 24 free throws in a row. Wieskamp led the Big Ten Conference last season by shooting 85.6% on 111 attempts. The career free-throw marks for CJ Fredrick (79.5%), Connor McCaffery (76.4%), Joe Toussaint (83.1%) and Jack Nunge (75.5%) are also excellent.

Wieskamp calls free throws “easy points.” Whether Iowa hits 80% or not, this will be a reliable foul-shooting group that will be in a lot of close games and wants to make a deep March run.

Getting fouled, coach Fran McCaffery said, "is a good thing for us."

Defense will continue to be a major question for the Hawkeyes' ability to contend on a national level. Here, Joe Wieskamp (10) and Luka Garza (55) are shown in a February game at Indiana.

No. 3: The million-dollar question remains: Can Iowa defend well enough to go all the way?

There’s a reason that analytics guru Ken Pomeroy (of KenPom.com) is less bullish on the Hawkeyes than national voters. He rates Iowa No. 13, which is hardly a slap in the face, but that’s fourth among Big Ten teams (behind Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State). And he projects a 17-10 regular season, including 12-8 in conference play, because of Iowa’s expected shortcomings on the defensive end of the floor.

While Pomeroy rates Iowa’s adjusted offense No. 2 in the country heading into the season (to Gonzaga, Iowa’s Dec. 19 opponent in Sioux Falls, South Dakota), he has their adjusted defense at No. 72. In the Big Ten, only Nebraska’s is worse.

No team with a defensive efficiency outside KenPom's top 40 has won the national title (his analytics go back to 2002). The Hawkeyes are banking on being better defensively than last year’s No. 97 adjusted efficiency by being a year older and because they should be deeper and, therefore, fresher.

"I think defensively, it's all about being connected. And having great communication," Fredrick said. "I think we've made some strides in that area heading into this year.”

Iowa doesn’t have a defensive guru on its coaching staff; its plan is still to try to outscore teams. The hope is that the offense can be so good that average defense will suffice.

No. 4: While the starting lineup will be interesting to see, it’ll be more telling who Fran McCaffery has on the floor at the end of games.

The starting five often isn’t the final five. Several years ago, it was common for Isaiah Moss to start games but for Connor McCaffery to finish them.

When the game’s on the line, three players are sure bets to be on the floor: Bohannon is an all-time clutch player at Iowa; Wieskamp is a versatile scorer/defender and can rebound; Garza, no explanation needed. But which two players join them?

I could see it coming down to matchups. If Iowa needs to control the paint, Nunge and Connor McCaffery might be wise picks. If Iowa’s trying to contain quick guards, maybe Toussaint and Fredrick are given the call. If the Hawkeyes need points and need them quickly, then perhaps it’s Fredrick and even Patrick McCaffery, a long wing who can shoot.

One thing Fran McCaffery could do to help is make offense/defense substitutions at the end of games. For example, maybe go with Bohannon on offense and Toussaint on defense.

Iowa guard Joe Toussaint (right, being guarded by Ahron Ulis) is one of the biggest wild-card factors in the Hawkeyes' 2020-21 success.

No. 5: The Hawkeyes can be a championship-level team if they get big contributions from Toussaint and Nunge.

Both are wild-card factors to the team’s success, in my opinion. Because if all of Iowa’s top seven players are playing at a high level, Fran McCaffery doesn’t need to go much deeper than that.

I loved Toussaint’s tenacity. He gives Iowa an electric element at point guard. His last game last season (14 points at Illinois in 19 minutes) came against some top-end guards. If he plays with a little more control and consistency, he’ll be deserving of 20 to 25 minutes a game (he averaged 17.9 as a freshman). Toussaint says you’ll see a better shooter than his 37.8% debut.

“I’m prepared to make a lot of shots this year. I’m prepared to make a lot of plays this year, to be honest with you,” Toussaint said. “You’ll just see tremendous growth in my game. It’s not the Freshman Joe anymore.”

The play of Nunge, meanwhile, is equally imperative because he’ll need to man the “5” spot when Garza needs a break or gets in foul trouble. We have barely seen him in three calendar years after a redshirt season and his torn ACL. The 6-11 forward brings an inside/outside game. Going against Garza in practice has made him better, and he's excited to show his growth.

“Together, we're just making each other better every day, and it's been that way for the past four years, honestly,” Nunge said. “Being able to see his work come to fruition has been awesome for me, and hopefully I can show it this year.”

No. 6: There are 200 minutes in a game; divide it seven ways, that’s an average of 28.6 per player.

That’s why I say Fran McCaffery doesn’t need to go much past his top seven. But you know he will, and that’s a legitimate worry among the Iowa fan base. Can he show enough restraint in his rotation?

The openers this week (Wednesday vs. North Carolina-Central, Friday vs. Southern) will be a good chance to learn about what Iowa has behind its top seven. One of the most intriguing players is Patrick McCaffery, who has added roughly 25 pounds to his 6-9 frame.

“Probably the best part of my game is when I'm able to do in transition, just kind of in terms of me getting out and going,” the redshirt freshman said. “I think I have a pretty good feel for when the shot misses, and how I can just kind of take off, if I'm not getting the rebound. And I'm able to get some easy baskets.”

Patrick McCaffery plays the “3” primarily, so he’ll back up Wieskamp — who will have no problem playing 32 minutes a night. Maybe that means Patrick gets eight? We’ll see. But this is a year that Fran McCaffery needs to ride his best players in the big games and stress to his younger players that if they work hard, their time will come. And that leads us to the next topic …

Patrick McCaffery, right, has added more weight on his 6-9 frame; he's up to about 205 pounds. Here, he works against Kris Murray during a Nov. 14 scrimmage.

No. 7: This is a “free” year for everyone eligibility-wise, but especially beneficial for the five freshmen. Does that mean McCaffery gets them more involved or less involved?

We in the media haven’t seen any of the five play in any capacity as Hawkeyes, so this information is based on what we’ve heard. My read of the tea leaves is that two of the freshmen could offer something that the regular rotation might lack.

Tony Perkins sounds like he’ll bring top-end athleticism to the court and could be a defensive-minded “2” guard. That would come in handy. Keegan Murray (6-8, 215) was singled out by McCaffery for his “phenomenal” rebounding ability, and he’s considered the better shooter of the identical twins.

After talking to all five freshmen last week, it seemed to be a common theme that they were cool with using this pandemic year as a learning year. But, if a prominent teammate or two gets a positive COVID-19 test, they may need to step up in a hurry.

“Just because the uncertainty for this whole year, for all five of us, it’s just to be ready,” Kris Murray said. “When they call on us, we have to know what to do in our positions.”

The nice thing about this class is that all five play different positions. Ahron Ulis at the 1, Perkins at the 2, Kris Murray at the 3, Keegan Murray at the 4, Josh Ogundele at the 5. None of them should expect to play significant minutes, but certainly they should fight for them. They apparently gave the first-teamers more fits than you'd expect during a Nov. 7 scrimmage.

No. 8: Get ready for postponements and/or cancellations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every measure will be taken to preserve the money-making NCAA Tournament, so that means regular-season games will be seen as more expendable. I'm not wild about the Big Ten's decision to formulate a standard-looking schedule (rather than trying to pit weekend doubleheaders with multiple teams in one site), but at least the conference built in some "collapsible byes" that'll allow games to be rescheduled if need be.

Iowa has 27 scheduled games; don't be surprised if the final total ends up being less than that. The Big Ten standings, like in football, will inevitably have some imbalance.

No. 9: I like Iowa’s chances to win nine of its first 10 games.

The Hawkeyes’ first six games are at home, the toughest test being against No. 16 North Carolina on Dec. 8. Iowa State (on Dec. 11) is expected to be near the bottom of the Big 12. Iowa could very well be 6-0 heading into that Gonzaga showdown, then its Big Ten schedule starts with Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern — teams picked ninth or worse in the preseason media poll — before the calendar turns to 2021.

That type of start would be great for the program, and it would keep the Hawkeyes in the national spotlight (probably continuing in the top five) for a very long stretch. Having Garza, Wieskamp and Bohannon as mature leaders should provide comfort that the Hawkeyes, who never got higher in the AP poll than No. 17 last season, can handle such notoriety.

“We have a lot of unfinished business that we wanted to come back for,” Wieskamp said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity and trying to make the most of it and do something special for this Iowa team.”

No. 10: In conclusion … what will mark a successful Hawkeye season?

I don’t mean this to sound like a cop-out answer, but I think we’ll know it when we see it. For example, last year’s 20-11 record and No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament felt like a rousing success because of the constant barrage of injuries.

But here are a few more ways to look at it. If Iowa wins its first Big Ten regular-season title in 42 years, I think that would help take some sting out of not making the Final Four. If Iowa finishes fourth or fifth in the Big Ten and then makes a run to the Final Four, nobody will care about the regular season.

It’s really hard to win the Big Ten. It’s really hard to get to the Final Four. If Iowa could achieve one of those, that would be a definitive success. Anything short of the NCAA's Sweet 16, though, would feel like an opportunity lost.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.