Leistikow: Why the early soft schedule should pay off later for this Iowa basketball team

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On the heels of their most successful start-to-finish men’s basketball season since 1987, the Iowa Hawkeyes will kick off a new campaign with (drum roll, please) …

Longwood. Missouri-Kansas City. North Carolina-Central. Alabama State. Western Michigan. Portland State. 

Those six games, from Nov. 9-26, are all at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A Nov. 5 exhibition against Slippery Rock precedes that 18-day stretch that’s tucked inside the end of football’s regular season. Plenty of good seats are available.

Cymbal crash?

Sad trombone?

Normally, that kind of schedule wouldn’t or shouldn’t have Iowa fans excited. But this year, those six games could be just what 12th-year coach Fran McCaffery needs to figure out how to best piece together a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, this time without the benefit of NBA draft picks Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp.

Ken Pomeroy’s famed and trusted projections have Iowa’s young, revamped roster slotted as the 23rd-best team in the country, with the expected No. 10 adjusted offense and No. 58 defense. That’s not bad; way better than the early national polls suggest. The Hawkeyes were picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten Conference by media members and didn’t receive any top-25 votes on the 63 Associated Press preseason ballots (mine included).

But back to those first six regular-season games: Pomeroy predicts Iowa’s victory margin to be 21, 21, 31, 33, 26 and 21 points.

Perfect.

Stretch-four Keegan Murray needs to get acclimated to being "the guy" for the Hawkeyes. Because the 6-foot-9 sophomore is going to be the guy. If Murray is going to become McCaffery's first first-round NBA Draft pick and the catalyst this team needs, he'll need to get accustomed to a starring role after being a team-first bench player a year ago. A less-stressed six-game start also should give Murray a chance show the progress of his 3-point shot that he thinks will be much-improved from last year's 29.6%.

Joe Toussaint, right, needs time to reacclimate to a point-guard role he held at times as a freshman. He also needs to find his footing without Luka Garza as the Hawkeyes' focal point. Freshman Payton Sandfort, left, also figures to be in the rotation this winter.

Point guard Joe Toussaint has the keys, but he needs to get reacclimated behind the wheel ... without Garza in the post or Wieskamp on the wing. The junior was playing a backup ball-handling role to Jordan Bohannon and even Connor McCaffery last season, but his development into an "every-down" type of point guard is critical to keeping Bohannon — in Year 6 — at his new shooting-guard role. We also need to see more of what Ahron Ulis can do as Toussaint's backup.

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Perhaps the biggest question mark — and maybe concern — on Iowa's roster is at center. No surprise, considering the consensus national player of the year and Big Ten's top scorer of the last 20 years in Garza has departed. Plus, Iowa surprisingly lost 6-11 Jack Nunge as a transfer to Xavier. So, the "5" spot falls to the cobbled-together combination of 6-9 graduate transfer Filip Rebraca, 6-10 sophomore Josh Ogundele and 6-11 freshman Riley Mulvey.

Fran McCaffery needs to see where Rebraca best fits after arriving from North Dakota; whether the light bulb comes on consistently for the wide-bodied Ogundele; and how much the slender Mulvey, who was supposed to be an Albany high school senior before reclassifying, can handle. My suspicion is that Keegan Murray might have to play some "5" this year, too, if we're talking about putting the "best five" on the court.

But that isn't a good long-term plan considering the Big Ten is home to five of the top six "bigs" in the country, as ranked by The Athletic, in Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, Michigan's Hunter Dickinson, Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis, Purdue's Trevion Williams and Ohio State's E.J. Liddell. Iowa plays eight games against those five teams; McCaffery would be asking for (foul) trouble if he tasks Murray to play the "5" against such interior forces. Thus, low-pressure court time for Rebraca, Ogundele and Mulvey is huge in November.

Connor McCaffery, with 62 career starts and coming off two hip surgeries, also must adjust to a new role in coming off the bench. Patrick McCaffery is likely Iowa's best-suited starter at the "3" spot but he lost five weeks of progress and conditioning recently with multiple sprained ankles. How much scoring can sophomore Tony Perkins and freshman Payton Sandfort bring to the backcourt? Where does 6-8 Kris Murray, Keegan's twin brother, best fit into the plans?

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A year ago, it was easy to roll the ball out there and let Bohannon, Wieskamp and Garza run the show.

Now, Fran McCaffery has a lot of unknown combinations at his disposal.

"We can go with a bigger lineup, a smaller lineup. We can go without a traditional five-man and (go) three guards and two 6-9s," the head coach said earlier this month. "There's a lot of ways we can go."

So, hello, Longwood and friends. You're welcomed and needed.

Then, good bye. Because after Iowa's six-game start, things get real … real fast.

On Nov. 29, Iowa travels to No. 25 Virginia as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Four nights later, it visits No. 7 Purdue, the Big Ten favorite. Three nights after that, No. 10 Illinois comes to Iowa City. Three nights later comes the always-challenging trip to Hilton Coliseum in Ames.

It's better for Iowa to go 9-2 or 10-1 against a softer nonconference schedule than 4-7 or 5-6 vs. a difficult one. A realistic goal for this team is to develop as the season goes on; get to 10-10 against a rigorous Big Ten schedule; and post 20-21 wins for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to ponder.

A complicated puzzle awaits Fran McCaffery and this Iowa basketball team. It'll be fun, even against inferior competition in November, to see how the pieces come together.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.