CHICAGO — Pundits think the Iowa men’s basketball team will be down from a year ago. Coach Fran McCaffery and the four Hawkeye seniors he brought to the Big Ten Conference’s media day at the O’Hare Marriott were barely noticed Thursday by regional and national media.
The recorders and cellphone cameras were rolling for Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan — not Iowa.
That’s just fine with the Hawkeyes, who return four starters off a team that tied for third in the Big Ten and recorded the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2001.
“People forget how much experience we have back,” senior point guard Mike Gesell said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that know how to win, know what it’s like to go into a hostile environment and win ballgames.”
The Iowa senior point guard is basically a 4.0 student. How he is dealing with his senior year.
Five Big Ten teams were ranked in the USA TODAY Coaches’ Top 25 released Thursday, and a sixth was one spot out. Iowa barely received votes. A day earlier, the Hawkeyes were picked to finish ninth in the league by a Big Ten Network panel – behind No. 3 Maryland, No. 15 Indiana, No. 24 Purdue, No. 13 Michigan State, No. 17 Wisconsin, No. 26 Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois.
McCaffery understands the perception that Iowa has to overcome the losses of first-team all-Big Ten forward Aaron White and league sixth man of the year Gabe Olaseni in the post.
“That’s a lot to replace,” he said.
But Iowa has a preseason all-Big Ten pick in Jarrod Uthoff, plus Gesell, center Adam Woodbury and guard Anthony Clemmons. The four seniors have 260 combined career starts.
“Jarrod, I suspect, will take that next step. I have no doubt,” McCaffery said. “Woodbury, same thing. Gesell, same thing. Clemmons, same thing. (Junior) Peter Jok, same thing.”
Fran McCaffery addresses where his team is perceived in the Big Ten race.
Uthoff’s unwanted attention
Uthoff is fine with doing media interviews. That doesn’t mean he enjoys them. His answers are usually very honest and very brief.
“I’m the baby in a family of five (siblings),” he smiled. “I get enough attention.”
The low-key Iowa senior explains his on-court demeanor.
The 6-foot-9 Cedar Rapids native avoids social-media feeds as much as possible, but he knows outside expectations are lower for the Hawkeyes.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Uthoff said. “I try to stay away from it and not read it, because you start thinking about it too much. Your mind starts going too fast. I’m confident in our abilities, I’m confident in what we can do. If people don’t think so, try to prove them wrong.”
The biggest Cubs fan on the team
The Hawkeyes were practicing Tuesday during the first few hours of the Chicago Cubs’ Game 4 victory Tuesday over the St. Louis Cardinals.
That didn’t stop Woodbury, a lifelong Cubs fan, from getting updates.
“We’ve got seven managers, and probably five of them are Cubs fans. So they’re always checking their phones to see what the score is,” Woodbury said. “And they’ll (tell) me if they’re doing good. But if they were down, they weren’t going to tell me anything during practice.”
New rules generate discussion
Of the several new NCAA men’s rules in 2015-16, the move from the 35-second shot clock to 30 drew the most commentary. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, the dean of Big Ten coaches, would take that a step further.
“If I was the czar for the day, I'd try to get every rule like the NBA, personally,” Izzo said. “I just think that we'd have a better working relationship.”
Teams will have one fewer timeout, and coaches are now restricted from calling timeouts except during dead balls. The one rule McCaffery thinks could benefit Iowa is the extension of the restricted area in the lane from 3 feet to 4 feet. Defenders must be outside that arc to draw a charging call.
“That’s going to be really hard to get over and two feet outside that new arc and draw a charge,” McCaffery said. “In that sense, I think it benefits the offensive player, the driver.”
Who will rise up?
McCaffery’s opening statement to large-group media Thursday was: “I think this is one of the most unique teams I've had in in all my years in coaching.”
That’s because he needs to find three to four new guys to round out his 10-man rotation that’s topped with experience. It’s the four seniors, Jok, sophomore Dom Uhl and … anyone’s guess.
McCaffery brought up redshirt freshman Brady Ellingson and walk-on Nicholas Baer as forgotten men. When asked for one freshman surprise, Gesell went to a shooting guard.
“Andrew Fleming, he’s a guy that can really score the ball. He can make tough shots,” Gesell said. “Doesn’t really look like a freshman.”
Dale learning to D up
Junior-college transfer Dale Jones can shoot 3s and rebound — a terrific combination. But to find court time, the 6-7, 217-pound Waterloo West alum needs to pass McCaffery’s crash course in defense.
Jones mostly played zone defense at Tyler (Texas) Junior College, where last season he averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 45 percent from 3-point land.
McCaffery has been getting after Jones, who would likely play the ‘4’ in Iowa’s motion offense, to move his feet and being aggressive defensively.
“That takes a completely different mindset,” McCaffery said. “I’ve been proud of him. He’s really worked at that. The first couple days, it was hard for him.”
Already talking redshirts
With five freshmen, is McCaffery thinking about redshirting someone?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “But I never want to bring that up now, because God forbid, you don’t know if somebody’s going to get hurt.”
Christian Williams, a slender 6-6 point guard, would seem to be a natural candidate since Iowa has two veterans (Gesell and Clemmons) that play all meaningful point-guard minutes. But that’s tricky, because Iowa will go from two to zero experienced point guards next year.
“He doesn’t want to redshirt,” McCaffery said. “I don’t know if I want to redshirt him. We’ve got to get him ready to handle the ball.”