Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar take a look at the new crop of Iowa basketball players, and weigh the Hawkeyes' chances against Northwestern. Rodney White/The Register
Iowa basketball players have found motivation all summer, seeing prediction after prediction that their 2017-18 team will finish in the middle of the Big Ten Conference pack.
Another log was added to that fire this week in advance of Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day in New York City.
The consensus among a panel of 28 league beat writers and columnists (two per team) has the Hawkeyes finishing eighth out of 14 teams. Twenty of the ballots listed Iowa between seventh and 10th.
“Whether you think we’re going to be seventh or whether you think we’re going to be 10th, you’re probably wrong,” sophomore forward Ryan Kriener said this week. “Because we’ve got a really great group. We’re going to be fighting for a Big Ten title this year.”
The Register’s Mark Emmert and Chad Leistikow were the Iowa media representatives. And we, unbeknownst to each other's ballots, picked Iowa to finish much better than eighth. We both put them fourth.
So, given the discrepancy, we thought it would be interesting to share how we each came to this conclusion.
First, the ballots.
Emmert’s: 1. Michigan State, 2. Purdue, 3. Minnesota, 4. Iowa, 5. Northwestern, 6. Wisconsin, 7. Michigan, 8. Maryland, 9. Ohio State, 10. Indiana, 11. Penn State, 12. Illinois, 13. Rutgers, 14. Nebraska.
Leistikow’s: 1. Michigan State, 2. Purdue, 3. Minnesota, 4. Iowa, 5. Maryland, 6. Northwestern, 7. Michigan, 8. Wisconsin, 9. Illinois, 10. Indiana, 11. Penn State, 12. Ohio State, 13. Rutgers, 14. Nebraska.
The media consensus: 1. Michigan State (28 first-place votes), 2. Purdue, 3. Minnesota, 4. Northwestern, T-5. Maryland, T-5. Michigan, 7. Wisconsin, 8. Iowa, 9. Indiana, 10. Penn State, 11. Ohio State, 12. Illinois, 13. Nebraska, 14. Rutgers.
How the media specifically sees Iowa: On the 28 ballots, here's the breakdown — Third place (1 vote), fourth (2), fifth (2), sixth (3), seventh (4), eighth (9), ninth (5), 10th (2).
Now, some conversation.
Leistikow: Let me start by saying I think Michigan State is the clear No. 1, then you can almost draw teams 2 through 8 out of a hat. And I'll add that Iowa players reading this would tell you that fourth place is too low. They’re a very optimistic bunch. And they should be. Despite having just one senior (in likely reserve Dom Uhl), this is probably the deepest and most talented roster of the Fran McCaffery era.
Emmert: It’s the depth and the experience gained last year that make me think the Hawkeyes can make a leap this year. Nicholas Baer, Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook are a terrific nucleus, but throw in Isaiah Moss, Cordell Pemsl and Ahmad Wagner, plus a potential impact freshman in Luka Garza, and you’ve got the beginnings of a Big Ten title contender. Maybe not this year, but certainly next. Then factor in a favorable schedule — Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin in home-only matchups — and a top-four finish becomes a real possibility. Also remember the road-game journey that Iowa took last year, from embarrassing flops early in conference season at Purdue and Northwestern, to gutty victories late at Maryland and Wisconsin. Those were hard-earned lessons, but it tells me the young players have a quick learning curve that should only accelerate this season.
Leistikow: Great point on the schedule. That is one of the main reasons I’ve got Iowa in the top four. When I filled out my ballot, I separated the clear top eight from the bottom six, then looked at who had the most favorable batch of five “mirror” plays. Two teams in my top eight got the benefit of three bottom-six mirror plays: Michigan State and, yes, Iowa. I think the Hawkeyes go either 5-1 or 6-0 against Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State (Nos. 10-12 on my ballot). Michigan and Northwestern got the toughest draws, with only one bottom-six mirror opponent each. That discrepancy, to me, was a key tiebreaker in sorting out positions 2 through 8.
Emmert: The schedule is such a big factor in the Big Ten race. The Hawkeyes went 10-8 in the league last year, and I think if Moss can flourish as Peter Jok’s replacement at the ‘2,’ they can get to 12-6 this year. That would likely give them a crucial double-bye in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Considering how much recent Iowa teams have struggled in that event, a free path to quarterfinals would be a huge lift.
Leistikow: Before we get carried away, I don’t recommend betting the mortgage that Iowa finishes in the top four. Significant injuries to either Bohannon (with no proven point-guard backup) or Cook (who I think will be one of the Big Ten’s top forwards) could easily drop this team back to eighth ... or worse. But history is on our side, Mark. Since the league expanded to 14 teams, Iowa’s conference finishes are two ties for third place and last year’s tie for fifth. I think by season’s end, we’re writing about Iowa making a fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years.
Emmert: Anything short of an NCAA Tournament berth would mean the team underachieved this winter. That’s certainly the vibe I got from the players Monday as well. There’s too much talent to stomach back-to-back NIT experiences. I think Hawkeye fans are in for an entertaining ride.