After dismal 2017-18 season, Iowa basketball leans on offseason of reflection, evaluation

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Everyone has their own remedy for handling disappointment and disaster — two words that sum up last year’s Iowa basketball season accurately and succinctly.

Some let it linger and learn from it. Others would rather wipe the slate clean as soon as possible.

Each person inside the Hawkeyes program had their pick this offseason. Poor defensive execution and a lack of consistency ripped an expectation-heavy 2018 season to shreds, and Iowa was left to pick up the pieces. Every coping method featured some form of self-evaluation.

A clear theme at Monday’s media day, Iowa’s inventory talk started with the head coach and continued with the players and assistants. A 14-19 debacle has many contributors, and no one abstained from looking inward for answers.

“You really had to sit down and look at yourself in the mirror,” guard Isaiah Moss said.

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery calls out to players during Monday's practice following Media Day.

Breaking established tendencies can be difficult for veteran coaches — and McCaffery is no newbie with 20-plus seasons of head coaching experience. But the Iowa head man couldn’t ignore these problems.

Nothing was off the table for re-examination.

“You have to analyze everything. ‘What did I do? What can I do differently?’” McCaffery said. “You know, ‘What do I need to demand out of my staff? How do we plan practice? How do we run practice? What's the role of our graduate assistants, our student managers? How are we doing recruiting?    

“And then make sure the players know and understand that that's our part — and now, they have to do their part.”

An easy reflective starting point was Iowa’s defensive numbers. Those figures have never been top priority under the offensive-minded McCaffery, but things got way out of hand last season.

Scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense all ranked 13th or worst in the Big Ten. Strong offensive showings were regularly wasted by matador defense. More times than not, Iowa couldn’t keep up in a four-quarter track meet.

McCaffery acknowledged as much Monday, candidly breaking down the defensive adjustments made this offseason. Results on the floor will obviously dictate the effectiveness, but admitting there’s a glaring issue is the first step to correction.

“Our defensive numbers were not (good),” McCaffery said, “so, OK, we have to spend more time in practice — whether it's breaking drills down, one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, four-on-four, and then ultimately five-on-five. ‘OK, how do we transition defensively? What have we been teaching?’

“We have to reorganize how we teach that. Ball-screen defense —  you could go staff-by-staff throughout the country — and you might have staffs that spend four hours a day talking about ball screens. It's just one of those things. So many teams are running ball-screen offenses. … We really have spent a lot more time talking about defense, and defensive drills, and emphasizing defense, and trying to hold them accountable.”  

Perhaps Iowa’s most intriguing aspect is almost every pivotal piece is back to try to correct their mess. One graduation (Dom Uhl) and two transfers (Ahmad Wagner and Brady Ellingson) aside, the Hawkeyes return everyone and added two solid freshmen.

There’s hardly a need to get anybody up to speed. For many of these Hawkeyes, last season was their first major failure on a basketball court. High school stardom, AAU success, recruiting fanfare, some early college hype — and then, a dud.

Iowa hopes that experience together will help fuel a bounce-back.

“With anything in life, it takes failures to get to the most successful times, and I think that’s something we’re realizing,” guard Jordan Bohannon said. “It was a wake-up call for us. Sometimes, you need to have that major setback to push forward to even higher limits. And I think we got the grasp of that coming into the summer.”

After six straight Hawkeye seasons with postseason play — three in the NCAA Tournament, three in the NIT — fluke and anomaly chatter floated through about last year. McCaffery hadn’t had a campaign that bad since his first year at Iowa, which featured only three fewer wins and the same conference record as 2018.

The Hawkeyes head coach wasn’t buying it. Aberrations, he said, are what happen in one game or one week — not an entire season. His players know the same.

“It’s easy to say it’s an anomaly, but you need to go out there and prove it,” forward Luka Garza said. “We’re not all just going to sit here and say it was a fluke — it was an anomaly — everything like that.

“We all have to focus on making sure we prove that.”

That journey began this summer and continues with next month’s season opener. An offseason full of reflection and evaluation is nearly complete.

“The critical thing is to take ownership of it and recognize that change has to be made to a man,” McCaffery said. “That's coaches, players, everybody, starters, subs. We all have to be in it together and recognize that every day, we've got to be better.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.