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Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball team a national title contender? Believe it, because they sure do

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team is a legitimate contender to win the national championship this season, and the Hawkeyes aren’t backing away from any expectations.

“The first thing you do is embrace it. We all recognize it. It’s a challenge,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Sunday, minutes after his star center Luka Garza announced he was delaying his chance for a pro career in order to play a final season in a Hawkeye uniform.

More:Big Ten basketball star Luka Garza staying at Iowa, forgoes NBA draft

“It’s great to talk about it. And, yes, I think we have the ability to do it. But there are a number of other teams that have the same ability, and we have to be respectful of our opponents.”

Iowa is coming off a 20-11 season. But the return of Garza, an all-American who will be the preseason choice as national player of the year, gives the Hawkeyes a clear superstar to build around. Plus, the team will welcome back a proven long-range shooter in Jordan Bohannon and an emerging stretch forward in Jack Nunge. Both had their seasons cut short by surgeries a year ago.

Iowa star center Luka Garza is hoping to point the way to a national championship this season. Garza announced Sunday he is returning to play as a senior for the Hawkeyes. The team will carry legitimate title hopes into Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Add in:

  • Joe Wieskamp (14 points per game last year), a two-year starter at wing who has flashed all-Big Ten Conference potential.
  • Sophomore CJ Fredrick (10.2), who led the league in 3-point shooting accuracy last year at 46.1%.
  • Sophomore point guard Joe Toussaint (6.5), who got valuable starting experience after Bohannon went down and is as quick as anyone in the conference.
  • And junior guard/forward Connor McCaffery, who is so adept at running his father’s offense that he led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.59.

Previously:Joe Wieskamp ready to seize his moment as Iowa Hawkeyes' leading man

The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the nation last year in offensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings at 117.3. They have the potential to be No. 1 this winter.

“Any time you have a veteran club, you know what they’re capable of in terms of winning on the road, the ability to win close games. This group has consistently shown their understanding of how to share the basketball,” Fran McCaffery said.

“I’ve never had a team with seven starters returning, which sounds like a ridiculous statement but it happens to be the truth.”

This is the roster McCaffery has been hoping to build since he arrived in Iowa City in 2010. The nucleus is good enough to beat any team in America. But he knows the defense needs to get better in order to win night in and night out.

Iowa was 97th in Pomeroy’s ratings on that end a year ago, at 98.6. That was an improvement, but certainly not championship-level.

McCaffery spoke of the need for his defense to be “elite.” Having a veteran roster will help that cause, but it will only happen if the sum is greater than the parts. The Hawkeyes do not have great individual defenders. What they do have is a tight-knit team that wants to follow Garza’s example of hard work.

Garza said the biggest criticism he heard from NBA scouts was that he hasn’t shown enough athleticism to defend at the pro level. He said that drives him to improve his quickness, his footwork, his ability to block shots and to better handle ball-screens.

Luka’s father, Frank, spends each offseason overseeing his workouts. This summer, Frank Garza said, much time was devoted to helping Luka become lighter on his feet, like a dancer.

But the Garzas also spent hours on the offensive end, even though Luka averaged 23.9 points per game a year ago and was named Big Ten player of the year. The expectation is that, with shooters like Bohannon (284 career 3-pointers), Wieskamp (111) and Fredrick to contend with, defenses won’t be able to double-team Garza as much.

Connor McCaffery (30), Joe Wieskamp (10), Luka Garza (55), Joe Toussaint (1) and CJ Fredrick (5) gained a ton of valuable experience during Iowa's 20-11 season.

Garza has extended the range on his jump shot by two feet and is now comfortable from 30, Frank said. He was 39-for-109 from the 3-point arc a year ago (35.8%).

Garza has added fadeaway jumpers from nine spots on the floor. He has worked on two-dribble moves without turning his back in order to shake defenders if they try to contest his shot. And he has put in a skyhook that he’s confident in making from 10-12 feet.

What should frighten Iowa opponents excites Garza’s teammates.

“Everyone on the court is going to be able to score the ball, so it’s going to be really hard to focus on one person. The court is going to be spread a lot more. Our shooters are going to be able to get some looks,” Fredrick said.

“We just have such a dynamic team.”

Extra:Jack Nunge, CJ Fredrick added muscle together — now they could start together for Iowa

Added Connor McCaffery:

“We all trust each other. We know what everyone is good at. You know we’re going to push the ball, so we’re going to do that. We’re going to try to score quickly. If not, we have a ton of weapons in the halfcourt as well. Everybody that comes in adds another dimension to our offense. We have shooters. We have passers. We have low-post scoring. I think that when you have all of these weapons, it’s really hard for teams to plan defensively against you. Because if they take away one thing, something else is going to open up. And we already know that no one can guard Luka one-on-one.”

Garza could hardly contain his enthusiasm for what might be on the horizon for his team. It’s the reason he came back after last season’s NCAA Tournament was scrapped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year, what I want to do is win championships, and that’s what I’m focused on,” Garza said. “I don’t care about any of the stats. I don’t care about any of the awards.”

If Iowa’s offense becomes the juggernaut it seems poised to be, and if its defense can tighten up enough to be formidable, then Garza might claim a title and a trophy or two.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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