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Iowa basketball: Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes debut at No. 5 in AP poll

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A little more than two weeks ahead of what’s expected to an unprecedented and unusual men’s basketball season, Iowa is already making some history.

Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes were ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll that was released late Monday morning.

Not only is it the first time that Iowa has a preseason AP Top 25 ranking in the 11-year McCaffery era, it’s the highest preseason ranking in more than 60 years. The Hawkeyes were ranked fourth in the AP's first polls of both the 1954-55 and 1955-56 seasons.

Fran McCaffery, right, and Iowa are expected to contend with Brad Underwood, left, and Illinois (and others) for a Big Ten basketball title this season.

This is Iowa’s first preseason ranking in 15 years, dating to a No. 20 starting point for Steve Alford’s 2005-06 Hawkeyes team that won the Big Ten tournament and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That team finished No. 15 in the final AP poll.

In the modern era, Iowa's previous high preseason AP ranking was seventh on two occasions. Those teams failed to meet such expectations. The 1983-84 team cratered under first-year coach George Raveling (after Lute Olson’s departure to Arizona), going 13-15 overall. Tom Davis’ 1988-89 team that began No. 7 was knocked out in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament and finished No. 14 in the final poll.

The high ranking is a sign of the roaring expectations that come with the 2020-21 Iowa team, which returns seven players with starting experience, including reigning consensus all-American center Luka Garza. On Monday, Garza and junior guard/forward Joe Wieskamp were named to the eight-player preseason all-Big Ten team by the conference. The Hawkeyes also bring back one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in conference history in Jordan Bohannon, who missed most of last season after a second hip surgery.

Guards CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery and Joe Toussaint also have extensive starting experience, as does forward Jack Nunge, after missing most of 2019-20 with a torn ACL.

This is new territory for Fran McCaffery, who has had two Iowa teams (2015-16 and 2019-20) appear in the season-ending AP Top 25; both ended up 25th. He has never been to a Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 24 seasons as a head coach at the Division I level.

“You embrace it. You enjoy it," McCaffery said Monday of the ranking. "You don’t run from it.”

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Hawkeyes’ 2020-21 schedule had not been released as of Monday morning, but the start date for the men’s basketball season is pegged for Nov. 25.

McCaffery has said he expects to play 27 regular-season games, a slate that would include 20 in Big Ten Conference play. The Hawkeyes have announced plans to play nonconference games against Gonzaga (preseason No. 1) and North Carolina (preseason No. 16). Athletics director Gary Barta said last week he anticipates Iowa will also host Iowa State this winter.

Gonzaga, Baylor, Villanova, Virginia, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Duke and Kentucky comprised the AP's top 10. Iowa did not receive any first-place votes.

Other ranked Big Ten teams included Michigan State (No. 13), Ohio State (No. 23), Rutgers (No. 24) and Ohio State (No. 25). McCaffery and his players know as good as they might be, there's a gauntlet ahead.

"There’s a tremendous respect on behalf of our players for the rest of the conference," McCaffery said. "We know what’s before us, but that’s the fun of it, essentially.”

Chad Leistikow’s ballot

The Register columnist is the state of Iowa’s lone AP voter. Here is the preseason top 25 he submitted Thursday:

1. Baylor

2. Gonzaga

3. Villanova

4. Virginia

5. Iowa

6. Illinois

7. Kansas

8. Tennessee

9. Duke

10. Kentucky

11. Wisconsin

12. Creighton

13. Texas Tech

14. Michigan State

15. North Carolina

16. Oregon

17. UCLA

18. West Virginia

19. Houston

20. Rutgers

21. Florida State

22. Texas

23. Richmond

24. Indiana

25. Arizona State