The outside hype around Iowa basketball has faded. That's just fine for these Hawkeyes
INDIANAPOLIS — The summer of 2021 felt a lot more normal to Iowa’s men’s basketball program than the summer of 2020 did — and not just for the obvious pandemic-related reasons.
The Hawkeyes are used to entering seasons under-appreciated and under-rated and the 2020-21 campaign was one of the few in program history in which that was not the case. They were preseason No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, No. 6 in the coaches poll, and picked to finish second behind Illinois in the unofficial poll of Big Ten media. It was the first time since 2006 when Steve Alford was at the helm that they entered the year with a preseason ranking.
The first year after Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp feels a lot more historically typical. The departure of the consensus national player of the year and the All-Big Ten guard gone to the NBA has the Hawkeyes under no illusions that they’ll carry a preseason ranking into 2021-22, especially after they fell to Oregon as a No. 2 seed in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The unofficial Big Ten media poll released Wednesday before the start of Big Ten Media Days Thursday has Iowa picked to finish ninth.
For Iowa, it actually represents something of a comfort zone.
“We’re not used to being preseason No. 5 or whatever,” said Connor McCaffery, who knows this well as a fifth-year senior guard and son of 12th-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey. “Other than that year, it’s back to what we’re used to my freshman year or my sophomore year. .. We’ve never been picked very high in the league and somehow we always managed to be closer to the top.”
And traditionally, that’s not something that has bothered the Hawkeyes much because they do embrace the role of being overlooked. Fran McCaffrey has won at least 20 games in seven of his 11 seasons at Iowa, taking the Hawkeyes to five NCAA Tournaments, and preseason expectation is not something he’s addressed much in that time.
“I guess it’s always more exciting if you’re picked near the top,” Fran McCaffery said. “It certainly is for the fans. But in this league, I remember the first year we were picked last. That’s never a good feeling. But we didn’t finish last.”
That being said, the Hawkeyes are in a much different position as a program than they were at that point, and there is some importance for them to continue momentum and prove there is Life After Luka.
Iowa would be working on three straight NCAA Tournament appearances if the 2020 event hadn’t been canceled due to COVID-19. The last time they reached three straight tournaments from 2014-16, they followed that stretch with a two-year tournament drought including a 14-19 season in 2017-18. McCaffery is more entrenched in his job than he was then, having signed a four-year contract extension in March that keeps him in the fold through the 2027-28 season, but the Hawkeyes would rather not return to that depth before they rise again and they can’t bank on another multi-year All-American like Garza coming to Iowa City to help the program make a dramatic U-turn. Their second-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed last season
So the Hawkeyes would like to prove this year that they can win playing their way without what for their program is a generational talent.
“We’ve never been a program that has those kind of one-and-done guys,” Connor McCaffery said. “We don’t normally get those type of recruits. It’s always been, ‘What are you gonna build on? Who’s gonna be experienced and who’s gonna replace those guys that leave?’”
The Hawkeyes obviously have experience to start with. Along with Connor McCaffery and former walk-on Austin Ash, both fifth-year senior guards, they bring back sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon, who is just 10 3-pointers away from the all-time Big Ten mark for made 3-pointers held by former Ohio State guard Jon Diebler.
That provides Iowa with a base of experience, scoring and shooting, but they have much more beyond that. They’re out three of their five starters from last season with CJ Fredrick having transferred to Kentucky along with the professional departures of Garza and Wieskamp, but they have an NBA prospect in Keegan Murray coming back to play a much bigger role than he did a year ago and a list of other players beyond him that Fran McCaffery believes in, including Murray’s twin brother Kris and McCaffery’s younger son Patrick.
“Especially two years ago, we really only played eight guys,” Fran McCaffery said. “A couple of them got hurt, now you’re down to six. Luckily we had two really good walk-ons. This year, we don’t have Garza and Wieskamp, but we have a lot of guys I can put out there who I think are really good. … We’ve got probably 12 or 13 guys I can run out there.”
That should allow the Hawkeyes to play a more nimble and versatile game. They will not only be able to play up-tempo on offense put also push the tempo on defense with enough bodies to employ pressure, which might help them improve their defensive metrics, which are typically towards the bottom of the Big Ten. They don’t have an unstoppable force on the offensive end like Garza was, but they can and will employ more motion offense to move the ball around instead of running the set plays that were designed to make sure the ball got in his hand as often as possible.
“We can press more, we can run faster, we can run more,” Connor McCaffery said. “Defensively, we can cheat and recover a little bit. We can make all these changes. We’re not going to just play one way. We can make adjustments based on the personnel we have. With the team that we have and the different body types that we have … this year we’ll be more long and athletic, guys that are 6-foot-9, quick and fast and really good jumpers. I think that things can definitely change based on personnel.”
And those players will be motivated to prove they haven’t fallen off that far.
“It adds another level of competitiveness to every day in practice,” Connor McCaffery said. “You’re always going to get up for games. You’re always going to get up for big days. But every day its, ‘Oh, we’re picked however low. We lose those two big players. What does that mean for us?’ Well it means nothing to us. We’re still grinding every day. It’s not that anything changes, but that motivational factor for us, it gives you a little bit of extra drive for sure.”