Brown: Now that they're relevant again, Iowa's offseason breeds intrigue

Rick Brown

Peter Jok, Jarrod Uthoff will fill major roles for Iowa’s basketball team in 2015-16.

SEATTLE – We woke up Monday to this fact: Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby are former Iowa basketball players.

"They've been pivotal in bringing the program back to where we are now," forward Jarrod Uthoff said.

The three signed with a program that was headed for a fourth consecutive losing season under first-year coach Fran McCaffery. They leave things much better than they found them. The Hawkeyes have reached the 20-victory mark in each of the past three seasons, and have been to NCAA Tournaments in back-to-back years for the first time since 2005 and 2006.

"This is what you work so hard to experience," McCaffery said after the 2014-15 season ended Sunday with an 87-68 loss to Gonzaga in a round-of-32 NCAA game. "I always hope that every player who ever plays for me gets a chance to play in this tournament at least once. A lot of these guys got to do it twice. Hopefully, the other guys will get to two or three times. And that's not easy in our league."

McCaffery hopes the NCAA experience pays dividends next season, when he returns starters Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Peter Jok and Adam Woodbury and adds a six-man recruiting class that could be the foundation for future success.

Iowa's program was in a similar position last season. Gone from an NCAA team were first-team all-Big Ten guard Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe. Despite those absences, McCaffery was confident his team could take a another positive step this season.

I was skeptical.

Marble was a huge part of the offense. He attempted 436 field goals, 191 more than anyone else, and was the leading scorer at 17 points a game. Marble, McCabe and Basabe left with 409 games played, 244 starts and 3,684 points.

"Someone's got to step up," McCaffery told me in August.

No one did so more than White, who gave the program back-to-back first-team all-Big Ten selections for the first time since Greg Brunner in 2006 and Adam Haluska in 2007.

Uthoff stepped into the starting lineup and had a much more productive season. Gesell played at a higher level more often at point guard. Woodbury displayed a more consistent game in the post. Jok was more of a factor. And guard Anthony Clemmons had a born-again junior year.

Together, they moved the program forward. Iowa won seven true road games. A 6-3 road record in Big Ten play was the best for the program since 1986-87. The Hawkeyes' 12-6 Big Ten record was good for a tie for third, the best league finish since a tie for second in 2005-06.

Last season's team lost seven of their last eight games. This team won seven of their final nine, including the school's first NCAA Tournament victory since 2001.

McCaffery will have to replace a first-team all-Big Ten player and two other important pieces of the rotation for a second straight season.

He'll add shooting guard Brady Ellingson, who sat out the season with a foot injury; walk-on forward Nicholas Baer, who has a chance to work himself into the rotation; and a promising recruiting class of guards Andrew Fleming and Christian Williams and forwards Isaiah Moss, Brandon Hutton and Ahmad Wagner. McCaffery also has another scholarship to give and is looking for help on the front line.

The newcomers join a program that is relevant again. Thanks to a leap of faith by White, Olaseni and Oglesby four years ago.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.