When Mike Gesell signed his letter of intent with the Iowa basketball team in November, he had no indisputable evidence that the program was headed in the right direction under head coach Fran McCaffery.
The mood was better under McCaffery, but the record still left much to be desired after his first season in 2010-11 when Iowa finished 11-20 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten.
Not much was expected from Iowa heading into this season, either. But Gesell and four other high school seniors, including 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury from Sioux City East, believed in McCaffery’s rebuilding project enough in November to want to be a part of it.
There is now more reason to believe in it with Iowa coming off its first winning season since the 2006-07 campaign. The Hawkeyes also defeated four top-25 opponents, including Wisconsin twice, won a game in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2006 and won a game in the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 2003.
Attendance is also on the rise again as evidenced by the 13,190 fans that packed inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena on March 13 to watch Iowa defeat Dayton in the first round of the NIT despite only having two days notice.
“The crowds they’ve been getting are tremendous,” Gesell said Wednesday night. “I’m really excited to get to play in front of those crowds.
“I knew the team had a lot of young talent this year. And the improvement they made is tremendous and I’m happy to be a part of it. I think I can step in there and just keep working hard and be able to help this team out.”
Until Iowa started having success this season, the incoming recruiting success was probably McCaffery’s biggest accomplishment in his new job to that point.
The class, which also has 6-1 point Anthony Clemmons from Lansing, Mich., 6-2 shooting guard Pat Ingram from Indianapolis and 6-10 forward Kyle Meyer from Alpharetta, Ga., is widely regarded as a top 30 class nationally.
It’ll join forces next season with an Iowa team that returns six of its top eight scorers and its top four rebounders.
“I think there is no reason we shouldn’t be playing in the (NCAA) Tournament as long as we keep working hard and as long as we mesh well together,” said the 6-1 Gesell, who is native of South Sioux City, Neb., and the reigning two-time Nebraska Player of the Year. “I believe we have the talent if we just put in the hard work.”
Ingram said he felt things were moving in the right direction when he visited Iowa last August, even if there was no evidence at the time to support it.
“I was pretty confident,” Ingram said Thursday. “When I took my official visit (coach McCaffery) pretty much set out the guidelines of what he was trying to do. And it sounded pretty good to me.
“And then the recruiting class we’ve got now, I’m pretty confident that we can get it done.”
Iowa’s recruiting class features two four-star prospects in Gesell and Woodbury and three other players that bring different skill sets.
McCaffery might add a sixth player to the class this spring, but even without another player, ESPN.com ranks Iowa’s incoming class No. 21 nationally.
Gesell and Woodbury are considered two of the best players nationally at their position. There is growing speculation both will start next season.
“I don’t think anybody else’s expectations will ever surpass the expectations I have for myself and the confidence I have in myself to work hard,” said Gesell, who led his high school team to a state title as a sophomore and junior and to runner-up finish this season. “I always want to hold myself to a high standard and I think any player has to do that to pan out and to be good, especially at the college level and especially in the Big Ten.
“It’s a very tough league. There is a lot of talent in there. In my opinion it’s the best league in the United States. So you’ve just got to have that confidence in yourself and you can’t let what others says affect you. You’ve just got to keep it within yourself.”
Iowa struggled on defense this season as evidenced by the 108-97 loss to Oregon in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
But that’s where Ingram hopes to make his biggest impact.
“I get my offense off my defense,” said Ingram, who has been praised for his defense and his athleticism throughout high school. “So I think I can come in and help set the tone on defense.
“Really, what we need to do is just focus on getting stronger and make sure that we know our roles on the floor.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball