Iowa City, Ia. – Temper your enthusiasm, Iowa basketball fans.
Do not take that as a cry that the the sky is falling on the eve of Friday’s season opener against Texas-Pan American. Fran McCaffery has made significant progress in his two-plus seasons as Iowa basketball coach, and he’s give no reason to believe that won’t continue.
But the expectations around this season’s team, fueled by a strong finish to last season and compounded by the sagging fortunes of the Hawkeye football team, could be too high.
Before the 2011-12 season started, prognosticators figured the program would take a step back this season, then move full speed ahead in 2013-14.
The losses off last season’s 18-17 team, the school’s first winning season since 2006-07, were not big in numbers (last season's final stats right here). Iowa averaged 73 points last season, returned 50.4 The Hawkeyes averaged 34.4 rebounds, and returned 23.9.The most significant loss was guard Matt Gatens, who stepped up in his senior year by making big shot after big shot down the stretch. He finished with 1,635 points, sixth on Iowa’s career list.
“Matt Gatens didn’t have a good senior year,” McCaffery told me this summer. “He had a great senior year.”
Backup point guard Bryce Cartwright is also gone. He didn’t shine as a defender, but he had some big games offensively.
Their departures have been overshadowed by the momentum created by last season’s success, which included postseason play for the first time since 2006, eight Big Ten wins (matching the total of the two previous seasons combined) and four victories over Top 25 teams. Iowa basketball fans, starving for something to get excited about again at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, are all in.
Last week, I asked McCaffery about the possibly of his taking a step back this season. Here’s his response:
“There's a very good chance there's going to be two freshmen in there (Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury). Any time you have two freshmen in the starting lineup… (Aaron) White is going to be in there, you know that, he's a sophomore. We're playing a lot of sophomores. We got a couple juniors that are good.
“So when you have youth, filling in for a guy who was such an incredible gamer, things change. As well as we played down the stretch, I mean, you could clearly argue, particularly the Indiana and Wisconsin wins, were
clearly on Matt's shoulders. That really helped us moving forward because he got such incredible attention defensively, others stepped up when they had opportunities in space to do something.
“So you’ve got a different dynamic now. He's not there. I think (Devyn) Marble has the same kind of confidence and approach that Matt had: I know I'm good, I'll stay within the framework of what we've designed, and I'll be effective in that role. He's going to score in different ways than Matt did, and that's okay. But a lot will fall on the shoulders of Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons playing that point guard position. If they play like freshmen, then we won't be as effective because you always forget, everybody talks about we lost Matt. We lost Bryce Cartwright, too. He was a senior. He has been through the wars. He didn't defend, but he was pretty good on offense. He led the Big Ten in assists (as a junior). Not many people can say that. When he was healthy last year, we were pretty good.
“So we lost two key people. Whenever you have two senior guards, that's usually a recipe for a team that has a chance to be really good. We're going to probably have, if you think about it, two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior playing in the backcourt most of the year. You don't know how it's going to end up. I think those kids are smart and tough enough to be really good, but we’ve got to wait and see.”
Iowa hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, and that seems a logical next step after the NIT a year ago.
Joe Lunardi’s season-opening Bracketology has Iowa on the outside looking in at the NCAA: He has the Hawkeyes one of his top eight left-out bubble teams. That doesn’t mean Iowa has no chance of getting in. If this team progresses at the same rate last season’s did, there’s a legitimate chance.
But it might take another season to bridge that gap. Iowa will return everyone but Eric May in 2013-14, and add Jarrod Uthoff, a transfer from Wisconsin, and Peter Jok, a senior at West Des Moines Valley who will be a recruiting steal if he remains healthy.
The Hawkeyes have quality depth again, but they don’t have a big of margin for NCAA error. Iowa has been tabbed a sleeper in the Big Ten by many, a testimony to progress under McCaffery and a solid stable of returning players.
But the harsh reality is that the Hawkeyes were picked to finish seventh in the league by a panel of sportswriters in a Big Ten that is expected to flex its muscles nationally this year.
In other words, Iowa will have plenty of chances to win four times against Top 25 foes again this season. In the preseason AP poll, Indiana is No. 1. Ohio State is No. 4, Michigan No. 5, Michigan State No. 14 and Wisconsin No. 23. Minnesota also got 40 votes.
By the end of this season, this team could be better than the 2011-12 version. But that progress might not be easy to read, or be reflected in the Big Ten standings.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball