Big Ten Summer Check In: Iowa HawkeyesPosted by Deepak Jayanti on July 16th, 2012
Iowa basketball made headlines this past week when its head coach Fran McCaffery signed a huge contract extension to remain in Iowa City. After just two seasons, McCaffery has been chosen to lead th Iowa program for the next decade and can make up to $2M per year if the Hawkeyes return to the NCAA Tournament multiple times during that period. Hawkeye Nation definitely remembers the last time it tasted the NCAAs in 2006, when they were upset by Northwestern State in the first round. It has been a crazy ride for Iowa since then but they are beginning to see some light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel.
Evaluating Last Year: Iowa’s 18-17 record in the 2011-12 season can be somewhat deceiving because the Hawkeyes were very competitive in most of their games, especially during conference play. Iowa fans were looking for improvement throughout the season and McCaffery’s crew certainly showed several encouraging signs. They finished the home stretch of the Big Ten season with a decent record of 7-4 and lost only one game at home to Northwestern who was making a serious push for a postseason at-large bid. Except for senior guard Matt Gatens, all of the key players were either freshmen or sophomores. Roy Devin Marble and Aaron White were two of the best young players in the conference as they averaged about 11 points per game, but more importantly showed great composure and maturity. Except for the Ohio State loss (76-47), the Hawkeyes remained competitive in every home conference game, which is a great sign pointing in the overall direction of a rebuilding program. After beating Dayton in the NIT, the Hawkeyes lost in a shootout to Oregon by a score of 108-97 in the second round.
State of the Program: After Steve Alford’s exit, the program suffered a bit of an identity crisis and could not find a brand of basketball that defined them. But it only took McCaffery two seasons to change that culture, which is one of the main reasons for his contract extension. The former Siena coach has instilled a level of toughness and winning attitude into the players there. He might have thrown a few tantrums along the way and broke a chair (had to be brought up!), but the message is clear – Iowa will play tough at home and they will run opponents out of the gym. Gone are the days of pesky shooters such as Jeff Horner or Adam Haluska. These young Hawkeyes play an up-tempo brand of basketball and it has become evident over the last two seasons. Iowa led the B1G in tempo with approximately 66 possessions per game last year, and it ranked second in the conference in free throw attempts per shots taken and relied less on the three-point shot (only 27.7% of their shots came from beyond the arc). The team has clear direction and understands its strengths/weaknesses, but more importantly, executes McCaffery’s game plan efficiently. Even though the changes haven’t yet resulted in an NCAA Tournament berth, it is only a matter of time before Iowa moves back to relevance in the college hoops landscape.
Players not returning: Matt Gatens came to Iowa City to lead Iowa back to the postseason and compete for conference championships. Even though his career turned out differently, he has seen Iowa through the rebuilding mode and set a great example to the younger players in the program. Gatens’ consistency will be sorely missed next season along with his 41% three-point shooting and 15.2 points per game. During the second half of the conference season, Gatens took over certain games at home to finish the season with a bang. His biggest contribution may be his leadership and buy-in of McCaffery’s philosophy which enabled future stars such as White and Marble to excel within the new system.
Immediate Needs: The Hawkeyes may play at a faster pace and can score in bunches, but they need to crash the boards in order to consistently survive in the Big Ten. McCaffery’s squad needs to improve its rebounding and limit the opponents’ second chance opportunities because they ranked 11th in the conference last season with a 34.4 OR% on defense. The addition of top 50 recruit Adam Woodbury will certainly help this facet of the game. Woodbury, a 7’0″, 230-lb. center will help Aaron White (5.7 RPG) and Melsahn Basabe (4.8 RPG) control the paint defensively next season. Woodbury should also help with some scoring from the post because Basabe’s scoring inside primarily comes from putbacks and dunks.
Key Player(s) Who Need To Step Up: The concept of the “Big 3″ has taken the NBA by storm over the past couple years. The Hawkeyes have their own version of a top three players — Roy Devin Marble, Aaron White and Zach McCabe. Marble definitely fits with the up-tempo system and may be the most athletic wing on the team with a 44.2% free throw rate. McCabe and White can score efficiently as well but all of them would prefer to play off the ball. Incoming freshman Mike Gesell may need to step up immediately to take over point guard duties in the halfcourt. Iowa needs a facilitator at the point who can feed the wings and consistently attack the rim during offensive sets. If Gesell can hold the ball without turning it over and move it around, the half court offensive sets will very crisp next season. Both Gesell and Woodbury enter the program at the perfect time because there is a need for a true center and a pure point guard. Those spots in the rotation are theirs to take, provided that they can pick up the offense quickly.
Conclusion: The past five seasons have been tough for Hawkeye fans but there are several signs indicating the turnaround of the program. They have a great coach who has earned buy-in from the athletic department and his players. A top 30 recruiting class (per Rivals.com) is on its way to Iowa City. Last year’s young core will only get better. Competing for the Big Ten championship may be an unrealistic expectation next season, but Iowa will certainly look to push the limits of its talent and make a run at another postseason bid.