Hey, it’s not like I haven’t been wrong about an Iowa team before…I have been offering up my opinion on Iowa athletics to ‘the masses’ dating back to 1999, so there have been a lot of misses.
We can add this year’s Iowa men’s team to the pile.
Before the season began, I felt this team was a 10-11 seed, a team that might find itself on the bubble and a fanbase that would be nervous come selection Sunday because a bid to the NCAA tournament would not be a given. I felt 10 wins in Big Ten play was the likely ceiling and that their incredible weak non-conference schedule could wind up being the difference between for a bid.
Iowa went 12-8 in Big Ten play…and those two additional wins in a league that, while not as good as last year was still a deep league, is still hard to win in….that was impressive. Winning at Ohio State and Michigan by double digits was impressive. Winning eight of their last 10 games, each of them by double digits, was impressive. Their performances against Illinois were impressive, their performance at Purdue was impressive, as was the way this team turned around its fortunes on the offensive glass; this year’s team is a better offensive rebounding team than last year’s team.
The fact that Iowa had the 2020-2021 Player of the Year in Luka Garza was crazy enough…and Joe Wieskamp alongside him, and Joe is one of the best players to go through the program in the past 20 years and recently had his two-way NBA contract converted to an NBA contract…so that is two players from last year’s team that have stuck in the NBA for a year. Iowa hasn’t been able to say that since….wow…I don’t even know, sometime when Reggie Evans and Ryan Bowen were in the league at the same time?
So Iowa loses two NBA guys…loses CJ Fredrick to transfer to Kentucky…loses Jack Nunge to Xavier (congrats to Jack for being named first team All Big East by the way)…..folks…those would be huge losses for any program, but at Iowa? This is why I didn’t have the most optimism for this year’s team beyond maybe being a bubble team.
But this year’s team didn’t give a crap about expectations. The offense is the second best by an Iowa team since at least 1997. They turn the ball over less than any Iowa team since at least 1997. The defense is salty, by Fran McCaffery standards.
Big Ten media pegged this Iowa team to finish ninth. Instead, they finished fourth. They are on the cusp of playing themselves into a six or five seed in the NCAA tournament and what’s more, this team and its parts might be the right type of mix to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. They can defend, they are long and active in the passing lanes and they have more athleticism that can take the ball to the rim than any Iowa team since the 1988-1989 team. I think we have seen that play out the past five weeks and we saw that play out at Illinois on Sunday, a game where Iowa led by 15 and shot horribly from the free-throw line and still had a shot to win the game with a three at the end that rimmed in and out.
Fran McCaffery is a very good basketball coach. This was one of his best seasons, if not the best, at Iowa. It’s one of the best coaching seasons by any Iowa coach in my lifetime. From the outside, this team overachieved. From the outside, this team did things that most did not think it could do. But Fran’s forte is getting those on the inside to believe in themselves when nobody else will.
Fran pushed all the right buttons and the players responded. I felt Connor McCaffery was more of a liability than a positive post-Luka Garza…but Connor has played incredibly well the past five weeks, in many ways that will never show up on a stat sheet and some that have.
Nobody wanted Keegan or Kris Murray and both will be in the NBA in the future, Keegan likely next year and Kris likely the year after next. Iowa beat out Ball State, Bradley, Miami (OH) and Toledo for Tony Perkins, with Joe Toussant and Ahron Ulis having similar offer lists. Heck, I felt Jordan Bohannon wasn’t worth of a Big Ten scholarship.
What a job, and the ride is not done.
(SIDE NOTE and apropos of nothing; the 2020-2021 Iowa roster will wind up with at least four NBA players; Garza, Wieskamp, Murray and Murray. The last time we could say that an Iowa roster had four NBA guys on it was 1988-1989)