Iowa has had it rough for a while now. Former Hoosier Steve Alford didn't leave the program in good shape when he left in 2007. Todd Lickliter's conference record in three years as head coach was 15-39. That was bad enough to warrant his firing, but the agonizingly slow tempo of his Hawkeye teams made the losing that much worse.
Last season was Fran McCaffery's first at the helm. His uptempo Siena teams were fun to watch, and, more importantly, they won a lot of games in the MAAC. McCaffery quickly turned Iowa into a run-and-gun team, jumping from ninth to first in the conference in possessions per forty minutes. Iowa fans were generally happy with the team's performance, even though they didn't pick up very many wins. The season-ending win against Purdue gave fans a reason to rush the court that day, and a reason to be optimistic about the future.
The Purdue win now seems more like a fluke than a harbinger of things to come (in the short term, at least). In my season preview post, I argued that the second year of the McCaffery rebuilding project would start to show some dividends in the form of a significant number of wins. I sort of hedged my bets at the end of the post, but I thought an NIT bid seemed possible if not probable.
An NIT bid is a pipe dream at this point for Iowa. Their record stands at 6-5 after Saturday's game against Drake. Even the most optimistic Iowa prognosticators don't have them going 8-10 in conference play, which is what they would need to reach the NIT. That record also assumes that they will win their final two non-con games, which is definitely not a given.
While they started the season with three blowout wins over cupcakes, the Hawkeyes have struggled against decent competition. They have double-digit losses to Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Campbell, Clemson and Creighton. Iowa's defense has been atrocious, and their offense hasn't been able to score enough to make up for it.
Melsahn Basabe has struggled without Jarryd Cole down low to take some of the defensive concentration away from him. Basabe managed to go four games in a row and score exactly two points in each game. Although it is still pretty early in the season, so far he hasn't shown any improvement from last year.
Bryce Cartwright had a pretty solid season last year running the point, but he has regressed this season. While his .393 FG% from last season wasn't good, it is great compared to the .317 he has put up so far this season. It's hard to keep the defense honest if the point guard isn't a threat to hit a shot.
No one else has really stepped up their games enough to make Iowa a significantly better team than last year. Matt Gatens, just like last year, leads the team in scoring. Zach McCabe has seen his production improve slightly, and Eric May has been just about as good as he always has been. Freshman Aaron White and Josh Oglesby will probably end up being good players, but they need some time to develop. Roy Devyn Marble has improved this season, but not by leaps and bounds.
None of this means that Fran McCaffery is failing at Iowa, or that their fans shouldn't remain optimistic for the future. It just means that rebuilding is hard, and it is especially hard in the Big Ten. McCaffery's recruiting has been excellent so far. He's got a top-twenty recruiting class coming in next year, highlighted by big man Adam Woodbury, an in-state recruit who was sought after by juggernauts such as Ohio State and North Carolina.
If McCaffery can keep getting big time players to come to Iowa, the Hawkeyes should be able to get out of the basement of the Big Ten. It took Tom Crean until his fourth season at Indiana to start winning, so some more patience might be required for Iowa. I would be very surprised two years from now if Iowa isn't at least competing in the middle of the Big Ten.
As I was writing this, Iowa beat a decent Drake team by 14 points at home, which is a good sign. It's just one game, but maybe it's the start of something better this season.