The Iowa Hawkeyes had high expectations coming into this season, but no one thought they would start like this. Fran McCaffery has led this team to an 11-2 start, with marquee wins over Xavier and Notre Dame. But losses to quality teams like Villanova and in-state rival Iowa State prove they aren't invincible. Let's take a trip down memory lane and see what we've learned from Iowa's wildly successful non-conference slate.
1. The offense is potent and evolving.
Let's start with some stats. Iowa is third in the country in points per game with 88.7 and fourth in the country in assists per game with 18.4. That's impressive even without acknowledging that they've played some seriously tough opponents. Don't just take my word for it. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Iowa at #7 overall in his own personal RPI formula, and has them leading the country in both Offensive Quotient (21.1) and Adjusted Scoring Margin (29.3). They've also gotten out of the gates faster than any other team, leading the national in first half points per game with 46.0. So both computers and general observers agree that Iowa is a force to be reckoned with offensively.
Early in the season, Iowa looked to Roy Devyn Marble for scoring. It was without a doubt that the offense ran through him. Against both cupcakes (Nebraska-Omaha and Abilene Christian) and more challenging non-conference foes (Xavier and Villanova), Marble led the team in shots attempted, and more often than not, led the team in scoring in those games. He's still the de facto go-to guy offensively, as he leads the team in scoring with 15.3 points a game.
Since the victory over Notre Dame, where Marble singlehandedly kept the Hawkeyes alive in the second half, Marble has taken on a smaller role offensively. This isn't because Marble can't score effectively; it's because his teammates are slowly finding their offensive identity, and are scoring accordingly. Aaron White has been a beast down low, both scoring and rebounding. Jarrod Uthoff has been a revelation off the bench as well. He and fellow rookie Peter Jok have provided a much-needed scoring punch, most notably in the victory over Fairleigh Dickinson.
It looked like this team was going to go as far as Marble took them, but that isn't the case anymore. This offense has turned from single-faceted to multidimensional. Marble is still the go-to guy late in the game, but defenses have to shut down the rest of the team first. They haven't faced a B1G defense yet, but it shouldn't faze them. This Iowa offense is for real.
2. Adam Woodbury is a work-in-progress.
Adam Woodbury came into Iowa City with sky-high expectations. He's 7'1" (or so they claim) and was one of the top big men in his class. It was a major coup for McCaffery to keep him in-state, and last season, he showed flashes of his potential. He started 38 games as a freshman, and excelled defensively. He was strong down low and uncharacteristically quick when switching on pick-and-rolls. However, he proved he's far from polished, since he kept getting into foul trouble and had a turnover percentage of 23.6%. We knew what Woodbury would contribute defensively, but increasing his offensive output was top on the off-season to-do list for Iowa fans.
So far, he hasn't demonstrated any clear offensive growth. In 16.6 minutes a game, he's averaging 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. That's compared to last year's averages of 4.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Out of all the starters, he plays much less, and that will only go down with the emergence of Jarrod Uthoff. While Uthoff gives them more flexibility offensively, Woodbury has unmatched physicality. Backup center Gabriel Olaseni has also played significant minutes at the 5 spot, and has looked just fine.
While Woodbury's calling card is his defense, he hasn't been the anchor that fans have expected. The victory over Notre Dame sticks out as Woodbury's worst game defensively. Fighting Irish center Garrick Sherman isn't anything special, but wound up dropping 29 points. He slipped through the Hawkeyes defense all night, and Woodbury couldn't keep up with him. Performances like that don't inspire confidence that Woodbury will be the defensive anchor that will take Iowa to the next level.
Then again, big men take a long time to develop. Luckily, Iowa's frontcourt is super deep, so Woodbury can grab some bench if he seems lost. Offensively, it doesn't look like Woodbury is going to break out this year. That's okay. They don't need that from him just yet. He just needs to defend and rebound while staying out of foul trouble. Don't give up on Adam Woodbury. This may not be his year, but the talent is there. Let's hope we see little bursts of it during conference play.
3. This team can make some noise in conference play and the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten is the deepest conference in the country. But there's a weird dynamic with the top teams. Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State are all absolutely for real. Then there's teams like Michigan and Indiana that are talented, but haven't lived up to expectations, and we don't know what to make of them just yet. Then there's teams like Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue who have overachieved, but will spend the whole season in the middle of the conference. Then there's Iowa.
Iowa doesn't have an easy road in the Big Ten, but that shouldn't be a huge detriment to their success. For example, I'm very confident Iowa will upset Wisconsin on January 5 in Madison. They always give the Badgers trouble, the Badgers haven't been tested in a long time, and the Kohl Center won't be rocking as much as usual because of winter break. That's a very winnable game for the Hawkeyes, and they'll win plenty of other games as the season progresses.
As of now, Iowa is projected to be around a 6-seed in the tournament according to Lunardi. That's about what I expect at the end of this season, barring an unforeseen hot streak or collapse. They're versatile enough to give any team in the country trouble. They can score at a fast pace, but can also slow it down and play traditional B1G basketball. It's crazy to imagine right now, but a Sweet Sixteen birth isn't as ludicrous as it sounds. It will become clear as the season progresses that Iowa is a dangerous team that you do not want to face.
There's a chance for Fran McCaffery and his boys to do something special this season. With their multifaceted offensive identity and hopeful development of Adam Woodbury, they'll give every team they play lots of trouble. They won't rank higher than fourth in the Big Ten, but to Iowa fans, that's just fine. Their hot 11-2 start bodes very well for the season to come.