The Iowa Hawkeyes should have a very bitter taste in their mouths from the way they sent out departed star Roy Devyn Marble. A 15-3 start deteriorated into a 20-13 finish, clinging to a play-in berth in the NCAA tournament only to get bounced in overtime by Tennessee.
Analysts are quick to blame poor defense for the late-season collapse, but that's giving the Hawkeyes credit for playing any decent defense in Big Ten play. Once the calendar turned to 2014, Iowa managed to hold only two opponents to less than one point per possession, and both of those foes were named Northwestern. In its last 13 games, Iowa managed to hold only Penn State and Tennessee to effective field goal percentages south of 50. In essence, the defense never really collapsed because it never truly established itself to begin with.
To expect that greater things are ahead is to assume that Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery has gotten through to his charges about the need to play consistent, efficient defense. He still has a deep team, but it's not one that can rely on Marble making plays anymore. Shooters who have struggled throughout their careers (see Gesell, Mike) will need to step up. Big men who find themselves getting quick hooks thanks to foul trouble (see Woodbury, Adam) must find a way to keep it clean without rolling out a red carpet to the rim.
There won't be any single player who steps up as a dynamic scorer the way Marble did. If all the role players figure out how best to play their roles, however, Iowa could be in for a very good season, one without the ugly malaise after Valentine's Day.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG Mike Gesell (6'2", 190 lbs., Jr.)
SG Peter Jok (6'6", 200 lbs., Soph.)
SF Jarrod Uthoff (6'9", 210 lbs., Jr.)
PF Aaron White (6'9", 228 lbs., Sr.)
C Adam Woodbury (7'1", 245 lbs., Jr.)
Four of the five spots appear secure, although McCaffery is very likely to experiment with his backcourt as the season progresses. JUCO newcomer Trey Dickerson and Anthony Clemmons will see occasional minutes at the point in relief of, or even alongside, Gesell. Jok still must hold off senior sniper Josh Oglesby for a starting spot, but that pair could also see extensive minutes together with Jok playing more of a baseline role.
Uthoff could be one of the Big Ten's biggest breakout performers, combining size and perimeter skill like few others in the league. If he assumes a more aggressive mindset while still getting more good shots than bad, it'll be him, not White, who leads the team in scoring.
What to Watch For
The Hawkeyes have several opportunities for major resume wins in the pre-conference season. The 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden will pit Iowa against preseason No. 10 Texas, with a game against either No. 23 Syracuse or Pac-12 sleeper Cal to follow the next day. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge will send the Hawkeyes to Chapel Hill to take on No. 6 North Carolina. The matchup between Aaron White and UNC junior Brice Johnson should be well worth the price of admission.
The Cy-Hawk Series battle with No. 14 Iowa State is at Carver this season, giving Iowa a prime opportunity to avenge last season's heartbreaking loss. White was dominant in last year's matchup, but he and his teammates know they'll have work to do in slowing down Cyclone forwards Georges Niang and Dustin Hogue, both potential All-Big 12 performers. Finally, Northern Iowa will be motivated to bolster its at-large profile when it meets the Hawkeyes at the Hy-Vee Big Four Classic in Des Moines. The Panthers are experienced, skilled and well-coached, so Iowa will be in for a battle.
All of those games will provide a lot of information on whether the Hawkeyes have fixed the issues that plagued them late last season. Point guard play was shaky after Valentine's Day, and as mentioned before, defense was never a strength. If those two facets of the game aren't remedied, Iowa will have nothing to show for all these golden opportunities and will face a major uphill struggle to make the NCAA tournament. A 12-6 conference record would be the absolute minimum if the Hawkeyes don't win at least one or two of the aforementioned games.
Who to Watch For
Trey Dickerson - The sophomore was an NJCAA All-American last season, capable of breaking any game open with his speed and aggressiveness on offense. He can carve up a defense more effectively than Gesell or Clemmons, whether in the half-court or transition. Those transition skills and that speed may make him McCaffery's choice to run the offense by season's end, especially if Gesell continues his shooting woes.
Josh Oglesby - The senior is the only returning Hawkeye to sink more than one three-pointer per game last season. He's a specialist, with more than 70% of his career shots coming from behind the arc. If his shot isn't falling, he'll need to be killing it on the defensive end to avoid losing minutes to some of his more versatile teammates. This will, however, make for a small backcourt.
Dominique Uhl - The German's skill set has been compared to Aaron White's, so it makes sense that he could see minutes both alongside and behind White. His contributions will offer McCaffery even more lineup flexibility, as Uhl could work from the wing, a matchup nightmare at 6'9". After the exhibition win over Northwood, McCaffery said, "His handle for a guy who’s 6-9 is very unique. He can go by anybody he wants whenever he wants to. You can put him in the guard position against the press and he can see and make plays for other people."
The Hawkeyes are capable of running through that solid non-conference slate with an 11-2 mark, falling only to Texas and North Carolina. Even the Texas game could be winnable if Iowa can dictate tempo and make big Longhorns like Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh get up and down repeatedly. The Cy-Hawk showdown can go Iowa's way if it can keep Iowa State's Hogue and Niang from making a living on the glass. The worst-case scenario would see Iowa stumbling into conference play with a 7-6 mark, losing all the major tests and even dropping a stunner to sneaky opponents like North Dakota State or Pepperdine. That outcome would place Iowa squarely behind the 8-ball, needing a 13- or 14-win conference run - or even a Big Ten tournament title - to cement an NCAA bid.
The Hawkeyes' non-conference record is of utmost importance, since their Big Ten schedule isn't exactly cake. Iowa plays Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern twice. The single-play road games are at Purdue, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana - largely winnable games on paper, but three of the four are in notably difficult venues. Michigan State, Rutgers, Maryland and Illinois come to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Holding serve at home would put Iowa in line for at least 12 conference wins, possibly as many as 14. A record like that would place the Hawkeyes squarely in title contention. Even if we expect that, say, Wisconsin and Michigan State pull off wins in Iowa City, Iowa still shouldn't fall any lower than 10 conference wins. If that 11-2 non-league mark comes to pass, we're looking at 21-10 minimum, with wins over Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Cal/Syracuse, Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota. That's assuming that the Hawkeyes can only beat Purdue, Penn State and Indiana on the road. Because I'm down on Nebraska this season, I'll give Iowa the sweep in that series and chalk the Hawkeyes up for 22-9.
Pomeroy projects Iowa at 18-12 (no second New York game yet), with an 8-10 conference mark and nary a Big Ten road win in sight. Yes, that means losses at Northwestern, Penn State, Indiana and Purdue. Er go, Iowa fans, you're welcome. Either way, Iowa projects as one of the Big Ten's biggest wild cards entering the 2014-15 season.