The Iowa Hawkeyes had a very interesting and intriguing 2014-15 basketball season. Like my partner Thomas Beindit wrote earlier this week, the Hawkeyes were a roller coaster of statistical emotions, but they were also one of the most underrated teams in the Big Ten. While Fran McCaffery's bunch goes into 2015 losing two key contributors in Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni, they return a healthy roster of starters and key contributors that will look to make a splash in the Big Ten conference.
But for this lineup to take the step up from (what many believe) as a mediocre player to Big Ten contender, there are some questions that need to be answered:
1. Can the defense stay as stingy without the likes of White and Olaseni?
Losing those two is a giant loss. There is no doubt about it. But if there is one thing you can say for Iowa (and by proxy, Fran McCaffery) is that their length is their absolute biggest strength. And they have a ton of it left on this roster. McCaffery's ability to keep finding multi-positional players that can match up with big and small lineups has been one of his strongest attributes as a coach.
So what does that mean for 2015-16?
Well, Adam Woodbury will still be manning the middle in what will probably be Iowa's only big lineup. Woodbury is a terrific hedger (when he doesn't get to handsy) and is a solid help side slider (again, when he doesn't get to handsy). Surrounding him is a plethora of Stretch Armstrong's that get me more and more excited for "small ball" variations.
Senior Jarrod Uthoff is one of the sneakiest defenders on a nightly basis. Honestly, just watch him for an entire half. He's a match up nightmare. He doesn't get beat, his feet are glued to the floor on up fakes and quick enough to stay in front of his guy when the ball is put on the floor. He blocks shots (second on the team last year) and has quick hands when a lackluster defender puts the ball in front of his face. Point Guard Mike Gesell holds his own against the onslaught of Big Ten point guards (which is still so impressive to me). His back up, Anthony Clemmons is probably better suited on the defensive end than his counter part, which speaks volumes for the second unit (and intrigues me in Gesell/Clemmons duel point guard lineups). And don't forget about Dom Uhl who is going to be an interesting piece to watch grow as his time on the floor increases.
And that's without mentioning Dale Jones, an incoming JUCO power forward, that will add some much needed size, and Brandon Hutton, who by all accounts wants to be known as the best defender in the Big Ten (it cannot be understated what a player like this, even if he is a freshman, does for a team in practice day in and day out).
Verdict: As long as Iowa keeps shuffling out 6'5" and 6'9" inter changeable guard/forwards, they will remain a problem on the defensive end for the rest of the Big Ten.
2. Can Iowa remain in the Big Ten's Top-5 in offensive rebound percentage?
Since Fran McCaffery joined the program in 2011, Iowa has never slipped outside of the Top-5 teams on the offensive glass, coming in as the best offensive rebounding team in both 2014 and 2015. It's quietly becoming one of the staples of the program (hard nosed in the trenches ball... I love it). But when looking at the upcoming season, Iowa has a giant hole to fill without White and Olaseni, who grabbed 23.7% (2014) and 21.2% (2015) of the teams total output. That's a lot of second chance opportunities that walked out the door, diploma in hand.
Woodbury, who has grabbed an additional 11.5% (2014) and 11.3% (2015) of the total offensive rebounds the past two seasons, is the most logical choice to see an uptick and help continue Iowa's success on the offensive glass. But like anything else, that comes with staying on the court, something Woodbury needs to get better at in his senior season (having played in only 50.9% of the teams total minutes in 2015).
That number needs to improve with the lack of second true big man anywhere on the Iowa bench. There were too many times last year when Woodbury would commit a silly second or third foul (2.7 a game, tied for the most on the team with Olaseni) when he was just beginning to establish himself as both an offensive and defensive threat. And whether that was from a lack of electrolytes, conditioning, or just the breaks from being a laboring seven footer, he needs to be better in those situations this season. Somehow, some way.
Real quick tangent: To me, Iowa's most important player this season is Woodbury. You can make the case for Uthoff, and I understand it. But If Woody can limit the "shuffle your feet instead of reach" fouls while harboring a 10% uptick in total minutes, Iowa is going to be very hard to beat night in and night out. He is 100% the leader of this team going into the season and to remain as that he needs to have improved his entire game. Points. Rebounds. Blocks. It's all there for the taking...and here's to hoping he grabs it and holds on and doesn't just poke it in the eye.
Ok, back to the offensive rebounding. McCaffery has a purebred hustler coming into the program in Hutton, who I wouldn't be surprised gets minutes for his ability to prove in practice and during games that he is a menace on the offensive glass (as well as for his defense as I mentioned above). Uhl (who grabbed 7.7% of the teams offensive rebounds in only 24.2% of the teams minutes) should also become more of a threat as he seems the most logical choice to start at one of the forward positions. Peter Jok could also be a dark horse to help out more, especially in situations when his defender doubles down on Woodbury or Uthoff.
Verdict: I would be shocked to see them land as the number one in conference offensive rebounding team again, especially with the lineups Purdue and Maryland will have on the court as well as the ever rebounding Michigan State Spartans. Olaseni and White were so important to cleaning the glass the last two seasons. With that said, a Top-5 finish is still in the realm of possibility.
3. Can Iowa just be slightly average from the three point line?
No, but seriously. Can they? Because it would do wonders for the offense. The average D-I program shot 34.3% from long distance last year. Iowa shot 33.3%. I understand that the three pointer will always rank after transition buckets and free throws in the Iowa offense, but it still accounted for almost a quarter of the teams total point distribution last year. That's enough to not shrug off.
In fact, if Iowa was just slightly better than average, say around 35.3% (a feasible jump), they would've scored an additional 33-points. It doesn't seem like much, but when you lost to a tricky non-conference opponent and three Big Ten teams by 17 points combined in four games it adds up.
Gesell, Clemmons (when he's open), Uthoff, Uhl, Brady Ellingson (if he gets the minutes) and Jok make me believe 35% is a reachable number...at least I hope.
Bonus Question: Is Jarrod Uthoff the hero Iowa deserves or the hero Iowa needs?
Yes, this question is absolutely self serving, but I'm beyond excited to see what Jarrod Uthoff can do without White being the teams panic induced defacto player. He's the best three point shooter on the team. He has good enough handles to take slower bigs off the dribble. He has a tremendous post presence. He can honestly score any way he wants. And if he can warrant the D to shade his way, drawing traps and double teams, it will only open up the floor for the other crafty slashers and shooters.
He is what Iowa needs to fill in Aaron White's giant Air Forces. He is what Iowa fan's deserve to fill in Aaron White's giant Air Forces.
I believe in Harvey Dent...er...Jarrod Uthoff.