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The Optimists Guide to the (Big Ten) Galaxy: Iowa Hawkeyes

With little expectations, can Iowa return back to the second tier of the Big Ten?

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Iowa Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

By nature, I’m a preseason optimist. You can ask me just about anything about any team in the lead up to the official start of college basketball and I’m going to give you the reasons why that team can make the tournament and surprise the world. Does that eventually go away? Of course. I’m not a psychopath. Bad things happen to a lot of good people and their favorite sports teams. But since we’re only a few more weeks away from the start of real life Big Ten basketball, let’s dive deep into the optimism. Last week, Romeo Langford stole my heart, this week my Alma mater, Iowa.


Of all the “Optimist Guides”, this one is the toughest ones for me to do. Because I graduated from Iowa and often hang by a thread with every shot, it’s sometimes hard to be overly optimistic about your own team.

Especially when that team won four Big Ten games last season.

But here we are. To me, the best thing Iowa has going for it entering the 2018-19 college basketball season is low, low, low expectations. Nobody believes in Iowa because they probably shouldn’t. While they’ve completely adopted coach Fran McCaffery’s up-tempo offense, they’ve also adopted a loose and relenting defense.

Everyone that looks at the Big Ten probably expects Iowa to score a bunch of points... but they also know they’ll give up just as much if not more.

Just take a look at this from Athlon’s College Basketball Preview magazine:

“There’s a lot to like about this Iowa team on offense. But defense? Well, that’s a whole different matter. Iowa’s goal in season No. 9 for Fran McCaffery should be to make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s hard to be that optimistic without knowing what to expect on the defense end.”

Oh what one season can do for expectations.

Last year, Athlon (and many college basketball pundits) expected Iowa to contend in the Big Ten and get back to the big dance. As a fan of the Hawkeyes, I would be lying to you if I said the masses didn’t think that all of that was already a foregone conclusion. How could it not have been?

Jordan Bohannon was getting Steph Curry-like comps during the preseason from McCaffery. Tyler Cook, one of the most heralded recruits in Iowa basketball history was a year older and looking to build on the offensive outbreak he had as a passionate, unguardable freshman. Plus, a whole host of recruits with the talent to play right away were coming in.

They were pumped. The fans were pumped. Expectations soared.

And then the Hawkeyes collapsed. Despite an offense that could score on anyone, it was the small things that went wrong. Iowa couldn’t put together consistent stops to help their offensive prowess (Iowa gave up 80 or more points 17 times last season). It got to the point that if the Hawkeyes didn’t blow you out, they probably lost (they were 0-6 in games decided by 6-points or less and 5-9 in games decided by 10 points or less).

Was it from the pressure of it all? It’s hard not to wonder if that was the case. Take it from Scott Dochterman of The Athletic, who’s as plugged into Iowa as anyone:

With a batch of youngsters, the Hawkeyes had talked championships last October.


How wrong we all were.

That’s not the case this season. There isn’t one person on that unit that will even mutter the word. Instead, it seems like the players on this roster AND the coaching staff — which is a breath of fresh air considering that in the past, McCaffery would just scoff and continue on doing things as he’s always done — have learned from last years problematic season and are ready to prove that it was an anomaly, not the standard. Again, from Dochterman:

“The critical thing is to take ownership of it and recognize that change has to be made to a man. That’s coaches, players, everybody, starters, subs. We all have to be in it together and recognize that every day, we’ve got to be better. We can’t have complacency for any possessions on either side of the ball on a daily basis. That’s a mindset that has to be developed. It wasn’t there last year, and it’s got to be there this year.”

This could be preseason coach speak, which McCaffery is prone to do, but I really don’t think it is. You tend to get real humble after a season long cup check.

Perhaps this is my Iowa football fandom crossing over into basketball, but there’s something to be said about a nobody-believes-in-us Hawkeye team. The offensive power is there in spades and if McCaffery and the players on this team committed to playing even a little defense, Iowa could finish higher than their current projections between 9th and 11th in the league.

Tyler Cook, NBA Mode

This is going to be brief: Tyler Cook clearly wants to play in the NBA as soon as humanly possible. It’s still a little shocking that he’s even back in an Iowa uniform this season and not playing in Europe somewhere. But while he’s here, he needs to work on the holes in his game that prevented him from making the jump after last season.

What will ultimately help his cause is if Iowa can play sound basketball. As I mentioned above, Cook is an offensive powerhouse down on the block. He’s athletic and strong and can fill it up when with just his motor alone. But for him to get noticed by GM’s, he’s going to have to be better on defense and stop fouling so often. He’s going to have to make more long range shots. He’s going to have to stop turning the ball over.

If he can take his game to another level and start caring on defense, Iowa is going to be a scary opponent; especially once the conference slate begins.