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2018-’19 Iowa Hawkeyes Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Iowa Hawkeyes and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2018-’19 season.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the upcoming season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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I’m going to let you all in on a little secret about the Iowa Hawkeyes... they weren’t very good last season. While they may not be entirely shocking to you, my dearest readers, it was shocking to the players and staff members in Iowa City. Going into last year, the Hawkeyes had conference championship aspirations and an eye on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. And like most of us that have delusional ideas of grandeur, they were fed a giant dose of reality.

Rather than competing for the top of the Big Ten Conference, Iowa found residence in the basement; duking it out with the likes of Rutgers, Illinois and Minnesota for the worst of the worst.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not at all. Iowa was coming off a 19-15 (10-8) season the year before in which eight of the teams overall losses came in overtime or by 10-points or less. They played their opponents tight, but didn’t know how to pull off those wins, what with nine underclassmen playing the majority of the teams minutes. On top of all of that, Fran McCaffery was only losing one starter in Peter Jok.

So, when you did the math, it was easy to peg Iowa as a Big Ten dark horse at a minimum. With the invaluable experience of the youngsters — who were basically juniors going into 2017 — and another wave of talented freshman in Luka Garza, Jack Nunge and Connor McCaffery (sort of), Iowa should’ve been better than what their final record showed.

Can McCaffery, Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook right the ship in 2018? Can they reverse course and get back to the team they were back in 2014-2016? Or has McCaffery’s voice and antics finally hit the end of the road in Iowa City?

‘Tis the hot seat button topic going into 2018.

1. 2017-’18 Season Performance

Record: 14-19 (4-14)

KenPom Team Rating: #88

RPI Rating: #155

Postseason Appearance: HA!

It’s funny. Before writing this piece, I went back to our Editor in Chief’s Iowa preview from last year and I could basically copy his introduction for this section word for brutal word:

Iowa was not a great basketball team last season. In fact, Iowa probably wasn’t even a good team last season. The Hawkeyes were conclusively below the nation’s elite teams (see Iowa’s blowout loss to Virginia Virginia Tech) and solidly behind the Big Ten’s best teams. Simply put, good teams don’t end up playing in the NIT at season’s end not even playing in the NIT at season’s end.

See, pretty close, right?

Despite one of the most potent offenses in all of college basketball, the Hawkeyes were often forced into trying to outscore teams because their defense was so sporadic and lackadaisical. In fact, Iowa gave up 80 or more points in half of their games last season. They gave up more than 70 in all but six games. To make matters even worse, Iowa was 0-6 in games decided by 6-points or less and 5-9 in games decided by 10 points or less.

That’s not by any means a recipe for success. Time and time again, when it came time for the young nucleus of players to stop their opponents, they couldn’t get the job done. All they could do was hope to outscore them.

And they didn’t.

We’re not done here. Far from it. Iowa’s defense was so broken that they somehow allowed 1.19 points per trip during the Big Ten schedule. According to Inside the Hall, that’s the second worst defense for a conference team ever in the Ken Pomeroy era. It was as infuriating to watch as it is reading that stat line.

Thankfully, it seems McCaffery has spent the majority of the offseason looking at the program he’s built and realized things need to change; and by all reports, he’s spent the majority of the summer preaching the importance of playing defense and breaking down players so that they can be rebuilt again.

Can it pay off in 2018?

2. Offseason Exits

There is no team in the Big Ten that returns more than the Hawkeyes. It’s weird to say, because it feels like a team that played as poorly as Iowa did last year should have more turnover. But give McCaffery credit, this team is loaded.

In terms of offseason exits, the only players that left the program were the ultra confusing Dom Uhl who graduated, the football player turned basketball player turned football player Ahmad Wagner (now playing football at Kentucky) and the “not so sharp shooter” Brady Ellingson, who transferred to Drake.

Uhl only played in 16 games last season and averaged a little over four minutes a game. Ahmad Wagner played in 30 games, but didn’t average over two points or two rebounds while he was on the floor. And Ellingson averaged 2.8 points per game, as again, a sharp shooter.

That’s it.

3. New Additions

Fighting for a spot in McCaffery’s already deep rotations will be freshman C.J. Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp along with Connor McCaffery who is officially back again (remember, McCaffery was originally going to redshirt his freshman season on the basketball team until Christian Williams decided to transfer out of the program days before the season started) after a season long delay after battling with health and injury issues.

Let’s start with McCaffery who — if he can stay healthy this year — will have a major impact on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. In just the simplest aspect, spelling Jordan Bohannon as Iowa’s only real ball handling threat would be paramount. Bohannon played in 79 percent of the team’s minutes last year out of sheer necessity. That easily had a negative effect on his defensive output, as well as his aggressiveness on both sides of the floor. McCaffery’s ability to be a long, strong ball handler in this Iowa system is probably the most important thing heading into 2018. Bohannon needs the break.

The potential lineups that could feature both Iowa’s Steph Curry (Bohannon) playing off the ball with McCaffery and Wieskamp, Tyler Cook and Luka Garza give me shivers just thinking about it. Don’t be surprised if Wieskamp eventually finds his way into a major role in McCaffery’s deep rotation, if not the starting lineup right out of the gate. What Wieskamp bring’s to the table is unlike anything Iowa has at this very moment because of his rare combination of scoring ability, length, ball handling skills and defensive prowess.

Iowa’s Gatorade Player of the year has been putting in the work all summer long and it’s going to pay off:

4. Points of Optimism

It’s quite simple really. Can Tyler Cook take everything he learned during his long flirtation with the NBA (and, quite possibly other professional basketball avenues) and apply them to his overall game while playing inside of McCaffery’s system. There is little doubt that Iowa will feature him as much as possible. He’s a transcendent athlete, one in which Iowa City hasn’t seen before. As it stands, Cook is one of the best dunkers in all of college basketball and has the potential to be one of those high motor players GM’s fall in love with that can guard ball handlers and behemoths alike.

The talent has never been in question. But Cook’s leadership, decision making, and effort have. And it seems like he’s coming into the season preparing to prove that he’s made strides in them all:

Teammates and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Cook’s leadership has taken a big jump forward. That was one of the main things last year’s team lacked when things began to unravel — a veteran voice to rally the troops.

Cook, should he put everything together this season in hopes of being a first round draft pick, can easily be one of those players that can take those close losses that Iowa had last year and turn them into wins in 2018.

If he can launch himself into a Top-10 Big Ten talent, Iowa will make their way back to the NCAA Tournament for the first (and probably last) time in his Iowa career.

5. Points of Concern

D-FENCE!

D-FENCE!

D-FENCE!

There is literally nothing more concerning than Iowa’s defense this year. With everything McCaffery is returning, we know that they can score with the best of the best in college basketball. But when it comes time to get a stop, can Iowa get one? I’m not so sure.

Defense is all about fundamentals and effort. It’s great that the coaching staff has tried to go back to basics during the summer to rebuild this rosters confidence on that side of the ball. But that will only go so far if in season, if they neglect to make it a day-in and day-out focus.

6. Top Player

As noted in the points of optimism, Tyler Cook. Cook is Iowa’s top player if he wants to be.

But if for some reason all of those pieces don’t come together, Iowa’s top player is also one of the conferences best point guards in Jordan Bohannon. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but in my eyes, there was no more important player for the Hawkeyes last season than Bohannon. He does everything for McCaffery. He creates shots when Iowa has nothing going. He was the only ball handler that was able to be trusted late in games. He shot 43 perecent from three, had a 5/2 assist to turnover ratio while playing 31.8 minutes per game (34 during conference play).

When I say that a three pointer is like a layup for him, I sincerely mean it:

Still gets me hyped.

While we all hope that Cook takes on a bigger leadership role this year, it’s Bohannon that already has:

“To be the best, you have to take in all the criticism,” Bohannon said Thursday at Big Ten Conference basketball media day here. “We had a lot to prove to everyone and we didn’t live up to expectations at all. We have a different hunger this year.”

If that seems like too much to put on one player’s shoulders, Bohannon will tell you he wants even more responsibility in his junior year. It’s why he’s been running the hills around Carver-Hawkeye Arena to get into better shape now that the plantar fasciitis in his right foot has finally subsided. It’s why he’s spending less time on his primary skill — shooting — and more on ball-handling and defense these days.

7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/4 - Guliford College (Exhibition)
  • 11/8 - UMKC (2K Classic)
  • 11/11 - Green Bay (2K Classic)
  • 11/15 - Oregon (2K Classic)
  • 11/16 - Connecticut/Syracuse (2K Classic)
  • 11/21 - Alabama State
  • 11/27 - Pittsburgh (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • 11/30 - Wisconsin
  • 12/3 - at Michigan State
  • 12/6 - Iowa State
  • 12/15 - Northern Iowa (Hy-Vee Classic)
  • 12/18 - Western Carolina
  • 12/22 - Savannah State
  • 12/29 - Bryant
  • 1/3 - at Purdue
  • 1/6 - Nebraska
  • 1/9 - at Northwestern
  • 1/12 - Ohio STate
  • 1/16 - at Penn State
  • 1/20 - Illinois
  • 1/24 - Michigan State
  • 1/27 - at Minnesota
  • 2/2 - Michigan
  • 2/7 - at Indiana
  • 2/10 - Northwestern
  • 2/16 - at Rutgers
  • 2/19 - Maryland
  • 2/22 - Indiana
  • 2/26 - at Ohio State
  • 3/2 - Rutgers
  • 3/7 - at Wisconsin
  • 3/10 - at Nebraska

Let’s start with the non-con first. There are four cupcakes (you can figure them out) plus UMKC and Green Bay who offer a little more respect, but should still be easy wins. The rest of the non-conference schedule is a whole lot of nothing. Sure, Northern Iowa is going to want to end the Hy-Vee Classic with one last win over Iowa and Iowa State brings back Lindell Wigginton and more from last years team that beat Iowa at Hilton. But Pittsburgh isn’t doing any favors in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. While Oregon and either Syracuse or UConn should be tremendous measuring sticks for Iowa, the non-con ultimately lacks the punch of a high end schedule.

The conference schedule is even more stacked than normal with the new 20-game Big Ten scheduling starting this season. But Iowa has the pieces to navigate it, and ultimately, finish the season strong. It’s also probably not the worst thing that Iowa doesn’t have to travel to Michigan, Maryland or Illinois.

8. Projecting Starting Lineup

PG: Jordan Bohannon

SG: Isaiah Moss

G/F: Joe Wieskamp

PF: Tyler Cook

C: Luka Garza

Iowa’s starting lineup has become extremely difficult to predict because of how much talent is on this team. While this starting lineup may not start right away, I truly believe it will be by the time the Big Ten slate fully begins. Having the shooting and playmaking ability of Bohannon, Moss and Wieskamp on the wings with Cook and Garza manning the post is a lineup that can cause a ton of havoc on opposing coaches (especially if Garza can potentially flash more from outside in his second season).

9. Team Perspective From Benjamin Ross of Black Heart Gold Pants

“Some people are optimistic over the future of this Iowa basketball team. I am not one of those people.

Despite returning just about every player of consequence from last season, it’s important to remember this is a squad that has no serious scoring threats outside Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook. Coupled with a defense that was in the mid-200s last season according to KenPom, I just don’t see this team getting over the hump into mediocrity. Incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp could become an instant star but I’m not hitching to that wagon just yet, though I would like to!

We’re in year eight of the Fran McCaffery experiment. Except it’s no longer an experiment. This is a marriage. And we know what he’s bringing home for dinner. And it’s not wins. Fran will likely get two more seasons to get it together based off his recruiting alone, but it’s high time we get Mad Again.

I am.” - Benjamin Ross.

10. Overall Season Outlook

I’m an optimist. I think Iowa is returning a ton of talent (even if that talent only amounted to a 14-win season last year). I think that Iowa got ahead of itself in 2017 and they have learned from it. I think they also ran into some injuries, unplanned transfers and some bad luck too.

Will it all come together for Iowa this year? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Iowa will be able to stay in each and every game they play because of their offensive fire power. With both Bohannon and Cook taking on more leadership roles on the defensive side of the floor, I think the Hawkeyes can drastically improve from last year.

They almost have to.

Cook can be an All-Big Ten player, Bohannon can be too. If McCaffery can fill in the pieces and press the right buttons, Iowa can launch themselves back in the top five or six teams in the conference as opposed to the bottom three.

I can assure you this though. Iowa fans are cautiously optimistic. I have them sixth in the league.

Big Ten Prediction: 11th Place

(Please note: Final Big Ten predictions come from Thomas Beindit.)