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2020-’21 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 2020-’21 season.

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

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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Expectations are a funny thing. People spend years trying working to gain respect and elevate their own expectations, only to have them used against them once they get there. We’ve seen it all the time in sports. A coach will come in, resurrect a program, and then be fired because they couldn’t meet the expectations he created.

It’s a brutal system.

But it’s also reality.

And for the Iowa Hawkeyes, that’s reality this season. Iowa will enter this season with immensely high expectations. Fans are expecting big things and for good reason. This is the deepest and most talented team Iowa has had in modern history. The Hawkeyes project to be serious Big Ten title and Final Four contenders and there’s no reasonable way to question those expectations. It’s an exciting time for fans, but it will be a double-edged sword this year. The margin for error is going to be as slim. Every loss is going to be dissected and every success will be minimized.

But that’s life at the highest level of sports.

Whether Iowa can meet those lofty goals will depend largely on returning superstar Luka Garza. He was last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year and will enter this season as the favorite to win National Player of the Year. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last year and finished the season with a 117.0 offensive rating. His monstrous numbers helped him win KenPom’s Player of the Year metric. He was an absolute monster.

But Iowa’s talent doesn’t stop there. The team also returns Jordan Bohannon from injury in the backcourt and key contributors like CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp. Iowa is also adding a five-member recruiting class that should provide depth and options for Fran McCaffery to use behind his starters. Ahron Ulis is the highest rated prospect and should help things in the backcourt. The roster has everything you need for a championship unit.

The biggest question will be whether Iowa can get the team to play together and improve on last season, particularly on the defensive side of the court. Iowa finished 97th nationally in defensive efficiency last year and there’s no obvious solution to that problem. With many of the same players on the roster, it’s going to need to be a team effort. Iowa also has some question marks upfront behind Garza. Can the newcomers provide enough depth for the Hawkeyes to reach the promised land?

Well, let’s dive in and take a look at this year’s Hawkeyes.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Iowa Hawkeyes, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Hawkeyes, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Sean Bock of 247Sports breaking down Iowa’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-11 (11-9)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #23
  • NET Rating: #34
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

By every general measure, Iowa was a really solid team last season. The Hawkeyes finished well above .500, would have made the NCAA Tournament if COVID-19 hadn’t hit, and had a handful of great wins. However, that was about it. Iowa never had enough consistency and quality defensive play to break through to that next level. It’s why the team finished 11-9 in Big Ten play and fell out of the Big Ten title race in early February. Iowa also once again fell victim to a late season collapse, which has become a consistent theme under McCaffery.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the season came early, when Iowa started 5-1 overall and followed that up by reaching 10-3 overall. By late January, Iowa was 15-5 with seven wins against top 50 opponents. Iowa found a way to win at home, on neutral courts, and on the road. It was an impressive start to the season and legitimately pushed the Hawkeyes into Big Ten title contention.

Unfortunately, things slipped after that. Iowa followed that 15-5 start with a double-digit loss to Maryland and two more losses in the weeks ahead. All told, Iowa went 5-6 in the team’s final 11 games, which included two losses to Purdue and a loss against a respectable, but beatable Indiana squad. The Hawkeyes also saw the team’s advanced stats profile take a nosedive, dropping from 14th to 24th nationally on KenPom.

Iowa had some injury issues that led to the slide, but the biggest issue for the Hawkeyes was the team’s putrid defensive performance. Iowa’s opponents averaged 84.7 points per game in those six losses, including a ridiculous 104-point performance for Purdue in early February. There’s no excusing Iowa’s sloppiness in those games, especially when you consider that teams like Purdue and Indiana finished 50th and 65th nationally in offensive efficiency last season. Neither should have been hanging huge totals on Iowa.

But even with the late season issues, it was a productive season in Iowa City. The team put together a solid performance and would have made the NCAA Tournament if it wasn’t cancelled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with Garza upfront, it’s hard to say Iowa couldn’t have done some damage there.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over Cincinnati, Iowa State, Syracuse, and Texas Tech and Big Ten wins over Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. The early season loss to DePaul and late season slide, highlighted by losses to Indiana and Purdue stand out as rough spots.

Individual statistical leaders were Luka Garza, Connor McCaffery, Joe Toussaint, and Joe Wieskamp. Garza led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. Connor McCaffery led the team in assists. Toussaint led the team in steals. Wieskamp led the team in minutes.

2. Offseason Exits

Given the talent on Iowa’s roster last year, most expected some substantial departures this offseason. However, the team held things together pretty well, in large part because of Garza’s surprising return to campus. All told, Iowa ended up losing just five players in Bakari Evelyn, Ryan Kriener, Cordell Pemsl, Riley Till, and Aidan Vanderloo. None of the five were starters by season’s end, though a few did see serious playing time.

The most significant departure from a statistical perspective is Evelyn. He played nearly half of Iowa’s minutes last season, but averaged well over 20 minutes a game towards the end of the year. However, it’s hard to call him a massive departure. Most of his minutes occurred after Jordan Bohannon was sidelined with injury (meaning he likely wouldn’t have played this much otherwise) and his offensive contributions were inconsistent, at best. His offensive rating of 96.3 was underwhelming and he failed to even crack 30 percent from deep.

Kreiner and Pemsl also represent notable departures. Both averaged at least 12 minutes a game and Kriener actually got into the starting lineup for a bit. Kreiner was really efficient, great on the offensive boards, and a pretty solid blocking threat. He was the epitome of an experienced backup big man. Pemsl saw more sporadic playing time, but did a decent job inside the arc and cleaning up the defensive boards. It is unlikely either would have gotten significant playing time with the return of Garza. Meanwhile, neither Till or Vanderloo contributed all that much last season. Till played a total of 91 minutes last season and Vanderloo redshirted as a freshman walk-on. Neither looks like a huge loss on paper.

It’s rare for a top 25 team to go an entire offseason without losing a starter, but Iowa did it this year. And it’s a big reason why the Hawkeyes will enter this season with so much hype. While the team will have to find a few depth options, there really just aren’t a ton of huge losses here. The roster remains in great shape.

3. New Additions

This season, the Hawkeyes are adding five new recruits. The recruits are Keegan Murray, Kris Murray, Josh Ogundele, Tony Perkins, and Ahron Ulis. According to 247Sports, all five prospects are rated as three-star recruits. Ulis is listed by the site as a point guard, Perkins as a shooting guard, both Murray’s as small forwards, and Ogundele as a center.

Ulis is certainly the prospect receiving the most attention. He’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds and is rated 174th nationally and a top four player in the state of Illinois for the 2020 cycle. He’s the younger brother of Tyler Ulis and is a diverse player that can play on both sides of the floor. He sees things well and is working on playing better off the ball and developing a consistent outside shot. And while Iowa’s backcourt is deep, he could be a nice reserve piece this season to keep things going offensively when Jordan Bohannon hits the bench.

The rest of the recruiting class fits in similarly. All are ranked between 307th and 415th nationally and look like “sit and wait” prospects. None will see a ton of early playing time thanks to the team’s depth this year. There are only so many minutes to go around and it’s hard to see many freshmen ranked outside the top 300 getting extensive playing time.

However, if there is one of the four who could play early, it’s probably Ogundele. The one spot where Iowa is relatively thin is upfront. And while the team has Garza returning (no small note), he isn’t going to play 40 minutes a game. He needs a reliable backup, especially when he gets into foul trouble. Kreiner is gone after serving in that role last season and McCaffery and his staff will need to find a new option. Ogundele has the size to bang down low and he should be able to play 5 to 10 minutes a game as a reserve, as long as he shows some consistency.

Give the circumstances Iowa is facing entering this season, this is a nice incoming group for the Hawkeyes. A group that can sit, wait, and develop for a year while the returners carry things this season. There won’t be many backup minutes to go around this year, so this is a good time to have a handful of guys who might need a minute to be ready to contribute at the collegiate level. Expect one or two to see real playing time barring injury.

4. Points of Optimism

Iowa enters this season with immensely high expectations. CBS Sports has the Hawkeyes ranked in the top 10 and it’s hard to disagree. This team is loaded with proven starters, talent, and enough depth to hold it through the course of the season. And because of all those returning pieces, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Iowa and the team’s hopes this year.

Of course, we have to start with the proven and returning pieces. Iowa returns six players who started at least one game last season, including last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year in Garza, a member of the All-Big Ten third team in Wieskamp, and a member of the All-Big Ten Freshmen Team in Fredrick. Add in Bohannon who previously received All-Big Ten Freshmen Team honors in his career and it’s easy to see the talent here. Most teams are lucky to have one or two guys with those kind of resumes and Iowa is entering this season with four. And that doesn’t even include players like Joe Toussaint, the McCaffery’s, and this year’s incoming recruiting class.

And naturally, the biggest returner is Garza. He gives Iowa a bonafide star who can carry the team when things get tough. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last season and finished as KenPom’s National Player of the Year. College basketball often comes down to who has the best player on their roster and Iowa should have an advantage against virtually every team it faces in that category this season. That can’t be undersold.

The complimentary pieces also have a lot of upside. Wieskamp is a player with first or second team All-Big Ten potential, Bohannon is an offensive juggernaut, and there are a ton of young players like Fredrick, Connor McCaffery, and the 2020 class who could positively surprise this season. Again, it’s rare to see a roster with so many proven pieces and complimentary pieces with high upside. It’s not something you see everyday, but Iowa will have it this season.

Because of all these returning (and a few new) pieces, Iowa figures to be one of the most explosive teams in the country this season. The Hawkeyes finished fifth nationally in offensive efficiency last season and could be even better this year with Bohannon back and so many young options potentially taking steps forward this time around. And if Iowa can perform at that kind of level, it’s going to have a chance to win every game. Gonzaga and Villanova have dominated the top offensive spot for years, but Iowa might have something to say about it this time around.

All told, Iowa enters this season with an immensely impressive roster and more than enough pieces to win at an extraordinarily high level. There will be some challenges, but it’s rare to see a team with this combination of proven options and rising young talent.

5. Points of Concern

There really aren’t a ton of areas of concern for Iowa entering this season. Yes, you can nitpick here and there and make an issue of the team’s depth at a given spot, but there aren’t any blatant issues figuring to plague the Hawkeyes this season. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise if you read the section above. When you have this many proven pieces, there aren’t going to be glaring holes.

However, while Iowa may not have many apparent issues entering this season, there is one glaring issue that could derail what figures to be an exceptional season for the Hawkeyes.

And that’s the defense.

Despite finishing with a top five offense last season, Iowa finished with just the 97th ranked defense. The Hawkeyes consistently got roasted in transition, down low, and on the defensive boards during last year. And it was a big reason behind the team’s 11 losses. Iowa gave up at least 75 points in every loss, including a horrid 104-point outing against Purdue, who barely finished above .500 overall. Obviously, giving up those kind of point totals isn’t a good sign for the team’s chances of earning some serious hardware at season’s end.

And this wasn’t just a last year problem, either. While last season might have been the most drastic example of it, Iowa has been incredibly unbalanced for years now. The Hawkeyes have had top 50 offenses in each of the last four seasons, but have often ranked well outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency, including a putrid 242nd ranking during the 2017-’18 season. Those kind of numbers are just inexcusable.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic switch McCaffery can flip to fix the issue this season. It’s going to take buy-in from everyone in the lineup and moderate improvement from offensively-focused players like Bohannon and Garza. And that’s a tricky thing to balance. You want and need players like that to do more defensively, but you also don’t want to stifle their offensive output. Iowa’s best hope is for modest improvement across the board defensively and enough offensive improvement from role players to allow players like Bohannon and Garza to dedicate just a tad more energy on the other side of the floor. That at least seems like a reasonable projection.

In a lot of ways, this one issue will dictate Iowa’s season. Fans aren’t going to be satisfied with another 20 or 22-win campaign with the talent on this roster. And honestly, they shouldn’t be. This team is capable of a lot more. But it’s hard to see the Hawkeyes accomplishing what fans are hoping for (Big Ten titles and a Final Four) without improving drastically on the defensive end of the floor. If Iowa gets to a top 50 level, they have a shot. Otherwise, it could be a frustrating run for the team and fans.

6. Top Player

We don’t need a whole lot of analysis here. Garza’s surprising decision to return to Iowa and forego the 2020 NBA Draft immediately made him the favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year and the frontrunner for most National Player of the Year awards this season. He was a statistical monster last season and there’s no reason to think anything will change this time around.

It’s also important to recognize the historical nature of Garza’s position entering this season. It’s rare for a reigning Big Ten Player of the Year to return to school for another season, but Garza opted to do it this year. Only Mateen Cleaves and Jim Jackson have ever won the award twice and Garza could be the third. That’s some really good company to be in and would cement him as a program and conference legend for years to come.

If any players do push Garza for the spot as the best player on the team, it’s probably going to be Bohannon and Wieskamp. The former is one of the better offensive players in the league and Wieskamp is a rising star with NBA potential. Garza is still the clear frontrunner, but fans shouldn’t forget about the star power around him, either.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/8 - North Carolina
  • 12/19 - Gonzaga (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
  • TBA - Unknown

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Iowa’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. We have a few non-conference games on the slate, but that’s about it. This makes it pretty hard to give many thoughts on the slate.

The biggest thing to watch for Iowa performs in those marquee matchups against Gonzaga and North Carolina. Those figure to be two of the biggest games in college basketball in November and December and rightfully so. It will be interesting to see whether the Hawkeyes can score some huge wins there.

Conference play will also be interesting to watch with reduced fan reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That’s going to make for a bizarre experience in Big Ten play, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

Expect some big things from Iowa this season and a legitimate shot at a Big Ten title. It will come down to some huge matchups against teams like Illinois and Wisconsin.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jordan Bohannon (Rs. Sr.) - 85%
  • SG: CJ Fredrick (Rs. So.) - 80%
  • SF: Connor McCaffery (Rs. Jr.) - 55%
  • PF: Joe Wieskamp (Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Luka Garza (Sr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

With so many proven pieces returning, most of Iowa’s starting lineup is pretty easy to project. The team has four All-Big Ten quality options, including the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. With them, most of the lineup is pretty established. It’s just about figuring out how they fit together and who will take the final spot.

In the backcourt, expect Bohannon to retake the starting point guard role after missing the latter portion of last season. He provides plenty of offensive firepower as a player and figures to return for his final season in Iowa City. However, Iowa has some nice options behind him. Toussaint really came on last year and is going to get minutes. Look for Fran McCaffery to try and maximize ways to get both on the floor as much as possible. Don’t be surprised if the two play together on the floor for extended segments.

Frederick figures to start alongside Bohannon. He earned All-Big Ten Freshmen Team honors after an impressive 2019-’20 season and could be set for even more growth this year. This is what I wrote about Fredrick in our top 25 player countdown:

Fredrick was the epitome of a complimentary piece last season. He had one of the lowest usage rates of anyone on Iowa’s roster, but kept defenses honest with his superb outside shooting. He made 46.1 percent of his attempts from three-point range, which ranked seventh nationally. Obviously, those kind of shooting numbers are going to turn heads. Fredrick also did a good job of avoiding fouls and other mistakes.

The biggest thing to stress about Fredrick is his efficiency. He averaged 10.2 points on 7.2 field goal attempts and finished with a 122.2 offensive rating as a result. It’s not easy to be productive on that few attempts, but Fredrick was last season. And it’s a great skill to have on a team with a superstar like Luka Garza. It lets Garza be Garza.

Expect Fredrick to expand his role even more this season. And Iowa will have a plethora of options behind him. Both Connor and Patrick McCaffery could see time here, true freshman Tony Perkins has been getting some offseason hype, and Keegan and Kris Murray are both options as well. And as noted above, Bohannon could slide to the two for segments. It’s really just going to be about determining who’s playing the best. It’s a good position to be in.

On the wing, Wieskamp is a virtual lock to start. He’s contributed extensively for the Hawkeyes over the last two seasons and should be in place for a big season. The question is whether Fran McCaffery wants him at the three or the four. He will likely see time at both spots, but where he plays the most will depend on how players perform around him. Because while he’s a more natural fit at the three, Iowa doesn’t have an obvious pick at the four. And jamming someone into the lineup for positional fit could severely limit the minutes of all those talented backcourt players described above. As such, I’m expecting Wieskamp to see most of his time at the four.

Alongside Wieskamp, I have Connor McCaffery slotted in. However, I have the confidence factor pretty low because he’s far from a lock. There are a ton of potential options here and I spoke about most above. For example, if the backcourt is really performing well and Fran McCaffery thinks his team can handle playing really small, he could put a player like Fredrick here. There are just a lot of options. Connor McCaffery seems like the most realistic option. We’ll just have to see how it all fits together.

Upfront, Garza is a lock to start at the five. The only question is who takes the reserve minutes behind him. I expect Fran McCaffery to give Ogundele a serious shot. He’s a raw freshman, but has the size to hold up there. But if he’s not ready, players like Jack Nunge and Michael Baer could see some time. The five is probably Iowa’s thinnest position. Fortunately, they have a superstar starter, which alleviates a lot of those concerns.

This is a really good lineup for the Hawkeyes overall. The team has four starters who look like virtual locks and two other players who have starting experience. That’s a good recipe for success. And when you add in all the surrounding depth, talent, and shifting lineups, this is a dangerous group.

9. Outside Perspective From Sean Bock of 247Sports

“There are no shortage of expectations for Iowa this year. The Hawkeyes return all of their starters from last season, including preseason national player of the year Luka Garza, along with Jordan Bohannon, who is coming off a redshirt year due to injury. This will be one of the deepest teams in the Fran McCaffery era in Iowa City.

Iowa’s offense has a good chance of being the best in the country this year, but the defense will be the key. The Hawkeyes were not great last year on the defensive end and that side of the floor has been a struggle for McCaffery teams. If Iowa wants to win the Big Ten, the defense doesn’t have to be great, but it needs to be improved a reasonable amount from a year ago. The offense will be good, but defense is what’s going to make this team go from good to great.” - Sean Bock.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Iowa will enter this season with perhaps the biggest preseason expectations in program history. Fans are hoping the program can win its first Big Ten title since 1979 and make its first Final Four trip since 1980. Garza also has the chance to establish himself as one of the greatest players in Big Ten history. And with so much returning from last season, the expectations are justified. This could be a special season in Iowa City.

Whether Iowa can achieve those goals depends largely on the team’s growth on the defensive end of the floor and the growth of some of its role players. Many question whether the Hawkeyes can ever become a quality defensive group with McCaffery as head coach and Garza as the team’s primary option down low. It will be interesting to follow and will determine Iowa’s season.

Expect this to be a fun season highlighted by a number of marquee wins. And if the team can improve defensively, the sky’s the limit. This will be the most anticipated season in Iowa City in several decades. We’ll see if Iowa can deliver on it.

Big Ten Prediction: 3rd Place