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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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 and season performance.

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Iowa came into the 2020-21 season with one of the nation’s best players, an absolutely loaded offensive unit and aspirations for a Big Ten Title and a potential Final Four run. The Hawkeyes were considered to be one of the top teams in the nation and outside of a rough 1-4 stretch during conference play, spent basically all season inside the top 10. In what was Iowa’s best season in quite some time it still ultimately fell flat and felt like a disappointment, however.

The explosive offense excited, but at the same time the inept defense caused considerable concern all season for Iowa fans. Their defensive struggles, mixed with the occasional offensive misstep, ultimately kept Iowa from a conference title. Their defensive woes then saw them get bounced in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and then, once again, upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after they couldn’t find a way to stop their opponent.

Luke Garza heading to the NBA was more or less a guarantee to happen. Joe Wieskamp following, however, wasn’t as predictable. The hits didn’t stop there, either, with CJ Fredrick and Jack Nunge both transferring, leaving Iowa without their best three point shooter and without their best option to immediately fill in for Garza this season. They slowed the bleeding with the news that Jordan Bohannon would return for his tenth sixth season and it will likely allow Bohannon to rewrite the record books.

But where does that leave Iowa? A team that was considered a potential Final Four squad that was bounced early in the postseason, lost their best player and then lost three more key players from their team. A deflated roster that is unlikely to replicate last year’s offensive success while having no immediate answers on how to improve their defense. And a team that has very little returning starting experience outside of the backcourt duo of Jordan Bohannon and coaches son Connor McCaffery. All in a Big Ten that continues to improve and become deeper?

It’s safe to say there are plenty of questions heading into the 2021-22 season for the Hawkeyes.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 22-9 (14-6)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #7
  • NET Rating: #7
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (Round of 32)

On paper Iowa had a strong season last year but the end result still came up considerably short. Mixed with the mass exodus of talent this offseason and it has to feel like Fran McCaffery’s best team definitely came up short.

There was some question in the offseason over Luka Garza and if he would enter the NBA Draft before the center announced his return to Iowa. The news immediately lifted Iowa to Big Ten Title contender and led to Iowa getting plenty of love for a potential Final Four run, joining Illinois as a pair of teams ready for their moment. Each ultimately came up short after early postseason exits.

The high flying Iowa offense excited pretty much all season and outside of coming up short against Gonzaga a week before Christmas, Iowa rolled to a 12-2 start before a rough 1-4 stretch bookended by a pair of surprising losses to Indiana. The stretch knocked them out of the top ten for the first time all season before a 7-1 run to close the season helped them climb back into the top five. By the time the season was over Iowa missed out on a conference title, but still finished third in the league.

That previously mentioned high flying offense paced the Big Ten, with 83.7 points per game. The Hawkeyes were first in scoring offense in the league, third in field goal percentage, first in three point percentage, second in effective field goal percentage and the third best offensive rebounding team. They did struggle defensively, however, with one of the leagues worst defensive units.

That defense was on display in March with the Hawkeyes giving up 82 points to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, coming up short once again in the conference. The NCAA Tournament wasn’t any kinder as Iowa give up 95 points in the second round to Oregon and could never keep pace against the seven seed. Iowa entered the NCAA Tournament with a two seed but, just like Illinois, couldn’t make it past the opening weekend.

2. Offseason Exits

The offseason was not a good one for the Hawkeyes. It was only an inevitability that Luka Garza would head to the NBA at the end of the season, regardless of players not using a season of eligibility in 2020-21 (you can argue Iowa was lucky to have gotten him back for last season as is). But even without Garza the Hawkeyes could have returned a loaded, experienced and deep roster that would have been a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

That did not happen.

All-Big Ten small forward Joe Wieskamp entered the NBA Draft in the summer, getting drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. The junior was second in scoring for Iowa and also hit just over 46% from three. Iowa also lost shooting guard CJ Fredrick, who transferred out to Kentucky. Fredrick was fourth in scoring and the teams best three point shooter at 47.4%. Rounding out the losses was forward Jack Nunge, who transferred to Xavier as a grad student. Nunge averaged 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and would have been some much needed experience in the frontcourt with the loss of Garza.

When all is said and done Iowa is only returning three players that started games for the team last season, with one of those players (Keegan Murray) starting only four games. A loaded and deep roster will look considerably different this fall.

3. New Additions

The biggest addition this offseason isn’t a recruit, but rather a transfer, with Fran McCaffery landing North Dakota transfer Filip Rebraca. The 6’9” forward averaged 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game as a junior and has started 74 games in his first three seasons. With Iowa needing to replace Luka Garza, the Second-Team All-Summit league star will likely get first crack at trying to lead Iowa inside.

Past Rebraca Iowa doesn’t have many new players coming in this season, with their 2021 recruiting class including only a pair of three-star recruits. Three-star center Riley Mulvey, who graduated high school early to enroll at Iowa, has a good chance to crack the rotation almost immediately. Of course that is more because of necessity than anything else. Iowa will also bring in three-star forward Payton Sandfort. Sandfort shot almost 46% from three in his senior year and will need to replicate that success if he wants to see playing time this winter.

4. Points of Optimism

Bringing back Jordan Bohannon was a big get for the Hawkeyes. The sixth year senior for Iowa averaged 10.6 points and 4.4 assists per game, hit almost 40% of his threes and should provide plenty of experience and shooting for a team decimated by departures. He joins Connor McCaffery who is a versatile defender that has started 62 games the past two seasons. If McCaffery can improve his three point shooting to the success he had in 2019-20 it would be huge for Iowa and help solidify a formidable backcourt.

Past Bohannon and McCaffery there are definitely a few players to keep an eye on this season if you’re an Iowa fan. Keegan Murray, who averaged 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game as a freshman, showed flashes last season and could be primed for a breakout season as a sophomore. Several NBA mock drafts have been high on Murray, who also could help shore up Iowa’s defensive woes, and if he can develop an outside shot he’ll surprise a ton of people this season.

Fran McCaffery landing North Dakota transfer Filip Rebraca was also a big get. He’s nothing fancy, but the Serbia product has a ton of experience and does enough that he should be able to contribute immediately in the frontcourt. That also means Iowa won’t have to immediately hand the keys over to true freshman Riley Mulvey.

5. Points of Concern

When you lose one of the nation’s best players that is always a point of concern. When you lose your second best player, your best three point shooter and your best option to replace said best player...that’s an even bigger point of concern. Outside of Bohannon and Connor McCaffery the roster has very little starting experience and that is made even more problematic with Iowa only bringing in a pair of three-star recruits. Even relying on a solid Summit League transfer to solidify the massive hole in your front court can be seen as a major point of concern.

All of that mixed with a team that struggled to stop anyone and doesn’t have a proven answer as to how they’ll improve their defense in a league that continues to get deeper and deeper each season.

The biggest issue is likely the frontcourt, with a team that relied on Garza for years now turning to Rebraca and true freshman Riley Mulvey. If Keegan Murray can’t take that next step then it’s safe to say Iowa might be void of playmakers as even Bohannon’s offensive skillset still needs other players who can produce to play alongside him. Connor McCaffery, considered by some to be the best player on the roster, had a massive regression offensively last season and being forced into a bigger role offensively could be a recipe for disaster.

The reality is for every ounce of optimism this season there is another reason for pessimism. Not counting 2019-20’s shortened season, Iowa has made the NCAA Tournament two of the last four seasons, played in the NIT once and missed the post season all together in 2017-18. While Hawkeyes fans might be used to some inconsistency, it might be a hard pill to swallow after last season’s highs.

6. Top Player

The best player entering the season? Jordan Bohannon. There are some publications and pundits who would hand that honor over to Connor McCaffery, but McCaffery’s offensive struggles make it hard to give him the spot as best player. Bohannon has his shortcomings, but he’s been incredibly consistent in all five season he’s played at Iowa. It’ll be interesting to see if his stat line improves as he’ll be the main guy this season, but he’s a good shooter that can distribute the ball and will score plenty of points.

Of course it might be better for Iowa if Keegan Murray takes over the role of top player on the roster before the end of the season. Pundits see a ton of potential in Murray and with an expanded role he’s likely to become a more known name amongst Big Ten fans. He’s athletic, a versatile defender and has shown flashes. Can he improve his three pointer? If so he could be on the verge of a breakout season.

Bohannon is the top player coming in but keep an eye on Murray to see how the sophomore develops this winter.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/9 - Longwood
  • 11/12 - Kansas City
  • 11/16 - North Carolina Central
  • 11/18 - Alabama State
  • 11/22 - Western Michigan
  • 11/26 - Portland State
  • 11/29 - at Virginia
  • 12/3 - at Purdue
  • 12/6 - Illinois
  • 12/9 - at Iowa State
  • 12/18 - Utah State
  • 12/21 - SE Louisiana
  • 12/29 - Western Illinois
  • 1/3 - Maryland
  • 1/6 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/13 - Indiana
  • 1/16 - at Minnesota
  • 1/19 - at Rutgers
  • 1/22 - Penn State
  • 1/27 - Purdue
  • 1/31 - at Penn State
  • 2/3 - at Ohio State
  • 2/6 - Minnesota
  • 2/10 - at Maryland
  • 2/13 - Nebraska
  • 2/17 - Michigan
  • 2/22 - Michigan State
  • 2/25 - at Nebraska
  • 2/28 - Northwestern
  • 3/3 - at Michigan
  • 3/6 - at Illinois

Iowa opens the season with a string of six cupcakes to ease into the season. That might not be a good thing as the end of November brings an absolutely brutal run that includes road trips to Virginia and Purdue, a home game against Illinois and a road game against dreaded rival Iowa State. Even the game following this stretch isn’t a sure thing as they have to face Utah State on a neutral court in South Dakota.

The conference slate includes only getting single plays against Indiana and Rutgers, while the Hawkeyes only games against Ohio State and Wisconsin both come on the road. They’ll also have to play Illinois, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland twice, setting up a pretty stacked conference schedule. They do, however, get Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State twice.

Closing out the season is a six game stretch that includes Michigan twice, a road trip to Illinois and a home outing against Michigan State. That close to the season will likely make it difficult for the Hawkeyes to gain momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament and (possibly) the postseason.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • G: Jordan Bohannon (RS Sr.)
  • G: Connor McCaffery (RS Sr.)
  • F: Patrick McCaffery (RS So.)
  • F: Keegan Murray (So.)
  • F/C: Filip Rebraca (Sr.)

Bohannon and McCaffery started 62 games last year while the other two returning Iowa players on this lineup started four. The backcourt of Bohannon and McCaffery provides an experienced core in the backcourt, a pair of passers with McCaffery being the better defender and Bohannon the more proven scorer. Connor McCaffery desperately needs to improve his shooting this year, but with Joe Toussaint also struggling on that side of the ball and no other experienced options, McCaffery might have a lock on his starting spot.

Filip Rebraca brings some much needed experience to the frontcourt, but there’s no guarantee the former North Dakota starter will be able to replicate his success now playing in the Big Ten. He’ll at least get first crack as the next up is true freshman Riley Mulvey, a 6’11” center that is enrolling early after graduating high school a year ahead of schedule.

If Rebraca starts it will likely lead to some sort of “small ball” lineup that isn’t exactly small, but just lacks a true center. Rebraca measures in at 6’9” and there’s a good chance that Keegan Murray (6’8”) and Patrick McCaffery (6’9”) will also see starting roles. Murray has potential to transform into Iowa’s next offensive weapon but will need to improve shooting from outside to get there. He’s going to get plenty of opportunities this year, especially without any proven options behind him.

That lack of depth and experience is also why Patrick McCaffery could see himself in a starting role unless Fran McCaffery wants to run with three guards and feature more Toussaint in the starting lineup. McCaffery has a decent mid-range game and has hinted at being a contributor on the offensive side of the ball, but has been limited in playing time sitting behind Iowa’s more experienced options last year.

9. Realistic Team Goals

Whenever you lose one of the best players in college basketball you can expect a regression of sorts. When you lose several additional players that were all critical to your prior success? You can expect a considerable drop off from the year before.

This Iowa team has some pieces but a lot of those pieces are inexperienced or unproven. That’s a big problem in the Big Ten, especially with the league as deep as it is.

Iowa isn’t in contention for the Big Ten crown this time around and a lot of people don’t have them as a NCAA Tournament team this year. If Iowa misses the NCAA Tournament but can finish with a winning record and a potential NIT bid then that would probably be seen as a successful season. If some of the newer players set to see expanded roles can breakout Iowa could pick up a few upsets and try to sneak into the NCAA Tournament at the back end of the bubble.

That being said, if Iowa can compete and develop their younger guys that will likely be seen as a successful season after suffering the losses they did this offseason.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Iowa slides from one of the top dogs in the Big Ten to one of the pesky underdogs that most teams won’t want to face on the road. Fran McCaffery will piece together what he has left on the roster to field a flawed but competitive unit that will have plenty of highs and lows this season. They won’t contend in the upper half of the Big Ten, but there is still a potential NCAA Tournament appearance up in the air.

Big Ten Prediction: 8th Place*

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[Editor’s Note - The projected Big Ten finish here is by Thomas Beindit.]