Harty: Season No. 6 under Fran McCaffery looks promising
IOWA CITY, Iowa – No disrespect to Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni or Josh Oglesby, but the Iowa men’s basketball team should be just fine without them next season.
In this case, just fine means being closer to a Big Ten contender than a pretender.
There certainly will be times next season when Iowa misses White’s all-Big Ten presence, Olaseni’s explosiveness near the basket and even Oglesby’s streaky shooting.
But there is so much to like about the returning pieces, which include four starters from a team that finished 12-6 in the Big Ten and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2001.
I’ve been reminded of that while watching the Iowa players, both current and future, compete in the Prime Time League this summer.
The PTL isn’t close to being the real thing, but it’s enough to get a feel for the Hawkeyes. And right now, I like the vibe and the circumstances.
Iowa has improved in each of Fran McCaffery’s five seasons as head coach.
It’ll take some doing to make it six in a row, considering Iowa finished in third place in the Big Ten last season and advanced to the field of 32 in the Big Dance.
But a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance seems well within reach.
And it should, with four starters returning, including 6-foot-9 rising star Jarrod Uthoff and 7-1 center Adam Woodbury, both of whom will be seniors next season.
In fact, Uthoff will be a fifth-year senior next season. Fifth-year seniors are rare in major college basketball these days.
It’s even more unusual for a fifth-year senior to be a team’s best player because star players usually don’t stick around for that long in college. They either use up their eligibility in four seasons without having to redshirt or they leave before exhausting their eligibility.
Uthoff’s situation is highly unusual, how he transferred from Wisconsin to Iowa, and in the process of doing so, had to sit out his first two seasons in college.
This will only be Uthoff’s third season playing college basketball. His game still is evolving, but his upside is enormous.
Uthoff’s reputation is growing along with his game. The Cedar Rapids native was among approximately 20 players who attended the prestigious Nike Basketball Academy for three days last week in Santa Monica, Calif.
Uthoff, who made third-team all-Big Ten last season, is now poised to be the third Hawkeye in a row to make first-team all-Big Ten. White earned that honor last season, while shooting guard Devyn Marble earned it the season before as a senior.
Much of the optimism that’s fueling this column is based on the assumption that Uthoff will stay healthy next season and lift his game to another level.
Uthoff performing at an all-Big Ten level combined with Woodbury’s presence in the post and the one-two punch at point guard with seniors Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons would give Iowa a rock-solid foundation.
Throw the six newcomers into the mix, along with 6-6 junior shooting guard Peter Jok, 6-8 sophomore forward Dom Uhl and redshirt freshman shooting guard Brady Ellingson and the competition for playing time should be fierce and beneficial to the players.
“We’re working to get each other better and trying to get the young fellas to expand their games to help us,” Clemmons said Thursday after playing in the PTL.
Clemmons was asked on Thursday to comment about the incoming players. It’s probably not a coincidence that he started with 6-4 shooting guard Andrew Fleming.
“Andrew Fleming is standing out to me,” Clemmons said. “His understanding of the game and his ability to shoot the ball, I think he’s doing real good with that.”
Fleming showed off his shooting skills at the PTL on Thursday while scoring 37 points. Again, it was only the PTL, but you can tell when somebody is a gifted shooter. In addition to having a quick release, Fleming’s shooting form never changes. He doesn’t drift on his shots and is always vertical at the point of release.
The same with Ellingson. He also has a quick release and a shooting form that is fundamentally sound, thanks to years of practice and muscle memory.
Junior-college transfer Dale Jones has been more of a streak shooter in the PTL this summer, but perimeter shooting still is his biggest strength.
I can’t recall an Iowa roster under McCaffery in which there were at least four or five players whose greatest strength is perimeter shooting. But that could be the case next season with Fleming, Ellingson, Jones and Jok on the roster.
McCaffery will have the option of using a bigger lineup that includes a frontline with nobody shorter than 6-8 or a three-guard lineup that has Jok at small forward and Gesell and Clemmons at the two guard spots. Jok said Thursday that he is now playing more at small forward than shooting guard, while Clemmons suggested that Iowa’s best lineup has three guards.
Either way, there is a lot to like about each lineup.
Some Iowa fans probably are reluctant to believe that Fleming, Ellingson and Jones will deliver in real prime time because success in the PTL, and in practice, doesn’t always carry over. It’s hard to know for sure what will happen on the grand stage before the curtain is lifted.
I’m not suggesting that Iowa is on the verge of winning the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since the 1978-79 season.
I’m just saying that I have a good feeling about next season’s senior-dominated team. I’d be surprised, and disappointed, if it didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.