Harty: Iowa men’s basketball still has its doubters
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery has succeeded in rebuilding the Iowa men’s basketball program, that much can’t be disputed.
But to what level?
Iowa returns four starters from a team that won 22 games last season, including the school’s first NCAA Tournament victory since 2001. But the doubters still exist because nobody outside of maybe the Iowa players seem to think the Hawkeyes have much chance of winning the Big Ten title for the first time since 1979.
I haven’t seen one publication that has Iowa winning the Big Ten title, or even finishing in the top three as it did last season with a 12-6 conference record.
Athlon Sports predicts that Iowa will make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season, but as the last of seven Big Ten teams to get in, and then losing in the first round.
That scenario would’ve been appealing to fans two years ago, but not now, not with McCaffery entering his sixth season as head coach, and not with three or possibly four experienced seniors in the starting lineup. Iowa has moved beyond just barely making the NCAA Tournament in the eyes of its fans.
To outsiders, though, the perception of Iowa is different, especially with the media.
If you think Athlon’s prediction was low, the Bleacher Report has Iowa finishing ninth in the Big Ten and with likely a sub-.500 conference record. It predicts that Iowa will take a step back this season mostly because of two things; the loss of all Big Ten forward Aaron White to graduation and the schedule, which is brutal to say the least.
Iowa plays two games each against Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan, all of which are picked by Bleacher Report to finish above Iowa in the Big Ten standings. Iowa only plays Maryland and Ohio State once, but both of those games are on the road.
“With the possible exception of the gauntlet that Wisconsin has to run, it’s the toughest schedule in the conference,” the Bleacher Report said of Iowa’s 2015-16 schedule. “This will likely result in a sub.-500 Big Ten record.”
Call me a homer, but I can’t picture the Hawkeyes struggling to the point where they would finish below .500 in the conference, not with four experienced seniors leading the way.
There is certainly a huge void left by the 6-foot-9 White having moved on, along with 6-10 Gabe Olaseni and 6-4 shooting guard Josh Oglesby. They helped Iowa win a lot of games over the past four seasons, especially White, who now ranks as one of the best players in school history.
White was a beast on the boards and in transition, while Olaseni also excelled as a rebounder and defender.
Their styles, and their specific roles, can’t be replaced. But Iowa has enough in terms of talent, experience and leadership to compensate in other ways.
White was a dynamic player, but is he worth five Big Ten wins, as the Bleacher Report would suggest?
I don’t think so.
And, of course, the Iowa players don’t expect to take a step back just because White is gone.
“I don’t pay attention to that at all,” Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell said of the preseason rankings at media day on Wednesday. “Everyone is going to speculate. I think they see that we lost one of the best players in the country in Aaron White and there are a lot of uncertainties with this team with so many new guys.
“But I look at the core we have returning, the experience we have with four starters returning. We have a lot of experience and we know what we need to do to win games.”
That’s how I look at it, too.
It’ll take some time for the six newcomers on the Iowa roster to get adjusted to the speed and tenacity of the college game. That transition should be made easier, though, by having so many returning starters on the roster. Unlike previous seasons where one senior sort of emerged as the team leader, the current team is set up to have more of a leadership by committee.
I’m not suggesting that Iowa is poised to end its Big Ten championship drought this winter. That’s probably too ambitious, although, stranger things have certainly happened, like when the Iowa football team went from finishing 7-5 in 2001 to finishing undefeated in the Big Ten and 11-2 overall the next season.
But ninth place for a team that finished third in the Big Ten last season and for a team that returns four starters, including a potential star in 6-9 Jarrod Uthoff, along with 7-1 center Adam Woodbury?
I don’t think so.