By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On Feb. 14, 2016, the fourth-ranked Iowa men’s basketball team defeated Minnesota 75-71 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to improve to 20-5 overall and 11-2 in the Big Ten.
Jarrod Uthoff was considered arguably the top player in the Big Ten at the time, as a versatile 6-foot-9 senior forward, and was even being mentioned in some discussion for national player of the year.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena had awoken from its slumber that was caused by the Todd Lickliter disaster and the Hawkeyes were relevant again in Fran McCaffery’s sixth season as head coach.
It had been a steady climb back to prominence under McCaffery. He inherited a mess from Lickliter in 2010 and needed time to repair the damage.
To have Iowa ranked in the top 10 nationally by year six was more than acceptable, it was cause for celebration and reason to think that McCaffery was on the verge of something special for a program that hadn’t had anything special happen for years.
But then the roof caved in for reasons that still make little sense two years later.
Iowa lost six of its last seven games, including a hard-to-explain 68-66 loss to lowly Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Then came a victory over Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament followed by a loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the second round, and just like that, a season in which Iowa climbed to as high as third in the national rankings with four senior starters, was over.
And the program really hasn’t been the same since.
Last season was considered a success just because Iowa didn’t take a significant step back despite having four freshmen starters. The program did take step back, though, simply by failing to make the NCAA Tournament after having done so in each of the previous three seasons.
But Iowa barely missed making the NCAA Tournament last season, and was fun to watch with all-Big Ten shooting guard Peter Jok leading the way as a senior, and with the freshmen playing a major role.
So fans were mostly satisfied, or at least willing to accept what happened last season, thinking that next season would be even better.
Well, next season is this season and this season has turned into what nobody could’ve envisioned.
It has been a colossal failure for reasons that are obvious and for reasons that aren’t so obvious.
Say what you want about Lickliter, as many have, including myself, but the current situation is just as bad.
Iowa still needs to win one of its last two regular-season games against Minnesota and Northwestern just to match Lickliter’s worst season at Iowa when his final team in 2009-10 finished 4-14 in the conference.
It’s no secret that the current roster has too many forwards, not enough guards or enough quickness on the perimeter.
And when you combine Iowa’s personnel with McCaffery’s preference to play up tempo, you have a recipe for disaster, as we’ve seen this season.
Iowa’s transition defense is deplorable and its half-court defense isn’t much better.
Shabby defense has ruined this season more than anything else.
It has turned what was thought to be an NCAA-caliber team into a team fighting desperately to stay out of last place in the Big Ten.
Help is on the way with high school seniors Joe Wieskamp and C.J. Fredrick set to join the team next season.
The 6-foot-6 Wieskamp, who is from Muscatine, is one of the best players in the history of Iowa high school basketball. He should help immediately at small forward and shooting guard, especially on offense.
The 6-4 Fredrick is a shooting guard from Kentucky who could play a key role next season if he proves that he can make 3-point shots on a somewhat consistent basis.
Sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon is Iowa’s only reliable 3-point shooter, but even he has subpar performances like Saturday’s 84-82 loss to Indiana when he missed eight of his 10 attempts from 3-point range, including a potential game winner at the end.
Iowa’s backcourt deficiencies have been well-documented this season. The loss of backup point guard Christian Williams, who transferred at the semester, coupled with Connor McCaffery’s season-long health struggles have turned what already was a suspect group into a weakness and a liability.
Bohannon is the team’s only point guard, but you could argue that he is better-suited to play shooting guard because he is an incredible perimeter shooter, but isn’t very quick.
What can’t be argued is that Bohannon just doesn’t have enough help in the backcourt, both in terms of quantity and quality.
Opponents are taking advantage of that by playing suffocating defense against Bohannon. It seems to have intensified in the last two games against Indiana and Michigan.
“It’s obviously really tough, but it’s something I’ve been dealing with my entire life on the AAU circuit, high school even,” Bohannon said. “So I’m obviously getting used to it. I just try to limit my turnovers as much as possible, especially this year.”
Bohannon had seven assists and just two turnovers against Indiana this past Saturday. A coach will take those numbers from a point guard any time.
But Iowa had 17 turnovers as a team, including five by forward Tyler Cook.
That is too many for any player, but Iowa isn’t even in the game without Cook’s 28 points and 10 rebounds, including five offensive boards.
"I knew they were pressuring our guards a lot and they weren't make my life easy trying to get post-ups," Cook said of Indiana. "They were fronting and sending guys just like they have all year. So I just wanted to get get the second opportunities and try to get myself on the free throw line."
The hope is that this season is just an aberration that can be fixed with a new focus, a new commitment and a fresh start to next season.
The fear is that this season is a harbinger and that there isn’t enough help on the way to correct things.
Wieskamp is a phenomenal talent, but he won’t fix the biggest problems in the backcourt, nor will Fredrick.
Iowa doesn’t just need more guards, it needs better guards, especially from an athleic standpoint.
To suggest that a lack of quantity in the backcourt is what caused the Indiana loss is being naïve because it was a lack of quality in the backcourt caused partly by ineffective recruiting that hurt Iowa more than anything.
Take Iowa's 2015 recruiting class for example, which had six players.
Redshirt sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Moss and junior forward Ahmad Wagner are now all that remains from the 2015 class, with Dale Jones, Brandon Hutton, Andrew Fleming and Williams all having left with eligibility remaining.
To have that many misses in one recruiting class would be a serious hit for any program.
Iowa's 2014 recruiting class, which had forward Dom Uhl, shooting guard Brady Ellingson and point guard Trey Dickerson, was just as bad, if not worse. Uhl and Ellingson have played sparingly, while Dickerson transferred after just one semester.
That is two recruiting classes in the past four years that have failed to deliver and you're now seeing the consequences from that.
You now wonder if McCaffery faces his second rebuilding job at Iowa.
The big picture isn’t nearly as bad under McCaffery as it was under Lickliter because McCaffery has earned more job security than Lickliter ever had at Iowa and because McCaffery has players like Cook, Bohannon and 6-11 freshman center Luka Garza to build around.
Assuming all three return next season, there would be reason for hope.
But Iowa still has to get quicker on the perimeter and has to make playing defense a priority because look how far the program has slipped in just two years.