By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Barely a month ago at media day, members of the Iowa men’s basketball team talked about trying to bounce back from one of the worst seasons in program history.
The players, along with Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, talked about redemption and about trying to improve on defense where Iowa performed woefully last season.
And they talked about earning respect and about proving the many naysayers and doubters wrong in the wake of a 14-19 season.
Now turn the calendar ahead to Monday and McCaffery and those same Iowa players talked about being ranked for the first time since the end of 2015-16 season and about not resting on their laurels.
“Obviously, we're happy about it,” Fran McCaffery said. “I'm happy for the guys. But we've played four games. You have got to temper it a little bit and continue to strive to get better. Obviously we made a big step. I felt we competed. I felt we really were locked into the game plan. I said that to the guys afterwards. To beat teams of that caliber on that stage, you've got to be locked in as a unit, and we were.
“You guys can see the remainder of our schedule and how difficult it is, so it's going to be critical that we continue to do those things night in and night out.”
It’s amazing how much two signature wins over Oregon and Connecticut at a neutral site can change how a team is perceived. Iowa defeated then-No. 13 Oregon in the semfinals of the 2K Empire Classic last Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York City before pounding Connecticut 91-72 in the championship game on Friday.
The same Iowa team that was picked to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten Conference by almost everybody outside of the Iowa locker room is now 4-0 and ranked 20th in the Associated Press Poll and 22nd in the USA Today coaches poll.
The same Iowa team that was a sieve on defense throughout last season is now defending with a purpose and with energy and cohesiveness.
The same Iowa team that had no depth at point guard last season is now stocked at that position, thanks to the addition of 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Connor McCaffery, who is the son of Fran McCaffery.
“It feels good, Connor McCaffery said of being ranked. “But at the same time, we’re not satisfied. We think we deserve to be ranked. We expected this. But at the same time, we’ll keep working and we expect more out of each other.”
That was pretty much the message from all of the players who spoke with the media on Monday. They’re enjoying this early success, but the season still is in its infancy.
The challenge now is to build off the success and use it as a springboard to bigger and better things.
Iowa’s next game is against Alabama State on Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena followed a matchup with Pittsburgh on Nov. 27 at home.
The Hawkeyes will open Big Ten play against Wisconsin on Nov. 30th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena before hitting the road for a game at Michigan State on Dec. 3 followed by a home game against Iowa State on Dec. 6.
“We have a big stretch coming up and we’ve got to prove ourselves through that,” said sophomore center Luka Garza, who was named the most valuable player of the 2K Empire Classic last Friday. “We definitely earned (the ranking) with this weekend. But we’re going to just keep working and keep striving to keep climbing up those rankings.”
Iowa looks like a completely different team on defense this season compared to last season when it allowed nearly 80 points per game. But it has only been four games, so it’s important to not get carried away.
The players are proud of winning the 2K Empire Classic on a grand stage, but hardly satisfied because they know their situation is fluid.
Iowa is probably just one loss from dropping out of the rankings.
Injuries also could become a factor at some point, and already is in the case of junior forward Cordel Pemsl, who hasn’t played since landing awkwardly in a recent practice.
Fran McCaffery was uncertain about Pemsl’s status when asked for an update before practice on Monday.
“I don't know. We just did film and free throws and shooting and lifting Saturday and Sunday,” Fran McCaffery said. “We'll go hard today. So we'll see where he's at.”
It’ll be interesting to see where McCaffery’s team is in about month because Iowa’s success in the Big Apple has definitely put the team back on the national radar and lit a spark with fans.
Hardly any of the names have changed with all but two players – Dom Uhl and Brady Ellingson – having returned from last season’s team.
But the outlook for this Iowa team certainly has changed for the better.
“They’re all in for each other and doing what we can as a group to be good,” Fran McCafery said. “And I think that’s always great to see when you’re a coach. You want to see that kind of enthusiasm and support for one another.”