By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A season in which the play-by-play announcer and head coach were both suspended, and that saw the Iowa men’s basketball team struggle down the stretch, also had something positive occur that is easy to overlook under the unusual circumstances.
Fran McCaffery has the Iowa program back on track after a temporary derailment that lasted just one year.
Iowa finished 23-12 this past season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament where it lost to Tennessee 83-77 in overtime.
Iowa lost to the Volunteers, but gained the respect from fans by erasing a 25-point deficit against a Tennessee team that has been ranked in the Associated Press top 10 for the entire season.
Combine the comeback with Iowa’s victory over Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and that changes the narrative heading into the offseason, and into next season.
Iowa is no longer the team that unraveled down the stretch once again under McCaffery, but rather the team that refused to quit in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa did struggle down the stretch by losing five of its last six games before entering the NCAA Tournament.
But one of the real benefits to playing in the NCAA Tournament is that a month of losses and poor play can be erased in just two games.
And in Iowa’s case, it didn’t even have to win both game to change how it is perceived.
The comeback alone against Tennessee was enough to change the narrative, and now there is a buzz heading into the offseason, which is in complete contrast to last spring when the players were faced with the daunting task of trying to bounce back from a 14-19 season.
The players had a chip on their shoulder heading into last offseason and were on a mission to show that Iowa’s collapse during the 2017-18 season was only a temporary setback.
And they have completed that mission, although, not without some erratic moments and inconsistent play.
The same Iowa team that defeated Big Ten power Michigan 74-59 on Feb. 1st at Carver-Hawkeye Arena lost to Rutgers 86-72 on Senior Day at home.
The same Iowa team finished undefeated in nonconference play at 11-0 finished just 10-10 in the conference and lost its final four conference games.
So it’s clear at this point that being more consistent is the next step for the Hawkeyes.
The loss of do-everything senior forward Nicholas Baer is significant from a performance and from a leadership standpoint.
But he is the only player that Iowa loses to graduation.
It seems likely that junior forward Tyler Cook and junior guard Isaiah Moss will test the NBA waters again since they already did it last season.
But it also seems unlikely that either would be selected in the 2019 two-round draft.
So maybe they’ll both ultimately decide that returning to Iowa for their senior season would be in their best interest.
If so, that would make Iowa one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten with five seniors on the 2019-20 roster, along with 6-11 junior center Luka Garza and 6-6 sophomore forward Joe Wieskamp, who made the Big Ten All-Freshmen team.
Garza was inconsistent at times this past season, but when he's playing up to his potential, he gives Iowa a versatile scorer in the post who can also make 3-point shots.
Wieskamp is another versatile scorer with a huge upside. He started throughout the season at small forward and there were times when he was Iowa's best all-around player.
McCaffery used a nine-player rotation this past season, but that is likely to grow next season, assuming everybody returns and with the new and not-so-new additions.
The new additions are 6-8 forward Patrick McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery's son, and 5-10 point guard Joe Toussaint, both of whom are incoming freshmen, while the not-so-new additions are forwards Cordell Pemsl and Jack Nunge and guard C.J. Fredrick.
Pemsl, Nunge and Fredrick all redshirted this past season, but with Pemsl Iowa has a 6-8 forward who has appeared in 67 games and who averaged 8.9 points per game as a freshman and 5.7 as a sophomore.
Nunge is close to being seven-foot, and has spent his redshirt season gaining strength and confidence after playing in just 12 games as a freshman.
Fredrick is listed at 6-3 and was named the 2018 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year. He led his high school team to a state title as senior and made 107 3-point baskets along the way.
If Fredrick shows that he can make 3-pointers at this level, McCaffery will find minutes for him.
Because the more 3-point shooters that Iowa has on the floor, the more difficult it is for defenses to contain point guard Jordan Bohannon.
And speaking of Bohannon, he will enter his senior season as one of the most productive point guards in program history. He already holds the record for most career 3-point baskets and should leave as Iowa’s all-time leader in assists, too.
Bohannon’s biggest weakness is lateral quickness and speed and that makes it hard for him to blow past defenders or to keep opposing point guards from blowing past him.
The addition of the lightning quick Toussaint, who is from New York City, could help to alleviate that problem by allowing Bohannon to play more off the ball at shooting guard.
Senior to-be guard Maishe Dailey announced on Thursday that he will transfer from Iowa. But even without the 6-7 Dailey, there should be plenty of depth in the backcourt with Bohannon, Moss, Fredrick, Toussaint and Connor McCaffery all competing for minutes.
The 6-5 Connor McCaffery, who is also Fran McCaffery’s son, was a stabilizing force as the backup point guard this past season as a redshirt freshman, but still has a ways to go as a shooter and as a scorer.
The 6-5 Moss gives Iowa a dynamic scorer, at times. He can go from being close to unstoppable to invisible during the course of a game.
Senior forward Ryan Kriener will give Iowa another experienced player who has flashed at times. The 6-9 Kriener has a soft touch and plays with confidence on both ends of the floor.
Iowa won’t be picked to win the Big Ten title next season, but it won’t be picked to struggle, either.
The pieces are in place, even without Cook, for Iowa to finish in the upper-half of the conference and to make another trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The challenge for Fran McCaffery is to keep building off what was accomplished this season, and to control his temper because his leash has to be shorter after being suspended for two games this past season for berating an official.
It was McCaffery’s second suspension at Iowa and the kind of distraction that Iowa doesn’t need.
The suspension of radio play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin was another distraction that the players and coaches didn’t need.
But that’s all in the past and what now lies ahead is Fran McCaffery’s 10th season as the Iowa coach and some optimism to go along with it.