By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Even with a healthy Jordan Bohannon in the backcourt, the Iowa men’s basketball team, in my opinion, would hardly be considered a lock to the make the NCAA Tournament.
If we’re to believe the Big Ten preseason rankings as chosen by a select media panel, it’s really not much different
Iowa was picked to finish eighth by the media in preparation for the annual Big Ten media day event, which was held on Wednesday in suburban Chicago, and that would make the Hawkeyes a borderline NCAA team.
It is widely believed that Bohannon won't play this season after having hip surgery, so maybe Iowa would've been picked to finish higher in the conference under different circumstances.
But even with a healthy Bohannon, Iowa would be a borderline NCAA Tournament team, at least on paper.
That’s how I see an Iowa team that will be without Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Nicholas Baer for the first time in three years, and matched against arguably the toughest schedule during Fran McCaffery’s 10 seasons as head coach.
Iowa aced its nonconference schedule last season, finishing 11-0, and that ultimately helped to secure an NCAA Tournament bid when combined with a 10-10 record in conference play.
The non-conference schedule will be significantly stronger this season, with a road game at Iowa State, a matchup with Cincinnati in Chicago, and with Syracuse in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and with a two-game tournament in Las Vegas.
That’s five games that could be nice resume builders, or that could be trouble spots.
The cupboard hardly is bare without Cook, Moss and Baer, but it also would be naïve and foolish to assume that Iowa will be better without them, even with a healthy Bohannon at point guard.
Cook had his flaws, especially as a shooter, but he still led Iowa in scoring and rebounding in each of the past two seasons, and at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, he gave Iowa an athletic presence on the frontline.
The 6-5 Moss showed flashes of brilliance on offense throughout his Hawkeye career, while Baer, a 6-7 forward, was Iowa’s heart and soul, and its emotional leader.
The former walk-on did all of the little things that contribute to winning, and his teammates fed off his hustle and unselfishness.
So there will be an adjustment without the three departed players, and even more so if Bohannon doesn’t play, which seems likely.
We’ve seen enough of junior center Luka Garza and sophomore forward Joe Wieskamp to know what they can do, and they both can do a lot.
But it’ll be interesting to see how forwards Jack Nunge, Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl respond to more playing time as Cook’s minutes get divided up.
The 6-foot-11 Nunge was redshirted last season and used that time as a chance to get stronger and more comfortable with the speed of the college game.
Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, also established himself last season as a pass-first point guard who helps to stabilize the offense. But he struggles as a perimeter shooter, and opponents will certainly adjust to that.
What is uncertain, though, is what redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick, graduate transfer guard Bakari Evelyn and freshman point guard Joe Toussaint will bring to the team.
Evelyn has loads of experience after having played two seasons at Valparaiso and one at Nebraska, but he played sparingly during his one season at Nebraska as a true freshman, so he’s still mostly untested at the Big Ten level.
Fredrick has supposedly made incredible progress and has been spectacular and terrific in practice to sort of quote his always positive head coach, but it still remains to be seen how the 6-3 Fredrick will perform against this level of competition.
And the same with Toussaint as he adjusts from high school.
Toussaint's quickness will bring a dimension that Iowa has lacked on the perimeter, and that could make the Bronx, N.Y., native valuable on both ends of the floor.
Freshman forward Patrick McCaffery, who is also Fran’s McCaffery’s son, probably won’t have to carry as much of a work load as part of a well-stocked frontline compared to the newcomers in the backcourt.
Fran McCaffery will deserve huge praise if he leads Iowa to the NCAA Tournament, especially if Bohannon doesn’t play, but even with Bohannon.
Iowa has some nice pieces, but also many questions that cause concern, or at least, reasons for guarded optimism.