By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It’s Friday, June 4 with a sunny sky and the temperature creeping towards 90 degrees, and yet, I’m writing about the 2021-22 Iowa men’s basketball team.
Before you say it’s a cry for help, remember that Fran McCaffery had a zoom conference with the media on Thursday, so Iowa hoops is in the current news cycle.
McCaffery addressed multiple topics, including how college basketball is changing due to the impact from the NCAA transfer portal and from name, image and likeness legislation.
“It’s going to be different moving forward as it relates to how you put your team together essentially,” said Fran McCaffery.
Iowa’s roster also has changed in a big way since the 2020-21 season ended in March with a loss to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Gone is arguably the greatest player in program history in two-time All-America center Luka Garza, along with starting shooting guard C.J. Fredrick and power forward Jack Nunge.
All-Big Ten small forward Joe Wieskamp is also testing the NBA draft process for the second time in three years, and most signs point to him not returning for his senior season.
So that’s a huge hit from a personnel standpoint; three starters, including Iowa’s all-time leading scorer, and another player (Nunge) who also started at times during his career.
The challenge for Fran McCaffery in his 12th season as head coach will be to reload rather than rebuild. Most head coaches face that challenge on a regular basis, and the ability to reload ultimately determines the fate of most head coaches.
At this stage, I’m more intrigued than impressed by what Iowa has from a personnel standpoint heading into next season.
That isn’t meant as criticism, but there are just too many uncertainties and questions to be overly impressed with Iowa’s current roster.
One thing is certain; Iowa won’t be ranked fifth in the Associated Press preseason poll, as was the case this past season, and probably won’t be ranked at all.
So there won’t be the pressure from trying to meet high expectations, or the overwhelming disappointment from failing to meet high expectations.
Garza and his cohorts were under tremendous pressure this past season, not just from the high ranking, but also from Iowa’s lack of success in the NCAA Tournament.
Garza led Iowa to 14 conference wins and was named the National Player of the Year.
But he didn’t lead Iowa past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and fair or not, that’s what many fans will remember about this past season, and how they will judge it.
The fact that Iowa hasn’t advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 since 1999, or won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title since 1979, is a storyline that festers throughout each season.
It did more than fester this past season, however, because of the high expectations, and because of the hype surrounding Garza.
Iowa’s postseason woes was a hot topic because many believed that Iowa had what it would take to get over the hump this past season, so to lose by a wide margin in the second round was deflating.
You start won wonder if the weight from Iowa’s past ultimately becomes too heavy in the form of pressure, causing the players to buckle in the NCAA Tournament.
There won’t be that pressure next season, so maybe that will be helpful in the long run.
But there will be questions and concerns heading into next season, like for example, can sophomore forward Keegan Murray take his game to the next level, especially on the offensive end.
Murray showed flashes of brilliance this past season and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen team.
He is now 6-foot-9, weighs 223 pounds and is starting to show up on mock drafts as a first-round pick in the 2022 NBA draft.
And while it’s too early to make those kinds of projections, it just shows that Keegan Murray made a strong impression this past season, and that he has a huge upside.
Another question is how will Jordan Bohannon handle the switch from point guard to shooting guard?
Bohannon struggled to defend as a point guard, and it probably won’t be any easier playing defense as a shooting guard.
Bohannon also won’t have the luxury of playing with Garza and Fredrick, both of whom were threats from 3-point range. And if Wieskamp doesn’t return, that will be another 3-point threat to replace.
Iowa could struggle to space the floor on offense next season without having multiple 3-point shooters that defenses have to respect.
Keegan Murray earned a lot of respect with his play this past season, but not necessarily as a 3-point shooter.
Another question is how will Joe Toussaint handle his new role as the starting point guard?
Toussaint felt little pressure to score in his first two seasons, but that will change without Garza, Fredrick, Nunge, and possibly Wieskamp filling the stat sheet.
Toussaint is working hard this offseason to improve his perimeter shot because that part of his game is suspect. Opponents will almost certainly give Toussaint space to compensate for his quickness, but also because they don’t consider him a threat from the perimeter.
“This year with a lot of roles changing and my minutes increasing, I’m going to showcase that I’m a better scorer, a better passer and a better shooter,” Toussaint said. “There’s a whole lot that’s gong to be different.”
Another question is how will 6-9 graduate transfer Filip Rebraca handle the switch from playing in the Summit League for North Dakota to playing in the Big Ten?
It’s hard to envision Iowa being real successful next season without Rebraca playing a significant role on both ends. He obviously won’t replace Garza from a statistical standpoint, but Iowa needs for Rebraca to average at least 10 points and six rebounds per game.
“I think he fits in perfectly,” Fran McCaffery said of Rebraca. “He’s a really skilled 6-9 guy that can rebound, and he can handle it and can shoot it and can drive it. He can pass. He gives us a lot of versatility.”
Iowa also needs Connor McCaffery and his brother, Patrick McCaffery, both to play well next season. Connor is recovering from surgery on both hips, but should be healthy for next season, while 6-9 Patrick McCaffery is coming off a freshman season in which he showed flashes, especially on offense.
Iowa has a unique situation with Fran McCaffery having two sons on the team, but Connor is entering his fifth season, so there has been time to get used to the circumstances.
Connor McCaffery is a pass-first guard, while Patrick McCaffery is a versatile scorer who excels in transition.
The team that fans were used to watching over the past three seasons will look dramatically different next season.
And while there is reason for concern on offense, Iowa might actually be better on defense next season with the lightning-quick Toussaint playing more minutes, and with Keegan Murray playing more minutes.
The Iowa players also might have a chip on their shoulder due to much lower expectations from the outside, and that could light a spark.
The players kept hearing and reading about how good they were heading into this past season, and that, sometimes, can have an adverse effect.
But Iowa almost certainly won’t receive that kind of high praise heading into next season because it’s hard to praise a team that is sort of mystery.