By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Filip Rebraca is aware of what the critics and naysayers are saying about his new team, and about him personally.
The 6-foot-9 forward, who played his first three seasons for the University of North Dakota, was brought in to help restock the Iowa roster, and he knows how Iowa is being perceived, and how he is being perceived.
“Of, course, we all have something to prove as a team and also personally,” Rebraca said Monday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “I come from a mid-major, you could say, and I know that a lot of guys in this league will probably look down on me because of that.
“So that’s my chip on the shoulder. And then also as a team, we lost two players to the NBA and people overlook us. So, I think that’s like our collective chip.”
The two players to whom Rebraca referred are former Iowa All-America center Luka Garza and former Iowa all-Big Ten swingman Joe Wieskamp.
The 6-11 Garza is the most decorated player in program history, Iowa’s all-time leading scorer and now a member of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, while the 6-6 Wieskamp twice made All-Big Ten, was named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen team and now plays for the San Antonio Spurs.
Combine their losses with forward Jack Nunge and shooting guard C.J. Fredrick having transferred to Xavier and Kentucky, respectively, and it’s easy to see why Iowa has its doubters.
It’s easy to assume there will be a drop off from last season when Iowa finished 22-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s easy to assume that Iowa has entered a rebuilding phase in the post-Garza era because so much of what made Iowa successful last season now has to be replaced.
Rebraca was a standout performer for North Dakota where he posted 20 double-doubles and scored in double figures in 33 of his final 34 games.
He could’ve stayed at North Dakota and added to his already rich legacy, but he wanted a bigger challenge on a much bigger stage.
And he certainly will have both of those things while playing for Fran McCaffery at Iowa.
“Before I came here, I was talking with coach McCaffery and they kind of saw using me in a variety of ways, outside, inside, running in transition,” said Rebraca, whose is from Somber, Serbia and the son of former NBA center Zeljko Rebraca. “I just feel like there is so much that I can do in these areas.”
Rebraca turned 24 years old barely one month ago, and he’s played basketball at the international level, and at the Division I level in college.
So, while he lacks experience at the Big Ten level, he brings a level of maturity that should help a young and developing roster.
“He was really consistent as a scorer and rebounder, but I think the most important thing is his skill level,” Fran McCaffery said of Rebraca. “He can dribble, pass and shoot. He fits our style. He’s got a frame. He’s 6’9″, 230. He’s an older guy. He’s been through it.
“There’s a guy, he’s played internationally, played in this country at the Division I level. And he wanted to challenge himself to play in the Big Ten. So, we’re thrilled to have him.
Rebraca isn’t being asked to fill Garza’a massive shoes because that would be unfair and unrealistic to burden him with that daunting task.
Instead, Rebraca is being asked to play a significant role on a deep that is deep and talented, but also untested in many ways.
Sixth-year senior guard Jordan Bohannon is on the verge of becoming the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals, and is three months older than Rebraca, giving Iowa two of the oldest players in the Big Ten.
Fifth-year senior guard Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, started in each of the past two seasons and is one of the best passers in the conference.
Connor McCaffery might come off the bench this season, but his role won’t change, nor will his playing time.
The other guards, which include Joe Toussaint, Tony Perkins and Ahron Ulis, however, are mostly inexperienced, or in Toussaint’s case, preparing to start for the first time after being a key reserve.
Toussaint’s opportunity to start came when Bohannon agreed to switch from point guard to shooting during the offseason.
“The thing about that, that’s certainly the plan,” Fran McCaffery said of switching Bohannon to shooting guard. “He made 80 3s last year; let’s see if he can make 90 or more. That’s just what he does. It’s not to say he wouldn’t handle the ball at the point. We’ve got a lot of ways we can go. We just have multiple options at the point.”
The lightning-quick Toussaint should help make Iowa a better defensive team on the perimeter due to his ability to pressure the ball.
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Sophomore forwards Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery also played key supporting roles last season, but their roles will expand this season, especially on offense where Iowa has to replace a lot of points and a lot of shots.
The 6-9 Patrick McCaffery, who is also Fran McCaffery’s son, was asked at media day on Monday if he feels Iowa has something to prove, and he seemed ready for the question.
“Absolutely. I don’t think people’s expectations of us are too high,” Patrick McCaffery said. “I think our fans saw glimpses of what we were able to do last season, just with guys like me and Keegan in extended roles, and kind of like Ahron and Tony and (Joe Toussaint) in bigger roles.
“So, I think that’s something that our fans are excited about because they’ve watched us play. But as far as national media, if you look at the points we return, I’m sure it’s not overwhelming. But we know the talent we have in our locker room and we know the ability that we all have and we think we can make some serious noise and I can’t wait to do that.”
And while Keegan Murray was a major contributor last season, his twin brother Kris, who also plays forward, saw limited playing time.
That should change this season because Iowa needs perimeter shooters and that’s a significant part of Kris Murray’s game.
“Kris is going to be a major factor on this team and he needs to be,” Fran McCaffery said Monday. “That was sort of the plan for him. And he’s worked really hard. He’s a versatile guy. He’s long. He can guard different positions. He can rebound. He can shoot the ball. Can put it on the deck.
“He just needs some time to gain his confidence by getting out there and performing the way he’s capable in games. But that’s going to happen for him.”
Iowa also has a youth movement taking place in the post where sophomore Josh Ogundele and freshman Riley Mulvey are competing for playing time.
Ogundele played sparingly as a true freshman last season, partly due to being out of shape, but the London, England native has worked hard in the offseason to lose weight and to get his conditioning up to Big Ten standards,
Thanks to a new diet and to a strenuous workout routine, Ogundele was noticeably thinner on Monday compared to when met with the media in the summer.
“I tell you, before as you saw sometimes, when I came into the game, up and down and I’m tired,” Ogundele said. “But now I can run up and down the whole practice without getting very fatigued. So, I think it’s been very good.”
Iowa had multiple 3-point shooters on the roster last season, but almost all of them besides Bohannon have moved on, namely Garza, Wieskamp and Fredrick.
So, it’s imperative that some players improve as 3-point shooters, and that was a focus for the 6-9 Keegan Murray during the offseason.
He noticed that defenders started giving him space on perimeter last season because they didn’t respect his 3-point shot.
“I was working a lot in the offseason, just getting my shot more consistent with our assistant coaches,” Keegan Murray said. “I just think in practice I’ve been more consistent with the numbers this year in my shooting.
“I just think that will be a big focal point in my success on the offensive end because I’ve been a good shooter my whole life. So, I just feel that was a confidence thing for me last year. And this year I have all the confidence in the world right now to be a great shooter.”
Fran McCaffery also said Monday that 6-7 freshman forward Payton Sandfort is ready to contribute.
“I said we’ve got a lot of guys. He’s one of them,” Fran McCaffery said of Sandfort, who is from Waukee. “But he’s ready. He’s ready. It’s not like it’s going to take him some time. He’s ready.
Fran McCaffery is entering his 12th season as the Iowa head coach and is the Big Ten’s third longest tenured head coach behind Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Matt Painter of Purdue.
Fran McCaffery is also Iowa’s second all-time winningest head coach with 216 wins.
The challenge he will face this season is showing that Iowa is now in the reloading stage rather than the rebuilding stage.
Iowa was ranked fifth in the last season’s Associated Press preseason poll, but most outsiders probably don’t even have Iowa among the top five teams in the Big Ten this season.
“We were a connected group last year,” Fran McCaffery said. “And this team saw that’s absolutely critical. So for them I think their attitude has been terrific since June when we got back. Actually, since the season ended. We did a lot of stuff in the spring. And I think they’re anxious for the chance to get out there and be in a different role.
“I said this at Big Ten media day. I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a team where everybody will have a different role than they had last year. It’s fairly unique when you think about it.