By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Joe Toussaint in many ways is the like the team for which he plays.
The Bronx, New York native has an intriguing skill set, but he also has yet to prove himself as Iowa’s starting point guard with just two games under his belt in that new role.
His team is also intriguing from a talent standpoint, but most of the players are either unproven at this level, or are adjusting to new roles now that four starters from last season have moved on, including 2020-21 National Player of the Year Luka Garza and All-Big Ten small forward Joe Wieskamp, both of whom now play in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs, respectively.
Shooting guard C.J. Fredrick also has transferred to Kentucky, while forward Jack Nunge has transferred to Xavier.
A lot was expected from Iowa last season as it was ranked fifth in the Associated Press preseason poll and would go on to finish 22-9 while advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The current team, on the other hand, is considered by many to be a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament.
Athlon Sports, for example, has picked Iowa to finish 10th in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes are 2-0 heading into Tuesday’s game against North Carolina Central, but they were heavily favored to win both games against Longwood and Missouri-Kansas City, and are heavy favorites to win again on Tuesday.
Toussaint, along with sophomore forwards Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery, are playing more significant roles this season as starters, while sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon is adjusting to his new role as the starting shooting guard after having started at point guard in each of the past three seasons.
North Dakota transfer Filip Rebraca is the fifth starter, and the 6-foot-9 forward is also adjusting to a new role on a new team in a different conference.
Combine the heavy losses in personnel from last season with all of the new roles that are being learned and it’s easy to see why some on the outside would have doubts about this Iowa team.
“We all know we’re underdogs, to be honest,” Toussaint said Monday. “Everybody on this team has been an underdog for all their life. I know I definitely have. Just playing with that chip on our your shoulder. Last year, we had the underdog mentality, but we weren’t really underdogs. We had Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp and C.J. (Fredrick). We weren’t really underdogs.
“But this year, not many people are talking about us. They’re just talking about Keegan occasionally. They’re just talking about Jordan occasionally, They’re just talking about me occasionally. They talk about Patrick (McCaffery). And we just play with that chip on our shoulder. I just feel like we’ve got a lot to prove. We proved it in that first week, but we’re just ready to build on that.”
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Toussaint played as Bohannon’s backup at point guard in each of the past two seasons, and showed flashes of brilliance.
But the 6-foot Toussaint also struggled at times with turnovers last season, partly because he plays at such a frenetic pace.
The challenge for Toussaint this season is to still play fast, but without committing turnovers.
He didn’t have a turnover against Longwood, but he had two against Missouri-Kansas City.
“Definitely on the defensive end we’ve got to get better, and as a player, I’ve just got to limit my turnovers,” Toussaint said. “I had two the last game, silly mistakes. I’m pretty sure that won’t happen again.”
Iowa’s biggest weakness last season was defense, but there is hope with Toussaint now starting at point guard and with Keegan Murray playing a bigger role that defense can be a strength for the current team.
Toussaint’s quickness makes him a good defender at the point of attack.
“I’m just trying to make my guys’ lives easier to be honest with you,” Toussaint said. “I’ll do all the dirty work. I’ll do all the hard work and make their lives easier. And when they see me pressuring that just gives them a sense of urgency to move up a little bit or get in the gaps a little bit.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has been pleased with Toussaint’s performance so far.
“He impacts the game in so many different ways,” Fran McCaffery said. “He’s probably had a couple turnovers he would probably like to have back. But he’s been cognizant of that, not forcing anything. And that’s a tough spot to be in, sometimes, because we want him to be aggressive. That’s what makes him special.
“But then there are times when he might have a turnover or two that you would like to have back. But I think he’s really playing with a maturity that we knew he could get to, and we’re happy for him.”
Rebraca also brings a level of maturity as a 24-year old who scored in double figures in 33 of his last 34 games at North Dakota.
Iowa still needs Rebraca to score in the low post since Garza has moved on.
However, rebounding is where Rebraca has really shined in the first two games, including having 13 rebounds against Missouri-Kansas City.
“I’m still learning and still meshing with this team and I’m just kind of accepting what my role is going to be,” Rebraca said. “I know I was brought here to fill in, we lost Luka Garza, so I kind of need to help fill that void. “So I’m just accepting my role and what I need to do to bring this team where we want to be.”
Asked what role is more important to him right now between rebounding and scoring, Rebraca said:
“I feel like in these past few games it’s rebounding. Keegan has been scoring very easily. (Jordan) has been scoring very easily, and I’m getting him open shots.
“So I don’t think that scoring was an issue where we needed me to score.”
Keegan Murray combined to score 49 points in Iowa’s first two games, while Bohannon has made 9-of-13 shots from 3-point range and he needs just one more trey to tie Jon Diebler’s Big Ten record of 374 made 3-pointers.
The decision to move Bohannon from point guard to shooting guard was made to get Bohannon more shots from 3-point range, and to give Toussaint a chance to start at point guard.
“He plays off me and I play off Jordan,” Toussaint said.. I just feel like we go hand in hand with each other. He’s just always in the right spot at the right time for me.”
Toussaint had nine points, four assists and four of Iowa’s six steals against Longwood, and he had a game-high six assists and two steals against Kansas City.
“I think I’m playing well, to be honest,” Toussaint said. “I’m just engineering a victory for coach. I just feel like that’s the most important part, to be honest. I feel like I’ve developed at lot a well just from a turnover standpoint. I’m just playing under control and playing at my own pace. So I feel like I’m playing well.”
As for North Carolina Central, it competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and finished 5-9 overall and 3-5 in conference play last season.
Iowa vs. North Carolina Central
When: Tuesday, 8:05 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network