Another year, another week of teams gearing up for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament (which, for my money, is the best weekend in sports all year) and -- sadly -- another year with Iowa fans having nothing to do but reflect on the past year's failures and dream of better tomorrows. Someday (hopefully soon) we'll be able to again be fully invested in March Madness. In the meantime, though, it's useful to look at five areas that could determine what Iowa does next year.
* Stay put. No more transfers, please. This is not exactly a new thought, of course, but Iowa needs to actually retain underclassmen -- especially the ones that are, you know, kind of good. Three years ago it was Tony Freeman bolting. Two years ago it was Jake Kelly and Jeff Peterson heading for greener pastures. Last year it was Aaron Fuller. Iowa's already operating at a talent disadvantage compared to many schools; they can ill afford to have the few good players they do have running off after a year or two. The good news is that there's no indication that TRANSFERMANIA will be wreaking its usual havoc on the Iowa roster this year. Idle interwebs gossip has singled out Eric May (because he lost his starting job) and Cully Payne (ditto) as potential transfer targets, but there's no actual indication that they're looking to leave.
* Recruit recruit recruit. No matter how well Fran schemed, one thing became abundantly clear this past season: Iowa needs more bodies -- and they need more talented bodies. Frankly, they need more of everything: they need more ballhandlers, they need more outside shooters, they need more bigs, they need more guys who can just plain score. Obviously they won't be able to address every single need with this incoming class, so they'll need to prioritize a bit. From the sounds of things, Fran is focusing his efforts this spring on a big and a point guard, which makes a great deal of sense. Iowa is losing Jarryd Cole, the most talented "big" they had (and he was just 6'7") and the only guys with legitimate "big" size that they have returning are Devon Archie and Andrew Brommer -- and both those guys have had massive consistency issues (not to mention major "staying out of foul trouble" issues, as Horace pointed out yesterday). Cartwright was run ragged because Iowa had no back-up point guard this year; getting Cully Payne back should help on that front, but it won't hurt to add another option, too.
Fortunately, as good as Fran & Co. are at scheming, they might be even better at recruiting. They already went into Texas (Cartwright) and New York (Basabe) last year and they just landed a recruit for 2012 from Georgia (Kyle Meyer). They made it to the final two for Cezar Guerrero, a highly-touted point guard prospect out of California, and they're in on plenty of other guys from one coast to the other. They've also stayed closer to Big Ten territory and landed Aaron White from Ohio, who looks like a potential steal, and Josh Oglesby from Cedar Rapids, who should add valuable depth at the very least. There don't appear to be any stones they won't turn over in the hunt to find new players for this team. That's a refreshing approach, particularly after the prior coach rarely went further east than Indiana or further west than the Missouri River. The jury's still out on how good his recruits will be, but we're happy to give him the benefit of the doubt after the seasons Basabe and Cartwright just had.
* Make a few shots, yeah? Horace went into much greater detail on this in his Retrospecticus yesterday, but offense was really Iowa's biggest failing in 2010-2011 (cue the "Just like football!" chant). The defense wasn't great, but it was respectable enough. Unfortunately, the offense was just horrendous. Mind you, this was true even without Horace's handy statistical breakdown -- anyone who watched more than a few Iowa games should be able to recall a litany of missed lay-ups (or dunks) and a staggering number of bricked jump shots (especially from 3-point range). How far Iowa is able to progress from an 11-20 record this year is likely going to depend on how much better they can shoot the ball in 2011-2012. There's no indication that Fran is bringing in a dead-eye sharpshooter to solve the outside shooting woes, either (edit: although as I was reminded by a few people in the comments, Oglesby was a very good shooter in HS, so he should help), which means that the onus is on the existing players to stop laying so many bricks and starting draining some of those jumpers. Iowa desperately needs guys like Gatens, May, and McCabe to step up and become more consistent outside shooters. If they can't do that, Basabe is going to get smothered, Cartwright will struggle to find open men, and Iowa will continue to be godawful on offense.
* Take advantage of the changes. Another thing we've mentioned before is that there will be a pretty big talent exodus from the Big Ten after this season. John Bohnenkamp broke it down in his blog recently:
• Illinois loses Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey.
• Purdue will lose JaJuan Johnson, the Big Ten’s player of the year, and E’Twaun Moore.
• Ohio State loses David Lighty and Jon Diebler, and if Sullinger and junior guard William Buford decide to leave for the NBA, the Buckeyes take a major hit.
• Penn State, which is in the conference tournament semifinals, loses Talor Battle, David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks.
• Michigan State loses Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. Will Draymond Green look at the NBA?
• Wisconsin loses Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. Does Jordan Taylor skip his senior season to go to the NBA?
• Standout guards Blake Hoffarber (Minnesota) and Michael "Juice" Thompson (Northwestern) are seniors.
Nebraska is also losing their most productive player (Lance Jeter, who led the team in scoring, assists, and steals and was second in rebounds), so there's more fodder for the talent exodus. Conversely, Iowa loses only Jarryd Cole and though he won't be easy to replace, it's not as big of a blow as the one facing many of our Big Ten peers. Many of those teams will be replacing those faces with good recruits so it's unlikely that they'll be sinking back into the mire, but they also shouldn't be as consistent or as strong as they were this season. They'll be more vulnerable and it will be up to Iowa to try and take advantage of those vulnerabilities and move up in the standings.
* Schedule for success. We don't know what the 2011-2012 schedule will look like yet -- but we can make a few educated guesses. They'll likely be playing Iowa State (in Ames), Northern Iowa (in Cedar Falls), and Drake (in Iowa City). They'll be playing in another exempt tourney, although per Scott Dochterman, they'll be playing most of the games in Iowa City or at the Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines -- and we're probably not talking heavyweights here (though one rumored opponent, Creighton, is very solid). There's no indication that they'll be cutting back on eighteen conference games; in a 12-team league that should mean home-and-homes against seven Big Ten opponents, home games against two other Big Ten foes, and road games against two final Big Ten foes. They'll play an ACC team in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge; based on the standings, that's probably someone like NC State, Georgia Tech, or Wake Forest. That accounts for roughly 25 games, which leaves around five games unaccounted for; I wouldn't expect any heavyweights there, either. I doubt they're looking to schedule home-and-homes with the likes of Kansas or UCLA anytime soon.
All told, it probably won't be a terribly brutal schedule -- there will be opportunities for wins there. The key will be avoiding losses to teams they shouldn't lose to (i.e., this year's losses to South Dakota State and Long Beach State). The other key will be improving their record in close games -- this year they went 4-11 in games decided by 10 points or less. If they could have turned half those losses into wins, we're looking at a 15-16 record -- which would be a much more tangible sign of progress than the 11-20 record Iowa had. They had excellent opportunities to win many of those games (Long Beach State, Wake Forest, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State), too -- they just couldn't close out.