I am pretty philosophical about this year. College basketball is a strange sport in that there are basically three levels of success and everything outside those levels feels like a wash. The first level is competence, and Iowa crossed that threshold in their first NIT season, 2011-12. The second level is making the NCAA tournament, and Iowa crossed that threshold this year. The third level is to either win a conference title or to make the Sweet 16 or beyond. I don't want to set up the Sweet 16 as the be-all/end-all because I think it's silly to point at a team like Villanova and say they weren't a great team. The single-elimination tourney is weird like that. But if you aren't winning conference titles or making the tourney's second weekend, it's hard to argue that you're an elite college basketball team.
So on one hand, I look at Iowa this year and think that despite the late-season meltdown, they weren't far away from crossing that next threshold under Fran. Tennessee needed some very interesting officiating to get Iowa to OT, and I would not be shocked to see the Vols in the Final Four. I'm not saying Iowa should have won that game; I am saying that Iowa was blow-for-blow with a team that clearly deserved to be better than an 11-seed. (And yes, I would have loved Iowa's chances against UMass and Mercer).
On the other hand, in basketball you've got to build yourself the sort of cushion that insulates you from getting a few bad breaks here and there. I'm not into the idea that it's about toughness or attitude for Iowa; maybe I'm wrong. I just think they put themselves in way too many 50/50 situations this year. So how do they change that? Three ways:
1. Play the motherhumping RPI game.
This is the only thing about this season that legitimately makes me angry. Iowa played 7 games this year against teams that are now in the Sweet 16. They had 12 games against teams that made the tourney field. This is not a team that should have needed to sweat out Selection Sunday or make the trip to Dayton. But again, they completely failed to acknowledge the selection committee's slavish devotion to RPI, and they got destroyed for it... again. (I still think, by the way, that last year's team clearly deserved to be in the field of 68. Last year's team should have been in a play-in team, this year's team probably should have been a 9-seed). So what are they doing wrong? Let's acknowledge up front that Iowa can't buy a lucky break with this stuff-- the annual tradition of Iowa's ACC challenge opponent crapping themselves after the Iowa game continued, with Notre Dame ending up at #142 in the RPI. It would have also been very nice to play Tennessee (#33) instead of UTEP (#109); even if they'd lost to Tennessee, they would have gotten Kansas in the next game.
But... Iowa had control over 7 of their 13 non-con opponents. They were locked into games at Iowa State, vs. Drake, the three Atlantis games, and the ACC challenge. They played the remaining seven games at home against teams with the following RPIs: 207, 279, 347, 282, 269, 265. Abilene Christian had no RPI as a transitional D-1 member.
It makes me furious just to type those numbers. Iowa got into a great tournament and then had a good fortune to play a great Iowa State team on the road. They completely pissed it away with that schedule. Compare to Nebraska, who played in the completely inferior Charleston Classic and lost their first two games, guaranteeing themselves even crappier opponents. They also played a great instate rival on the road (Creighton) and their ACC challenge foe (Miami) was similarly mediocre. And they played a bunch of cupcakes too! But they brought in Florida Gulf Coast (150), Arkansas State (187), and Northern Illinois (215). Those aren't good teams! But they don't torch your RPI like Maryland-Eastern Shore does. Nebraska also traveled to Cincinnati and got destroyed. I think it's stupid to reward a team for losing. But that's the RPI game. If Iowa doesn't start playing it, they're going to keep getting screwed by the selection committee. That's just the reality. Iowa can't just rest on the Madison Square Garden tournament, the Iowa State game, and the ACC challenge. They need to bring in real-life opponents with a pulse. They made need to go ahead and play on the road even if no one forces them too. It doesn't even matter if they win. You can lose to UAB and no one on the selection committee will care enough to let it override their lizard brain devotion to the RPI.
OK, that went on too long. But it really angers me.
2. Play Adam Woodbury at the end of games.
There were at least 3-4 games this year that Iowa could have ended with one single stop. Sometimes Adam Woodbury was on the floor; most of the times he wasn't. When you drill down to the specific circumstances for each game, I can understand the reasoning. Regardless, next year I want to see Adam Woodbury on the floor at the end of games. If they need to go offense/defense they can, but if he can continue shooting 71% at the FT line then I say leave him in on both ends. Iowa needs to give other teams a reason not to come into the paint, and they need to stop overhelping on drives. Leave the 7'1" guy in the middle; if teams can shoot over/around him, so be it.
Obviously Woodbury isn't going to average 30 minutes/game, and sometimes they pulled him because he was exhausted. (He only fouled out twice this year, and one of those games was OT). I'd love to see Fran experiment with Gabe starting the second half. Bring Woody in at the under-16 TO, sit him from under-12 to under-8, and then let him finish.
3. Forget about length and find some width.
Every year in the tournament it's interesting to think about a guy on another team who could have really helped Iowa. Sometimes these guys are obvious and far-fetched ("You know, if the 2011-2012 Hawks would have just had Doug McDermott, they would have been pretty great"). Sometimes they are painfully ironic-- I think Ben Brust on last year's roster would have been terrifying. This year, it seems relatively simple-- Iowa needed someone to at least occasionally be an immoveable object in the lane, and Zach McCabe was not that guy. (I really, really appreciate what Zach did for Iowa in his career, by the way. He just couldn't consistently do what I'm talking about against B10 competition). If you put Dustin Hogue (or time-traveling Jarryd Cole) on this Iowa team... damn.
So that's probably the toughest problem to fix. You can't make Aaron White look like Jordan Morgan-- they tried that with Mel, and it didn't work. I though maybe Kyle Meyer would be a banger but he seems more interested in taking 3s and looking awesome in bowties. I'm not usually in the camp that says Iowa needs to use all of their scholarships, but even if they can't get Willie Atwood they may need.to take a gamble on another big-body juco guy. I just don't see anyone else on the roster who comes even close.
So it's simple-- just change Gary Barta into a different person, allow Adam Woodbury to continue his transformation into Acie Earl, and sign one of the top juco players still available. Done and done.