It's crazy how fast time flies the older you get. It seems like it was only last year that Fran McCaffery was announced as the head coach at Iowa. In reality, that event took place four years ago on March 28th. It's hard to believe that we've already had four seasons pass us by, but we have. Before coming to Iowa, McCaffery had spent five seasons at Siena, and being an East Coast guy himself, he knew the ins and outs of the recruiting circuit out there. When he came to Iowa there was some thought that they might start hitting that part of the country a little harder. Fran's connections out there have yet to really bear much fruit in terms of players, but those connections did help the Hawkeyes snag Melsahn Basabe.
Coming to Iowa from Glen Cove, New York, Basabe was originally committed to Siena before Fran took the coaching gig in Iowa City. Once McCaffery accepted the coaching job, one of the first things he did was to recruit Basabe to follow him to the Midwest. But why would McCaffery want to bring a kid who was only recruited by smaller programs from out East to play in the Big Ten conference? I mean, Basabe was 6'7" and 215 lbs and was projected to be a power forward in a conference where he would face the likes of the 260 pound Jared Sullinger or the 6'11" Cody Zeller on a nightly basis, how would he match up? As it turns out, pretty well, actually.
What I think we've come to understand, is that Fran has a knack for finding the diamonds in the rough. The jury may still be out on players like Kyle Meyer (who should get some meaningful playing time next year) and Anthony Clemmons, but Fran went out and found the likes of Aaron White, Bryce Cartwright, and more importantly to this article, Melsahn Basabe. Basabe didn't turn into a star, but he became a very important glue guy who cleaned up on the glass, played great defense, and could go off for double-digit points on any given night. That's a valuable player for any team, and whether it's as obvious as the case was with Marble or not, that is quite a bit of value that Iowa is going to need to get out of new players next year.
The Year in Review
Outside of his crazy productive freshman year, Basabe had what was most likely his next best season as a senior. It was quite the odd developmental path, but I'll talk about that later. This was the season in which Mel really seemed to settle into his 18 minutes per night role. He averaged 0.41 points per minute and posted his highest offensive rating mark of his career. Kenpom also had him finishing 66th in the country and #3 in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate (among qualified players), 136th in the nation and #7 in the conference in offensive rebounding rate, and 218th in the country and #12 in the conference in blocked shot rate. Basabe didn't just put up nice numbers early in the season against cupcakes and then fall off when Big Ten play started either. Rather, Basabe was a consistently good player all season for the Hawkeyes. That is, until he was struck with an illness before the start of Iowa's February 22nd match up with the Wisconsin Badgers. That was the beginning of a bit of a rough stretch for Basabe (and for the Hawkeyes).
Again, the team minutes chart proves useful:
That illness before the Wisconsin game allowed him to only log one minute in that game, which brought down his February minute average. He also missed the Minnesota game three days later, which didn't hurt his minute total, but left the Hawkeyes without a key piece against the Gophers on the road. After that Minnesota game, Basabe only logged his usual 18-20 minutes twice in the final six games. He played 18 and 20 minutes on the road at Indiana and Michigan State, but only saw the court for 11, 14, 9, and 9 against Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, and Tennessee. And foul trouble can only be attributed to the Tennessee game, because outside of his 4 fouls in that contest, his next highest foul total was 2 against Indiana and Purdue. So, I'm not sure why his playing time fell to only 12 minutes per game in March. But while Basabe's minutes fell in March, Josh Oglesby, Peter Jok, and Adam Woodbury all saw the court more. And with Mel and Zach McCabe on the bench more, it looked like Fran wanted to go with Iowa's "smaller" lineup and have Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff on the floor more often.
Anyway, Basabe played his worst offensive basketball of the year in March. Where he was averaging 0.44 points per minute against Big Ten teams in January and 0.46 in February , he dropped to a lowly 0.23 in March. Using points per game, he fell from 9.71 in January to 7.67 in February to 2.80 in March. Keep in mind the minutes drop off, but that's still not very good. Looking at his shot selection, it seems that Basabe was taking fewer shots when he was in the game, but he was also taking more of his limited shots further away from the basket:
Ignoring his meaningless buzzer-beating three pointer at the end of the road game at Michigan State*, it's pretty clear that Basabe's shot selection was different. He only took 13 shots in the month of March thanks to fewer minutes, but only 6 of them were near the rim where he shot 72% on the season and 6 of them were further out where he shot just 21% this season. Needless to say, mid-range jumpers are not Basabe's game. So this explains the decrease in offensive output at the end of the season.
*Random tidbit: After making that three against Michigan State, he ends his career a 50% three point shooter. Only 2 attempt sample size, but fun, nonetheless.
But while his scoring went down, his rebounding didn't suffer much at all during that stretch. He still pulled down 22.74% of all available defensive rebounds and 11.04% of all offensive rebounds while he was in the game. Both of those numbers are basically identical to his outstanding season totals. His blocked shot rate did fall to just 1.49% of his opponent's field goal attempts in March, but he was still valuable on the glass. Which brings me back to the question of: why were his minutes cut again? Were there some conditioning issues after the stomach illness? Did Fran see something that he didn't like in Basabe's game at the end of the year? Or did he just change lineup philosophies at the end of the year, preferring to go with the "smaller," four-guardish type of lineup? I haven't really seen an explanation for it, so if anyone has the answer, I'm all ears. But, even taking into account the stomach bug and the proceeding games after, Mel still had a hell of a season. And he played a big role in getting Iowa back to the tournament for the first time since I was on the verge of graduating high school.
Melsahn Basabe is a prime example of development not being linear. In his freshman season he exceeded all expectations that Iowa fans had for him, averaging 11 points per game and 0.45 points per minute. Making his performance even more impressive was that he seemed to really get a feel for the college game right around the time conference play kicked off, as he averaged 0.38 points per minute against out-of-conference competition and 0.49 against Big Ten teams. His most notable performance was probably his first matchup with Ohio State, where he went toe-to-toe with Jared Sullinger and had 22 points, 13 rebounds (8 offensive!), and 6 blocks. After twelve conference games with double-digit points (five with 20+) and five games where he recorded double-doubles in points and rebounds, it looked as if Basabe could be a future star. Needless to say, that didn't quite happen. Basabe hit a sophomore slump the next year, where he did the opposite of his freshman year and averaged 0.48 points in non-conference games and 0.35 in conference ones all while watching his minutes on the court drop by about 4 per game.There were stories about how Basabe had focused on adding muscle in the offseason and had lost his explosiveness and there were stories of him just being out of shape. Whatever it was, it was not what we were expecting after his initial campaign the year before.
Then came his third year on campus. It wasn't a complete 180, by any means, but it looked like Basabe had embraced his identity as a role player on this team. It was clear that he was no longer relied upon to score the basketball first. His job was to be the energy guy off the bench; to come in the game and grab some rebounds, block some shots, and collect some putback layups and dunks. If he the opportunity presented itself for him to score in double figures, then fine. However, the offense was not going to run through him. And when he get to his senior season Basabe seemed like he not only embraced his role as the energy guy on the team, but he understood it and excelled in it.
I say he excelled in it because he finally got back to doing what he does best, and that's making plays around the rim. During his middle years on campus, Basabe seemed to try harder and harder to incorporate the mid-range jumper into his offensive game. That's all fine and well in moderation, but as you can see that wasn't quite the case.
In his final season, though, Basabe stuck by the basket and the result was:
He had a shooting season almost on par with his first year on campus. His 56% eFG% was the second best of his career and so was his 59% TS% (includes free throws). As the chart shows, Basabe was a very consistent shooter around the rim during his entire tenure at Iowa, so increasing the number of shots that he had there was clearly a positive this year.
Finally, let's look at the rest of Basabe's game:
Mel was consistently one of the best rebounders and shot blockers on the team, but he also always ranked fairly high in those categories nationally, too. He was always known as a good defender and his career 98.3 defensive rating seems to back that up. Like I've said, he could score when he needed to, but his defense and his rebounding abilities were what was really valuable about his game.
Let's be honest, Mel isn't going to be playing in the NBA next year and I don't think he's going to catch on in the NBA's D-League either. His height is better fitted for a wing player, which is not the skill set that Basabe possesses. And the undersized fours in the NBA usually have more body mass and strength than he does. That's not a knock on Basabe because he still has some real basketball talent, and he will likely still be playing the game next year. But, instead of playing in the NBA, he will most likely be following in the footsteps of the likes of former Hawkeyes like Jarryd Cole and Matt Gatens, trying to make a name for himself overseas. Basabe's ability to rebound and play defense would probably be enough for him to get an overseas contract, but the fact that he does have the ability to put points on the board is an added bonus.
Whatever foreign country Basabe ends up playing in next season, I wish him nothing but the best of luck. He played a huge role in freeing the Iowa Basketball program from the proverbial gulag that was the Lickliter era. He came to Iowa City when the Hawkeyes were coming off a 10-22 campaign, replacing a fired coach, and trying to keep something like 50% of the players on the roster from jumping ship. He started literally at rock bottom, and he was able to help send this program and its fans back to The Big Dance for the first time in 8 years.
So, thanks for the memories, Mel. Good luck on all your future endeavors. I'm sure you will be successful.
Up Next: Zach McCabe