We know: You're downtrodden. You're beaten to a pulp. You're feigning interest. The Lickliter Years destroyed the Iowa basketball fanbase, and it could take years to bring it back. But we can rebuild it. We can make the fanbase stronger. We can make the style of play faster. We will make you care, or we will die trying.
Today: The Guards
Matt Gatens (Shooting Guard, #5, Junior, 6'5", 215, Iowa City HS)
Could you really blame Matt Gatens for being frustrated? Because Gatens didn't sign up for this.
Matt Gatens, as has been well documented, comes from a long line of Hawkeyes. He committed to Steve Alford as a high school sophomore, reaffirmed his commitment when Alford was replaced by Lickliter, then won a state title at City High with Lickliter's son playing the point. He was a Rivals Top 150 recruit from Iowa's proverbial backyard with an Iowa pedigree and a state title; keeping him on the reservation was Lickliter's first, and maybe last, big victory.
It was also a terrible fit. Gatens had made his name on his ability to attack the basket and his mid-range jumper, an ideal skill set for Alford's motion offense. He was now being shoehorned into a system where he'd be asked to keep the ball on the perimeter and shoot from outside. Gatens was a good soldier for as long as he could be. As a freshman, he started every game and averaged 11 points per game on a team that struggled its way through a 5-13 Big Ten season. He toed the company line when four of his teammates transferred after his first season. He bit his tongue when asked why his shooting percentage dipped as a sophomore, when it was obvious that he was getting even fewer open shots than he had the previous season. He bought into a training regimen better suited for boxing than basketball, which left him looking slower and more tired at the end of games. He was the de facto leader of the worst team in the history of a program he has always loved -- as an underclassman -- and he kept quiet as the storm clouds built.
It took its toll, to be sure. Gatens looked downright despondent at the end of last season, as Iowa walked through a blowout losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan to end a joyless season amid another round of transfer rumors, with his friend Anthony Tucker forever condemned to the bench for offenses that would get other players a one-game suspension and no end to the misery in sight. We don't know who finally finished off the Lickleter regime, but if it was Gatens, could you really blame him?
He's back, which is more than you can say for some. He's leaner, quicker, faster, and playing in a system much better suited to his talents. Gone are the days of Matt Gatens futilely breaking to the high post or taking contested jumpers from 30 feet with 2 seconds left on the shot clock. Matt can now do what he does best: Run the floor and attack the basket. Gatens now has two years to salvage something from a career that once held promise. Expect the Renaissance.
The Good Soldier
Cully Payne (Point Guard, #3, Sophomore, 6'1", 185, Schaumburg (IL) HS)
There was a brief moment last spring where we were sure Payne was gone. During Iowa's season-ending Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan, a game swallowed by rumors of Lickliter's demise and played half-heartedly by virtually the entire team, it was Payne who carried this team. And after that game, the first game in which Payne had been unquestionably the best player on the court for the Hawkeyes, he simply said that he came to Iowa to play for Lickliter and hoped it would continue. Of course, it didn't, and yet he is still here, and by all accounts as enthused as he was last year.
Payne started all 32 games last season at the point, and is the only returning point guard with any experience. Last season's performance was as up-and-down as you'd expect from a true freshman running the point: For every game like Michigan -- 25 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist -- there was one like Minnesota the week earlier -- 4 points, 7 assists, 6 turnovers -- or his scoreless 35 minutes against Wisconsin. To his credit, Payne bought in completely from the moment he met McCaffery, and even with Bryce Cartwright on the roster, it's his team to lead. Expect some growing pains -- no pun intended -- as CP3OH adjusts to having the handcuffs taken off. We'll take a slight uptick in turnovers for improved production, and we know we're not alone.
Eric May (Shooting Guard/Small Forward, #25, Sophomore, 6'5", 215, Wahlert HS (Dubuque, IA))
We still can't figure out how Eric May fell to Iowa. He's got good size, a serviceable jump shot, good defensive skills (especially off the ball), and the athletic ability to jump out of the gym. Even with all of that, interest in May came from Iowa and top-tier mid-majors. Iowa's beaten Butler in the personnel game twice in the last four years. One didn't work out so well, but Eric May is legit.
May played in all 32 games as a freshman, starting in 23 and averaging 9 points and 5 boards despite struggling from beyond the arc (.287 3P% on 143 attempts). More impressive was how he did it, by proving himself to be the best pure athlete at Iowa since Adam Haluska. He held a spot in a system that prized perimeter skills over inside presence, but -- like so many others on this list -- his style of play didn't mesh. Jacobi once said Eric May is ideally suited for Michigan State, and he's right; quick enough and with sufficient ballhandling skills to get to the basket; strong enough to take advantage of smaller defenders; good on the glass when needed. This wasn't exploited by Lickliter. It will be by McCaffery. Gatens may be the leader of this team and hold more accolades, but don't be surprised if May is the best player in 2010-11.
While You Wait for the Others
Bryce Cartwright (Point Guard, #24, Junior, 6'1", 180, Paris (TX) JC/Compton, CA)
The defections following the 2008-09 season included two players, Jake Kelly and Jeff Peterson, who had manned the point with varying degrees of success made Cully Payne the only true point guard on last year's squad and forced Lickliter to use the freshman more than he had originally anticipated. That shouldn't be a problem this year, as McCaffery used the late signing period to find Cartwright, a former Fresno State guard who transferred to a Texas JUCO for a season, averaged 16/3/2, and took his two years of remaining eligibility up I-35. He's a different variety of point guard than Payne, and not in the way that John Lickliter was a different variety: Cartwright, by all accounts, is a true slasher with great skills around the basket. It will not only allow Iowa to rest Payne and change looks to meet opposing defenses, but it could mean Payne and Cartwright sharing the backcourt at times, which should only improve Iowa's ability to run the fast break offense.
Roy Devyn Marble (Shooting Guard, #4, Freshman, 6'5", 190, Lathrup HS (Southfield, MI))
Matt Gatens may have Iowa connections, but when your dad is Iowa's all-time leading scorer, you don't just have pedigree. You're Secretariat's kid. So it is for Devyn Marble (or Roy Marble Jr., or whatever) as he enters his first season on campus. For while Marble's recruiting accolades are modest at best (3* Rivals, 2* Scout, mid-major offers but little interest from Michigan and MSU), his name demands expectations. Marble has a decent jump shot, good athleticism, and a ridiculous wingspan, but he's extremely lanky and could get pushed around at the three spot. It will likely be a spot in a cluttered guard rotation for Marble this year, with the ability to make it more by 2011.
Jordan Stoermer (Shooting Guard, #2, Junior, 6'2", 185, Kirkwood CC/Coralville, IA)
With two defections from a recruiting class of four, Iowa enters 2010 with only ten scholarship players. McCaffery has already said he will rely on walk-ons, and likely none more than Stoermer, who made his name locally as West High's second all-time leading scorer and Gatens' cross-town counterpart during City High's state championship campaign, then stayed local and averaged 11 points per game for Kirkwood. He's a ready-to-play walk-on, which is certainly needed. Don't expect a ton of minutes, but don't be surprised when he's registering trillions in January.
Branden Stubbs (Point Guard, #32, Freshman, 6'2", 170, Des Moines Christian (Pleasant Hill, IA))
The 2010 Iowa Class 2A Player of the Year for a DMC team that went undefeated before shockingly getting knocked off in the first round of the state tournament, Stubbs dished out a ton of assists (717, good for second best in Iowa high school history) and poured in a ton of points (2,145, 20th all time) against small-school opposition. He was also an AAU teammate of Zach McCabe and played in a fast break system, so there's a chance he sees the court.