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Iowa Basketball And The Quest For March

Move aside, Sparty. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Move aside, Sparty. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Ah, June. It's the time of year when a young (or old, I suppose; no need to be ageist here) sports fan's mind turns to flights of fancy and dreams of the exciting possibilities the future might hold. The football season edges ever closer but it's still well over two months away and in the meantime we're left with little but the interminable grind of baseball to get us through the long, hot summer. But basketball scheduling news continues to trickle out and the days-away Prime Time League season will further whet our appetite for the hoopyball. So let's take a way-too-early look ahead at next season for Iowa basketball.

The dearly departed [COACH REDACTED] used to call them "March situations." Todd Lickliter called them... well, we're not really sure what he called them because Iowa was never really within sniffing distance of a tournament during his ill-fated three-year tenure. He probably just called them "that really fun thing I used to go to all the time back at Butler." Fran (or at least the Iowa marketing department) has emphasized the need for Iowa basketball to "get mad," by which they mean returning to March Madness. Iowa didn't need any cutesy sayings or fancy euphemisms for it back in the days of Dr. Tom Davis, but there also wasn't much need for fancy-talk like that when you're playing in postseason tournaments as a matter of course. Iowa made either the NCAA (9 times) or NIT (2 times) in 11 of Davis' 13 years at Iowa. In the twelve years that followed, his successors made the postseason just six times (including only three trips to the NCAA Tournament), with no trips occuring in the past five seasons.

Obviously the goal is always to make a postseason tournament, but for various reasons (the biggest being persistent talent attrition) of late that's been a hill too high for Iowa basketball to climb. So is there legitimate reason to hope that 2011-2012 might be different?

We've already discussed the fact that, for the first time in god knows how long, Iowa's actually managing to hang on to (most of) their players (this might be the first year since 2005-2006 that Iowa didn't lose its best player from the year prior to graduation or transfer*) as well as bring in a handful of new recruits (quality TBD, but McCaffery's early track record is promising). We've also discussed the fact that there was quite an exodus of talent from the Big Ten after the 2010-2011 season, which means multiple teams appear to be in line for some form of rebuilding in 2011-2012. If you want a refresher on that front, our blog compadres at The Only Gopher have a good breakdown, although you'll need to keep in mind that (a) Jared Sullinger decided to come back to Ohio State rather than turn pro (insert DURR HE DIDN'T WANT TO TAKE A PAY CUT joke here), (b) Darius Morris decided to spread his wings and stay in the NBA draft rather than return to the cocoon of Michigan, and (c) we're a bit more optimistic about Iowa's returning talent than our Gopher friends are.

We've already discussed the pillow-soft non-conference schedule, too, which holds the very realistic potential for double-digit wins before 2012 arrives. That seems mildly insane, considering Iowa's struggled to get to ten wins total in the past two years, but when you break it down game-by-game it does look possible -- perhaps even likely. And now the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle (the conference schedule) is coming into focus. We still don't have dates, but we know how often Iowa will be playing each other B1G foe in 2011-2012:

Single-play: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois

Double-play: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue, and Wisconsin

As much as we loathe the Delanybot 9000 and its scheduling practices in football (where Iowa starts Big Ten play on the road every single goddamn year) or wrestling (where Iowa draws back-to-back trips to Penn State's Rec Center-cum-Old Folks Home), it's definitely done us a solid with the basketball schedule this coming year. Assuming the goal is simply to accumulate the maximum number of wins and not worry about the quality of said wins, that is. Just as Iowa's non-conference schedule offers few (and possibly no) options for statement-making, headline-generating, RPI-boosting wins, the conference schedule isn't exactly overstuffed with top teams. Ohio State will be the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten, Michigan will be near the top as well, and Michigan State will be expected to rebound and be one of the top 3-4 teams in the league. As you can see above, Iowa plays them only once (plus a one-off with the Illini, who lose a lot but are evidently bringing in a good recruiting class).

That leaves fourteen games against the rest of the league, which is very enticing. Penn State loses an immense amount of talent from last year's NCAA Tournament (not to mention Easy Ed DeChellis), has no obvious replacements for most of that lost production, and will likely be the consensus pick for the B1G cellar. Nebraska played their way onto the fringes of the NCAA bubble in their final year in the Big 12, but loses their best player and will now have to navigate the courts of the Big Ten hoopyball world. Purdue loses JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore (haymaker blows there), nearly lost Curtis Painter to Mizzou, though they do return 15th-year senior Robbie Hummell (at least until his ACLs crumble into dust around Christmas-time). Wisconsin loses Jon Leuer and many of their other front-line stalwarts, although bringing back Jordan Taylor and the Ginger 'Fro will keep them competitive. Indiana should be ascendant in the Big Ten if they can avoid getting slammed with injuries again -- and if Cody Zeller is the stud he's expected to be. Minnesota remains something of a mystery.

Can Iowa realistically win 7-8 games from that crew? It doesn't seem amazingly far-fetched: hold serve at home and/or steal 1-2 on the road (State College and Lincoln, perhaps?) and you're there. Coupled with 10-11 wins in the non-conference and Iowa's sitting on the cusp of 20 wins -- and we haven't even gotten to the Big Ten Tournament yet. That probably isn't enough for Iowa to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, but it might be enough to put the NIT in play. Northwestern made the little brother tournament last year with 18 wins and a similarly pathetic non-conference schedule. The main goal remains returning to the NCAA Tournament, of course, but the NIT could serve as a worthwhile stepping-stone -- especially for a program that hasn't made any sort of postseason tournament in five years.

18-20 wins isn't etched in stone by any means -- Iowa showed flashes of strong play last year, but they need to show the ability to play well consistently and they'll also need to avoid any costly injuries (especially at positions where the depth is mostly theoretical, like point guard) and cobble together a replacement for Jarryd Cole from the hodge-podge of big men on the team -- but for the first team in a very long time it's possible to envision it without also having to assume that Ebola will take out 75% of the conference. So let's embrace this hope and see where it takes us. The end result could be pretty damn exciting.

* 2006-2007: Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner graduated the year before; 2007-2008: Adam Haluska graduated, Tyler Smith transferred; 2008-2009: Tony Freeman transferred; 2009-2010: Jake Kelly transferred; 2010-2011: Aaron Fuller transferred.