It was a year of high highs and low lows, a year where Iowa lost to Campbell and Nebraska but beat Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin; a year where Matt Gatens transformed for a brief period into a being of pure light, but also where Iowa's defense took the concept of Midwestern politeness to new heights by courteously giving opponents whatever shot they wanted. It was a year where the Hawks lost to a pack of Camels, a year where a ginger came out of the desert wastes of Cleveland to lead us, a year of no centers, all small forwards, hope, despair, chair throwing, mime-work and slow but steady growth. Lastly, it was a year where the fans finally started to come back. Let's look back at how it all went down ... through the magic of Fran-Graphs.
The season began with hope and a desire to think about something other than the frustrations of the football season.
That hope was sustained for a few games by delicious cupcakes like Chicago State and North Carolina A&T, but the trouble spots emerged the second Iowa stepped on the court with a legitimately good team. Doug McDermott and Creighton put on a clinic against the Hawkeyes in Des Moines, and then the damned "ships of the desert" from Campbell came to town.
The early revelation that Meslahn Basabe had transformed from a high-flying block and rebound machine into an earthbound jump-shooter was a major cause for concern, and the team was learning very quickly just how much they missed the interior defense and toughness of Jarryd Cole.
December started with a crucial injury to Bryce Cartwright in the team's game against Brown. Cartwright's absence forced Devyn Marble into the role of starting point guard, a role he filled quite admirably. Nevertheless, the injury set the Hawks back, both because the team missed Cartwright's play-making and because he never seemed quite like his old self when he returned.
Iowa's game against Northern Iowa represented the first real flare-up of Fran-rage for the season. The game in Cedar Falls was marked by a remarkable number of ticky-tack fouls on Iowa and dramatic flopping by the Panthers. After one too many sketchy foul calls, Fran had had enough and exploded on the refs, earning two technicals and a friendly police escort to the locker room. It was too bad, because the game was close before the outburst, and the series of free foul shots helped Northern Iowa pull away.
Iowa's loss to Iowa State seemed like a particularly bad defensive performance at the time, but in retrospect, this loss, like the loss to Creighton, seems a little better thanks to the season-long success of those two teams. Make no mistake, Iowa got smoked, but they got smoked by the very best.
Early on it became apparent that the Hawks had something special in Aaron White. Whenever he came in the game, good things seemed to happen. Rebounds started to get tipped Iowa's way, the team started to get more deflections and steals, and the fast break became a real threat.
Christmas came around and Iowa finally started to come around a bit, winning games they should have won against Drake and Boise State. The defense was still problematic, but the free fall had at least stopped. Before those games, fans were worried that the season would be a complete disaster, but the slight improvement in play gave reason for hope.
If last few cupcake wins gave Iowa walked fans off the ledge, the team's first Big Ten game gave them actual hope for the future. Against a very good Purdue team, Iowa took the game down to the wire and nearly pulled off the upset. The defense was still bad, and Iowa gave up a remarkable number of easy layups, but Basabe made a brief resurgence and Devyn Marble showed that his excellent early season play could translate to the Big Ten.
Iowa's game against Wisconsin in Madison marked a real turning for the team. For one, it was the coming out party for Aaron White, whose dominant 18-point performance was the key reason Iowa was able to hold off the Badgers. For two, it showed that Iowa could play elite offensive basketball. The 72 points and 1.09 points per possession the Hawks put up against Wisconsin may not seem that impressive, but against a team that wound up with the 4th best defensive efficiency in the country (per KenPom), it was a statement.
Ah, but the defense. It still had a tendency to do things like this, which was enough to make a man throw a chair:
One of the striking things about the Hawks was how different they played at Carver. One of the first signs of the team's growing home-court advantage came against Michigan, where Iowa got to the line 28 times and held a very potent Wolverine offense to just 59 points.
Another, less positive trend that developed over the year was the team's tendency to start off strong and then fall to pieces over the last 10 minutes. After a brilliant first half against Purdue, Iowa's offense and defense went into the toilet as Iowa lost another close game to the Boilermakers. Similar second-half meltdowns would plague Iowa against Nebraska, Northwestern and Oregon. Part of the problem seemed to be that Iowa took their foot off the gas once they got ahead, but I suspect the main explanation was fatigue. Iowa played five players very heavy minutes and had a bench of usually just two players -- Basabe and Josh Oglesby. Coach McCaffery worked to alleviate this toward the end of the year by giving Andrew Brommer and Eric May minutes early in the game, but the team could not afford to have its best players out for very long. Those heavy minutes seemed to take their toll around the 30th minute of the game.
Did I mention that the defense had a tendency to go up in flames? The Indiana game seemed like a low point for the defense, what with all the Cody Zeller dunks and all, but Iowa had yet to test the true outer limits of where bad defense could go. As rough as the Indiana game was, though, it also showed that Iowa could play elite offensive basketball. Even though the Hawks lost by 14, they shot 63% from the field and made eight threes.
After that demoralizing loss, the team's comeback victory over Minnesota was most welcome. Especially because it gave us this:
This technically wasn't a Fran-Graph, but the throwback script unis Iowa wore against Penn State were the bomb and insured victory:
This was where the fun started. Matt Gatens went on a historic run starting with the team's road loss to Penn State. He made five three-pointers in that game, seven against Indiana and Wisconsin, and five against Illinois. In total, he finished 24-33 on threes in those four games. Some players would kill to shoot 72% from the free throw line, but on threes? That is insane. The most amazing part of it was that they weren't open shots. Gatens shot over the defense again and again.
Next, Iowa got revenge against Nebraska in Lincoln, but it was some of the most unsightly basketball the Big Ten put up all year.
The Big Ten tournament demonstrated just how important every spot in the Big Ten rankings is. After a very disciplined game against Illinois, Iowa found themselves matched up with the buzz saw that was Michigan State. Hopefully Iowa will move out of the lower-seed ghetto sometime in the near future and have a slightly easier path to in the conference tournament.
The game against Sparty wasn't all bad though: it gave us this priceless bit of Valentine mockery from Fran:
The NIT is fresh in our minds, so I won't spend a lot of time on it, but Iowa's first round game in the NIT was just about the perfect way for the home fans to say goodbye to the team. No one expected the NIT in December -- in fact, no one expected the CBI or anything but another demoralizing end to a miserable losing season -- so the fact that Iowa pulled it together, made the second-best postseason tourney in the land and then won a game against a very high-powered Dayton squad was just whip cream on top of hot fudge on top of icing on the cake. The team played one of their more complete games, Zach McCabe went 9-9 from the field, Aaron White dunked all over everyone, and it even earned a new nickname for the crowd from Dayton coach Archie Miller: "The Hive."
it was still more than enough. Thanks, Hawks, for a really enjoyable season, and special thanks to Matt Gatens, Bryce Cartwright, Andrew Brommer, and Devon Archie for all their hard work. BHGP wishes you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Kudos, and kudos again!
Coming tomorrow: Part 2, where we get down to the nitty-gritty statistical review of the team and answer the question, "Was Iowa actually better this year than last?"
[Photo credit note: see the original articles for credit information.]