Rare is the linear path in sports. Improvement happens in fits and starts—if it happens at all—and wins and losses are subject to the whims and vagaries of scheduling and, well, dumb luck. "[X] happened in Year [Y], so [X+1] should happen in Year [Y+1]" is a statement that, while it always sounds good, almost never comes true. Go find your logic somewhere else.
And yet, here's Fran McCaffery, and here's Iowa, proving it true for a bizarre five years running.
2011: 11-20 (4-14). No postseason. Very, very no postseason. Rock bottom, or something close to it.
2012: 18-17 (8-10). NIT berth and one victory. Iowa waylays Dayton in an absolute gift of a first-round home NIT matchup. Matt Gatens goes supernova just in time for his eligibility to expire, going 26-38 from 3 in a late five-game stretch.
2013: 25-13 (9-9). NIT berth and trip to championship game. Devyn Marble and Aaron White emerge as a two-man force, and a talented group of youngsters bolsters the lineup.
2014: 20-13 (9-9). NCAA play-in berth. A mystifying late-season swoon tempers Iowa's trajectory upwards, and even running into an absolute buzzsaw of an 11-seed in Tennessee, the Hawkeyes still take the game to OT.
2015: 22-12 (12-6). NCAA 7-seed and one victory. The Aaron White Show comes to a sensational close, averaging 16.4 points per game in his senior campaign (and 22.5 per in his last eight games) as Iowa throttles Davidson in the tourney and picks up its first tournament win in over a decade.
So one would assume this pattern holds and leads to a Sweet 16 berth this year, right?
And then an Elite Eight in 2017, right?
And then a Final Four in 2018, a spot in the title game in 2019 and hoisting the trophy in 2020, right?
That'd be nice, right? But again—this is sports. Why on earth would the pattern hold even once again?
Prognostications suggest there's a plateau coming this year. Iowa's getting a smattering of Top 25 votes, but nothing near enough for inclusion. Ken Pomeroy slotted Iowa as the 36th-best team in the nation and predicts a 17-11 record (though two Advocare Invitational games are unaccounted for, as the opponents are undetermined). USA Today's giving the Hawkeyes an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Iowa in the "next four out" and Bleacher Report doesn't have Iowa even close. Preseason prognostications are laughably inexact, of course, and they only exist because dopes like us want to read them. Once we're even 10 games into the season, things will look a lot different in ways we can't predict. But there's a consensus that Iowa is not making the step that The McCaffery Progression suggests is due.
That's a fair assessment. There's more uncertainty surrounding the Hawkeyes and what the identity of the team will be since... well, before the 2013 season, when the question was how a borderline-.500 Iowa squad would replace a backcourt of Gatens and Bryce Cartwright, and whether Melsahn Basabe could emerge from his sophomore slump. But with all due respect to Devyn Marble, this is the first time McCaffery's had to contend with the loss of a program cornerstone like White.
The obvious answer is that this is Jarrod Uthoff's team now. He's easily the most talented player on the team, and likely the only one who's capable of getting you 20 points whenever he wants it—to say nothing of his freakish shot denial on defense.
The real answer is that the tone's going to be set by all four seniors. Uthoff, we know. Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons will ensure a vocal veteran leader will be controlling the ball and the tempo for 40 minutes a game, and though Gesell is your putative starter like he was in every game last year, Clemmons may bejust as much of a cultural stalwart as anyone on the team. Listen to incoming freshman Brandon Hutton, no slouch on his own, talk about the measured praise he receives from Clemmons the way a pupil reveres positive feedback from his or her favorite professor:
And if there's one Takenoguffington on the entire roster, it's center Adam Woodbury, who fills the quintessential role of "player you love to hate unless he's on your team," and he's set for his first season without the safety net of reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Gabe Olaseni, who now takes his talents to the vaunted Euroleague as a rookie. Woodbury's going to have to balance his physical play with the expectation of 34 minutes per night, and he can't afford the uncontested misses that have plagued his career thus far. Finishing ability is just about all that hasn't panned out in Woody's development, as he has extraordinary footwork, conditioning and technique otherwise. He's not an elite rebounder, but contrary to logic seven-footers rarely are; anymore, that's the domain of 6'8" athletic dynamos like Reggie Evans or Kenneth Faried. Put it this way: if Iowa's freshmen are brave enough to drive at a rim guarded by Woodbury, they're brave enough to drive on anyone in the Big Ten.
The questions don't come until you get to the meat of the lineup, and they're valid questions. Who's the second-best offensive player on the team? Probably Peter Jok, but then who's the third? What happens when Woodbury, who averages 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes and has never had a season below 5.3, has to be one of the two team leaders in minutes? What happens if he gets foul number two with 12 minutes left in the first half, or foul number three with six before the break? Can we trust Dominique Uhl, and is he rounding into form offensively or is he limited to defensive effectiveness? Which of the freshmen emerge as minutes leaders, and why? If Brady Ellingson's medical woes are behind him, can he still get minutes as the long-range bomber, or do Christian Williams and Isaiah Moss squeeze him out of minutes? How many minutes will Dale Jones get, and why is he better than the David Palmer Experiment of 2009?
And yet these are questions that do not lack potential answers. Perhaps the offensive hierarchy goes Uthoff-Jok-Gesell-Woodbury-Ellingson-Reserves. If they're all clicking, that's a pretty fair distribution. If a few aren't, well, it doesn't exactly throw the framework out of whack. If Ellingson's not ready to meet the potential, a rotation of Clemmons and the freshmen are happy to step into his role. If Uhl's still significantly limited offensively, McCaffery can keep him from being in lineups where he'll be a primary offensive threat. And really, if Iowa gets anything from Jones, it's a bonus.
The path is there. It's certainly not easy and it's certainly not automatic. But make no mistake, it's there, and all it'll take is a road win at Marquette and a decent showing at the AdvoCare and all those folks who figured Iowa was out of the running will be more than happy to put them in a rather prestigious seed.
And even if this all doesn't shake out for an elite seed for Iowa, even if the Hawkeyes aren't seeded for a deep run, let's remember that over the last three seasons, 18 of the 48 Sweet Sixteen teams were 5-seeds or worse, which is to say not seeded to be there—and yet there anyway. At the end of the day, the great thing about the NCAA Tournament is that if you're invited, it's someone else's job to take you out, and your team can fight it.
This team looks as ready to fight in the postseason as any in the nation, regardless of seed. Not with a senior class like this, and not with a trajectory like this. if it's your team's job to keep Iowa out of the Sweet 16, to deny the McCaffery Progression... good luck.