College basketball season is upon us, everyone. That means Iowa men's basketball tips off tonight against Gardner-Webb. There are times in which I'm happy that basketball starts in mid-November in order to provide a distraction from football, but this is not one of those years. Over the past four years or so, Iowa basketball has become the equal of, if not surpassed, my love for Iowa football. And, while I am definitely beyond excited for this season of Iowa basketball, the 2015 football season is a ride that I don't want to take for granted. I certainly want to give the basketball team the attention they deserve, though, so I wanted to put together my thoughts on what I believe may be the biggest challenges for the upcoming season.
Fran has done an outstanding job of turning Iowa around from being a raging dumpster fire to a respected Big Ten contender in a short matter of time. That being said, outside of his first year on campus , I think this season could be his biggest challenge yet. Certainly, everyone is touting the fact that Iowa returns four seniors and a junior who is a scoring threat. That should help keep Iowa from falling off a cliff completely this season, but those five players will need a rest and Fran is going to have to decide how to incorporate the newbies in a fashion that won't hurt his team's chances of winning basketball games. Obviously, Fran isn't going to make Kentucky-style line changes, in which all five starters come off the court at once and are replaced by five new bench players -- Iowa doesn't have the talent for that. Instead, Fran will need to mix and match upperclassmen with underclassmen in a way that doesn't rob the on-court lineup of their offensive punch and their defensive intensity.
When you break down the roster, Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok are far and away Iowa's best pure scorers. Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury have also shown the ability to score for Iowa, but they won't be relied on quite as heavily as Uthoff and Jok for their offensive production. This likely means that Fran will almost always need one of Uthoff or Jok on the court at all times to ensure that Iowa doesn't go completely cold from the floor when the reserves are in the game. I'm not saying Iowa can't find some offensive firepower from one of the younger players like Andrew Fleming, Dale Jones, or Brady Ellingson, but they are going to need to show it before we can just assume they will fill an offensive role like that. And, unfortunately, unless we are talking about 5 star recruits (which we are not), expecting enough production that your team won't give up a 10-0 run from guys who have little to no college experience is not a safe bet.
In addition to just needing scoring, Fran also runs into the problem of balancing the present and the future. By that I mean that Iowa will most likely need to rely on their upperclassmen for heavy minutes against good competition this season. Uthoff will almost be guaranteed to log 30+ minutes against quality opponents this season, and I imagine Gesell, Woodbury, and potentially Jok will also be called upon to do so too. The young guys will also need some college-level experience to build for the future, but not so much so that the team forfeits this season for the future.
There is a delicate balance that Fran will need to walk between the two temporal dimensions, and that will mainly come in the back court. Dale Jones, Ahmad Wagner and Nicholas Baer will no doubt be thrown into the fire this season, but Christian Williams, Andrew Fleming, and Brady Ellingson will be competing for limited minutes out on the perimeter. Fleming and Ellingson will likely be battling for backup shooting guard duties and perhaps some time spent at the 3. However, with point guard and shooting guard minutes being distributed between Gesell, Clemmons, and Jok, and small forward minutes being distributed between Uthoff, Jok, and potentially Dom Uhl, there may not be a lot of minutes to go around for underclassmen out on the perimeter. And that statement may be the most true for Christian Williams, who is Iowa's point guard of the future. So, Fran's biggest challenge in all of this may be just finding time to get Williams enough experience at the 1, without hurting the team's chances this season.
I won't lie, I'm a little worried about this dynamic this season. I am of the opinion that outside of some bad luck and stamina issues in 2013-2014, I think Fran's use of lineups due to Iowa's depth that year was a bit of an issue at times. I think I've come to believe that it's usually better to have a consistent core of 7 or 8 guys rather than 10 or 11 (unless you are Kentucky). Iowa State has succeeded by relying on a tight core of players each season and I think Iowa could do that too. Obviously, though, this year is a different situation than 2013-2014 and focusing on the core group too much could leave the new guys in the backcourt with very little game experience. (Again, it's a delicate balance.) My hope then is that Iowa can play well enough against the really bad teams on their schedule so that the young guys can get plenty of playing time, while the upperclassmen can be called upon to log heavy minutes against the Marquettes and Michigan States of the schedule. In other words, let's hope the games against lower-ranked opponents go more like Sioux Falls and less like Augustana.
Style of Play
Under McCaffery, Iowa has had some relative constants from year-to-year. They are almost always going to push the tempo, play aggressive defense by getting hands into the passing lanes for easy fast break opportunities, and they are not usually a perimeter-oriented team, instead demonstrating a knack for getting to the free throw line.
The second constant will probably remain true this season, but the first and third may be about to change.
(screenshot via Kenpom.)
First of all, Iowa's tempo under Fran already slowed down quite a bit last season. They went from 24th in the nation in adjusted tempo to 197th (red box). I think that was a product of Fran being concerned with the fast pace of the season prior, along with the graduation of Roy Devyn Marble who was so good at getting up the court and attacking the basket early in the shot clock. And Marble isn't suiting up again this season and Iowa's backcourt is filled with a lot of guys who prefer the jump shot to putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket. Mike Gesell is probably the best of anyone at attacking the basket, but he has had some troubles finishing at the rim and at the free throw line over his career. Unless he gets more efficient or Uthoff or Jok decide to work on taking the ball to the rim this season (and this can mean off of screens, curls, etc. and not just taking their defender off the dribble), Iowa will likely be a more perimeter-oriented team this season. Especially, with Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni's presence in the paint being lost to graduation.
If this more perimeter-oriented style of play does come to fruition, it will mean Iowa's percentage of field goal attempts that are three pointers (shown in the purple box) will probably go up and their free throw rate (ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts, located in the brown box) will go down. That will be different for an Iowa squad that has been mainly a low-volume three-point shooting team under McCaffery and a high-volume free throw team. The three-point trend actually went up a bit last year to the second-highest it has ever been under Fran, but the free throw rate stayed high thanks to Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni. Without those two to attract fouls like magnets, Iowa is left with only Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury who were above average at getting whistles last season, but nowhere near what White and Olaseni averaged. Clemmons and Woodbury could certainly step it up this season, and someone like Dale Jones or Ahmad Wagner could pick up where Iowa's departing big men left off last season or even Uthoff, Jok, or Gesell could surprise us by attacking and drawing contact more this season. But that's something I will need to see before I predict it.
So if free throws decline this season that will place a lot of pressure on Iowa's shooters. Traditionally, Fran's philosophy has been to surround a bunch of long, athletic, versatile players with one or two true shooters. However, we have to potentially question this philosophy -- or at least his application of this philosophy -- when we see that his teams have been below average three-point shooting teams more often than not. He's only had two Iowa teams in his five seasons shoot better than the Divison I norm from beyond the arc, and he had that same ratio in his five seasons at Siena (all demonstrated by the black boxes). In past years it hasn't totally killed the Hawkeyes, because they had other means of scoring in transition or in the paint. This season, though, if they aren't getting to the free throw line and they aren't hitting their threes, they likely won't be scoring at a very high clip.
On paper, though, this team looks like it should have plenty of shooters and it returns all the best long range gunners that it had from last year's roster. Jarrod Uthoff is the best of the bunch, obviously, at shooting a high-volume and a high percentage. But Peter Jok is a 34% career three-point shooter and Anthony Clemmons has shown he is a good shooter with the 1 attempt he puts up per game. And if Brady Ellingson, Andrew Fleming, and Dale Jones can live up to their reputations as being able to shoot from distance, the Hawkeyes may be a serious threat from out there this season.
Post Defense and Rebounding
The last somewhat unknown this season may be how well Iowa defends in the post and rebounds. The main concern with guarding the post this season is that Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni are being replaced by Dale Jones and Ahmad Wagner. Fran McCaffery is usually a coach who consistently talks up his guys and will rarely admit that they have an area of struggle, yet he has already said that Jones needs to get better on the defensive end of the court. That's a bit worrying. Throw in the fact that Wagner is an undersized true freshman, and there are some potential issues here when Woodbury isn't on the court. That may mean turning to Nicholas Baer, who is also inexperienced and undersized. Or it could just mean that Uthoff has to play the 4 or the 5 spot when Woodbury sees the bench. Uthoff gives Iowa a real shot-blocking threat on the court, but basically any of those guys not named "Woodbury" leave Iowa potentially vulnerable to strong big men in the post.
As for rebounding, the Hawkeyes also lose a lot of production on the boards with the departures of White and Olaseni, and those guys and their second chance opportunities helped Iowa overcome shooting woes in the past. Adam Woodbury has always been a solid rebounder, but he has never been anything spectacular. He's at his best on the offensive glass, but he's not exactly the defensive rebounder you would imagine a big guy like him to be. Jarrod Uthoff, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. He's got a knack for grabbing defensive rebounds, but he's not exactly a great offensive rebounder. Iowa will need more than just those two guys this year, and that's where we turn our focus back to Jones, Wagner, Baer, and even Dom Uhl. There isn't a whole lot to say here, except the Hawkeyes are needing rebounding production off the bench from a lot of inexperienced players. Uhl is the only one with Division I experience, and he was just a so-so rebounder last season. Jones and Baer showed some rebounding abilities against Sioux Falls, but not so much against Augustana. And that is where I shall transition to the conclusion.
A lot of the concerns mentioned in this post have been things we've seen from the two exhibition games Iowa played in the past couple of weeks. The Sioux Falls result was fine, but the Augustana one has given us cause to wonder whether the result of that game was just a small sample size bad night for the Hawkeyes, or if it was a sign of upcoming troubles.
Above are the advanced stats for each exhibition game, color-coded from Iowa's perspective (green = good) to indicate how the performance looked based on the Division I averages from last season. As you can see, the Sioux Falls game was fine. The turnovers were a tad high for Iowa, but there were no major concerns otherwise. The Augustana game, on the other hand, showed deficiencies in three of the areas I mentioned above: rebounding, post defense, and free throws.
In the rebounding category, Iowa not only gave up a slightly higher than average percentage of defensive rebounds, but they really struggled to grab offensive rebounds in the manner we are used to them doing under McCaffery. In conjunction with the rebounding struggles, the Hawkeyes were eaten up in the post, where they gave up 40 points in the paint to the Vikings. And that was with Woodbury on the court for 32 minutes!
Then we have the free throw and three-point tradeoff. The Hawkeyes took 30.2% of their field goal attempts in their two exhibition games from downtown. That's right on track with last season's elevated rate. However, without White and Olaseni, the free throw rate declined against Augustana. Iowa shot the ball well from out deep, though, making 38% of their threes. So, that was nice to see. But the inability to keep Augustana from scoring in the paint really cost them the game. I'm hoping this was just a one game thing, in which the team just extremely off their game and took Augustana for granted. But it could also be growing pains of a team transitioning from being strong in the post last season, to being a more perimeter-oriented attack this season. This team can win with a new approach this season, but it may take a bit longer than we would like to get everything clicking in an efficient manner.
Standing on the horizon and looking upon the approaching season, Iowa appears to be in a transitional period. Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons, Jarrod Uthoff, and Peter Jok are the old guard. When four of those five graduate next season, Iowa will be a completely different team. They will transform into an amorphous organism consisting of long athletes that can play multiple positions and get up the court in a hurry. We will see a bit of the future in small doses this season, but for the sake of winning now, let's hope the upperclassmen can lead the way and go out on a high note.