A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... There was endless optimism for this basketball season. Not from the national media or sports pundits, but at least locally there was cautious optimism. There were even expectations; not so much of grandeur, but of surprising those same national pundits, making yet another NCAA Tournament under head coach Fran McCaffery and perhaps finishing toward the top of the Big Ten Conference.
Not so long ago, in a column right here, I wrote about how that optimism had disappeared. How it had been replaced with varying levels of despair and apathy. Today, there appears to be reason for a new hope.
Now, I dont believe that new hope is for a bid to the NCAA Tournament. As much as I want to be optimistic and really overreact here (if not here, where?), I think that dream is likely dead. There are simply too many marks in the L column (6, to be exact).
With the strength of the schedule this year, I think it’s fair to assume this team will need to win 20 games to make the tournament. Sitting at 6 today, that means winning the three remaining non-conference games.
That’s a do-able task. Southern Utah shouldn’t pose much of a problem tomorrow. The matchup with an 8-3 Colorado team on a neutral site later in the week will be a much tougher task (they took down the same South Dakota State team that beat Iowa in the Cayman Islands by a final of 112-103 in double OT last week), but nothing insurmountable. And the final test against a 6-4 Northern Illinois team seems very reasonable.
But once you get out of the non-conference, the Hawkeyes likely need to win at least 10 games in the conference schedule. At the beginning of the year, a 10-8 conference record didn’t sound like a difficult task at all. However, with the early conference tournament and the conference schedule adjustment for that, Iowa has already played in and lost two conference games. So, to get to 10-8 they will need to go 10-6 down the stretch. It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be tough given what we’ve seen out of this team so far.
Or is it? As I sit here this Monday morning, I have a new hope. The team I watched on Saturday afternoon absolutely manhandling Drake looked nothing like the team I watched for the greater part of 11 games leading into the weekend.
In a 90-64 drubbing of the Bulldogs, the Hawkeyes played a style of basketball that was incredibly fun to watch. Not because they were shooting lights-out from downtown (they only shot 33% on 18 attempts from range) or because they were really getting up and down. And in fact, there was a stretch where it wasn’t really fun in the early goings - it was almost nerve-wracking.
But they came out with a game plan and they stuck to it. They pounded the rock inside. Then they pounded it some more. And then, they pounded it inside and dished it to another inside guy. It truly was glorious to watch.
It’s something the team has made an attempt at doing previously this season, but opponents have made it difficult. Often times, entry passes have turned into turnovers as opponents have looked to front the post with back side help or really pressuring the passer into mistakes.
That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday. Instead, the concerted effort was there, but things weren’t forced. Perimeter players were content reversing the ball or making a skip pass to create a better angle for the entry pass. The result? Lots of wide open looks from point-blank range.
For Tyler Cook, that meant a plethora of dunks. He finished with 23 points on 10-13 shooting. But he wasn’t alone. Four Hawkeyes finished in double figures, three of them were forwards. And the team as a whole shot 55% from the floor. That’s a recipe for success.
Perhaps equally exciting for Iowa fans was the play of guards outside of their efforts to enter the ball into the post. As mentioned above, it’s not that they shot the lights out or knocked down a bunch of threes. But they picked their spots. Jordan Bohannon knocked down some big shots (he finished 3-4 from beyond the arc with 15 points) and showed off some of the things we heard he was working on all offseason: a pull up jumper and a nice little floater.
I don’t know that this team can count on those things with any regularity in Big Ten play given the athleticism of opposing guards, but any level of penetration from the PG spot is going to be big for the Hawkeyes down the stretch. We saw some of it Saturday.
All these positives led to utter domination of a Drake team that took Minnesota to the wire in Minneapolis earlier in the week. Like many Iowa fans, I was legitimately nervous about this one. But this team showed us something on Saturday. It was a glimpse of what could be.
It has me wondering if maybe there hasn’t been a corner turned. Despite the loss, Iowa more visually appealing against Iowa State. Turnovers and brutal free throw shooting ultimately cost them that game. Turnovers are still a concern, but since that loss to the Cyclones, Iowa is 2-0 by an average score of 91-62.
I’ll grant you the level of competition has been a step down, but as I just said, this Drake team can play. And again, things just look different. They feel different. It’s almost as if there’s something inside them that’s now awake. Maybe that’s Nicholas Baer. Maybe it’s Connor McCaffery. Maybe it’s both.
Whatever it is, it’s given me a new hope for this season. I still don’t know this team can climb the mountain that is a run at the NCAA Tournament. I don’t even know if they’ll get that Big Ten Tournament monkey off their back. But I think we’re seeing glimpses of what could be the remainder of this year and into the future.
Be There...you Must. pic.twitter.com/Fd2ysZPTQy— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) December 1, 2017
This roster is still incredibly young. They’ll lose Dom Uhl this year, but given his minutes of late I don’t know how much of a loss that will be. He’ll be replaced by CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp.
If you haven’t had a chance to see Joe play this year, you’re missing out. He’s averaging more than 35 points a game on 58% shooting. It’s not like he’s just catching and shooting either. One of the reasons Iowa fans are so excited is his ability to create his own shot, despite opposing defenses focusing two and sometimes three defenders on him.
Joe Wieskamp creating his own shot. Wow! pic.twitter.com/92bMfq15vk— Pat Harty (@PatHarty) December 17, 2017
I’ve let you know at every turn that he’s the highest rated recruit Iowa’s gotten since the creation of the Rivals database. He’s also on track to be one of the highest scoring players in Iowa High School history. His week started pretty impressively:
Wieskamp will leave with 44 points, 25 rebounds. The 25 boards are a career high. The 44 points are not. That moves him into 1,714 points. #iahsbkb— Matt Coss (@mattcoss78) December 13, 2017
He added 42 on Saturday en route to taking over 6th all time in class 4A scoring. He moved past Harrison Barnes and Fred Hoiberg in a single game. If he keeps up his current pace, he’ll smash the record currently held by Jeff Horner at 2,194 career points.
The force is strong in young Wieskamp. It’s just one of the many reasons we have a new hope for the future of the Iowa Basketball republic. There will no doubt be bumps along the way. This season will likely have some disappointment. But the future remains bright.
A good week we shall have. Hoops there are, and bowl games. The holiday season it is and reason for hope there is.
May the force be with you, and no spoilers in the comments.