Big Ten media day has always been the time when hope springs eternal for even the most beleaguered fan bases. Whether you’re returning a talent-rich team like Michigan and Michigan State or your coach is touting rises in season ticket sales and team-wide GPA as reasons for pre-season excitement, fans are always eager to find signs of positive momentum to point towards as indicators of future success in the coming season.
For the first time in a number of years, there seems to be a sense of apathy and pessimism surrounding the Iowa basketball program heading into the 2018-19 season. After missing the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and registering as one of the Big Ten’s most under-performing teams during 2017-18, one does not have to look hard for reasons to explain the lack of enthusiasm among many Hawkeye basketball fans relative to the start of recent seasons.
Still, head coach Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeye players assembled at yesterday’s 2018 Big Ten media day struck a tone of optimism and profound hunger for success in their comments. Between McCaffery’s infamously competitive spirit and the growing weight of the fanbase’s unmet expectations, it is easy to see why the 2018-19 Hawkeye basketball team is approaching the season with what senior forward Nicholas Baer called, “a definite sense of urgency.” Whether this renewed energy translates to the Hawkeyes finally fulfilling their dormant potential remains to be seen, but McCaffery and his team’s leaders are certainly saying the right things to help reinvigorate an increasingly dejected fanbase.
Here is a look at Fran McCaffery’s answers to media questions during his official press conference:
Q: Can you talk about Tyler Cook a little bit. I know on Twitter he seemed a little upset he wasn’t on the All Pre-season Team. What in his development this year do you think will allow him not to leave any questions where he belongs among the elite players in the Big Ten?
Fran: The thing about Tyler Cook that’s been most impressive to me, obviously he looked into making the jump, put his name in, went to the workouts. I thought he was incredibly professional with how he went about that.
But as we all know, the critical thing is when you come back, to come back with the right attitude. He has really impressed me from that standpoint. The first conversation I had with him, he said, Coach, I want to do a better job leading this team next year. He was only a sophomore last year. He was really good, our leading scorer, leading rebounder, very impressive.
But I think he recognizes now the jump that he has to make. He has made it, in my estimation. Off the dribble, he’s been phenomenal. Making plays for other people this summer he’s been phenomenal. His assist-turnover ratio throughout a number of workouts has been spectacular.
He probably should be upset. I always look at those lists and say, Well, yeah, he probably should be on there, no question in my mind he should be on there. It’s not like you look at that list and say, A particular player is not really good. That’s essentially what this league is. Everybody that’s on there is really good. I think more importantly, where do you end up? Preseason lists, pre-season rankings don’t mean a thing. We have to play the season.
For him, I think it’s more important that he end up as a first-round draft pick than on any all-conference team.
There’s quite a lot for Iowa fans to get excited about here. Cook was certainly Iowa’s leading performer last season and his desire to take a more active leadership role behind the scenes is quite encouraging. Perhaps even more enticing is Fran’s comment about Cook improving as a facilitator on the court. Cook’s assist to turnover ratio (1.8: 2.5) certainly left a lot to be desired. Cook’s strength as an interior scorer frequently caused defenses to collapse around him last season, so an improvement in his ability to handle the ball in traffic and find the open man in the face of elevated defensive pressure would certainly benefit Iowa’s offense.
Q. What sort of ceiling do you see with Isaiah Moss this year?
Fran: Isaiah is really talented, very good offensive player. I think he has the capability of being a really good defensive player. I think from that standpoint I’d like to see him play both ends. Really good shooter. Has the ability to score points in bunches. We saw that last year in particular in the Minnesota game.
But you’re talking about a guy who physically is in a really good place, he’s worked really hard. He’s a senior. Obviously he’s a junior-eligible. He’s a senior. He’s been experienced. He’s been through this league, which is absolutely critical as we all know. I think he’s got the capability. He made 46 threes last year. That number will go up. He shoots a great percentage. That will continue. I also think he could be a really good defender.
Fran is certainly right in his assessment of Moss’ play last season. Moss improved as a shooter between his freshman and sophomore seasons and at times proved capable of completely taking over games on that side of the ball (scoring 19 points in a minute and a half against Minnesota comes to mind).
Still, Moss’ struggles on defense ultimately negated much of the positives he brought to the table on the offensive end; per 100 possessions Moss accounted for 111.9 points while allowing 114.2. Moss possesses the athleticism and lateral quickness to be a plus defender in the Big Ten, and making such a stride in his junior year is easily within the realm of possibility.
Speaking of defense, Fran contributed this insight during an interview with the Big Ten Network:
At the end of the day we weren’t consistent enough defensively. There were times when we played well: times when we were active, our press was pretty good, our zone was pretty good, our man was ok. It has to be better. The teams in this league, the players in this league, the coaching in this league: it’s too good. So the critical thing is to take ownership of what went wrong and let’s go fix it.
This is hardly a novel conclusion for anyone who watched the Iowa basketball team on a consistent basis last season. While the Hawkeyes ranked 19th in college basketball in offensive efficiency, they graded at a lowly 242nd in defensive efficiency, a far cry from the defensive output expected from a potential tournament team. Fran isolated transition defense as an area in particular need of improvement; even the best offensive teams miss shots, and McCaffery’s teams have too frequently failed to recover from offensive miscues, regroup on defense, and stop the other team from scoring. McCaffery also frequently mentioned effort and intensity as the keys to improving Iowa’s defense in 2018-19, and if the team is as intensely focused on making defensive improvements in practice as they were in talking about them at media day, there may yet be a chance for some improvement in this area.
Flipping to the other side of the ball, Fran had this to say about Jordan Bohannon and his offensive versatility:
I’d like to get him coming off screens because now you give him space to make a play for himself or give it to someone else. He’s got a great pull-up game. A pull-up free-throw jumper is like a layup. If you trail him on a screen, he’s going to bury the 3. They’re going to chase him everywhere, which is going to allow post-up possibilities. So I’m excited to give him that flexibility.
Fran also mentioned feeling better about the point guard depth this season with Connor McCaffery, Maishe Dailey, and incoming freshman CJ Fredrick being able to spell Bohannon at times, which should help keep Iowa’s most dynamic perimeter player fresh late into games. Bohannon may be athletically limited as a defender, but his shooting and passing gifts make him an absolute weapon on offense whose impressive shooting range stretches opponents by forcing them to defend a larger portion of the court. What sort of production Iowa can get from Bohannon’s backups and how increased point guard depth affects Bohannon’s minutes remains to be seen.
Coach McCaffery said the right things during media day; now the next step is turning words into action. Fortunately for Hawkeye fans, they’ll only have to wait another month to witness the first signs of whether or not he has done so successfully.