Basketball returns to Carver-Hawkeye Arena tonight as the Iowa Hawkeyes begin the season-long quest to exorcise the demons of last year’s disappointing 14-19 record. Iowa begins its 18-19 campaign against the wonderfully-named Kangaroos of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Roos, who bizarrely play in a Western Athletic Conference that increasingly appears western-in-name-only, finished with a 10-22 record last season which included two victories over NAIA opponents and a twelve-point loss to Division II William Jewell College.
Unfortunately for the Roos, this season already seems likely to bring more of the same. UMKC lost their opener against Loyola 76-45 and made an almost impossibly low percentage of their free throws (5-19). Iowa’s poor performance in 2017-18 may have lowered expectations coming into this season, but a loss to UMKC to start the season would signal to Iowa fans that they are in for an entirely new level of futility in 2018-19.
Despite the apparent mismatch in talent, there are still some interesting things for Iowa fans to watch for in this game that could serve as indicators for the trajectory of the rest of the season. Here are a few key factors to watch heading into tonight’s game:
1. How do Iowa’s newcomers look?
Muscatine’s Joe Wieskamp has generated as much hype and excitement as any incoming Hawkeye freshman has in a number of years. The breadth of Wieskamp’s offensive skillset is certainly tantalizing; Wieskamp can beat defenders off the dribble, has a dangerous midrange game, and has a strong and improving game from beyond the arc. Iowa coaches have also emphasized his underrated ability as both a rebounder and defender which could help him contribute early on a team lacking expertise in both of those fields among its perimeter players.
Connor McCaffery technically saw the court last season but is functionally a newcomer to the Hawkeyes after his would-be freshman season was shortened by several bizarre medical issues. McCaffery is a big point guard at 6-5 whose basketball intelligence and skill as a facilitator could make him a real asset for the Hawkeyes. Point guard depth behind offensive star Jordan Bohannon was a major issue for the duration of the 2017-18 season, and McCaffery being an able contributor this year would not only allow him to spell Bohannon but could create fascinating offensive lineups in with Bohannon playing the 2-guard position and capitalize on his sharpshooting skills while allowing McCaffery to fill the role of distributor.
Iowa doesn’t recruit one-and-done talent, so expecting freshmen to carry the team is generally a recipe for failure. However, Iowa’s depth of returning talent should create a situation in which the newcomers don’t need to carry the scoring load but can instead help fill specific roles to make the team better. Tonight’s game will give Hawkeye fans their first real opportunity to evaluate whether their talented freshmen will be able to serve as contributors on both ends of the court.
2. Does Iowa experiment with more zone defense?
The Hawkeyes under Fran McCaffery have primarily operated in a man-to-man defensive scheme, but last season’s defensive futility sparked justifiable questions about whether the Hawkeye coaches were operating in the scheme that best matched the talent of their players. Iowa defenders struggled to fight through screens, frequently lacked the lateral quickness to stick with quicker offensive players, and frequently failed to provide adequate help-defense in situations that called for it. While McCaffery integrated more zone defense midway through the season, his players were clearly uncomfortable with many of their defensive assignments and frequently failed to properly rotate on the perimeter resulting in easy jump shots.
At least on paper, the 2018-19 Hawkeyes appear to be better suited to operate out of zone defensive schemes than straight man-to-man. What the Hawkeyes lack in quickness they make up for in length, particularly when 6-5 Connor McCaffery is in at point guard. Imagine the defensive fits that a McCaffery-Wieskamp-Baer-Nunge-Garza lineup could give teams if Iowa players have been properly coached to execute their assignments in a zone.
Iowa should have little difficulty containing the UMKC offense regardless of what defensive schemes they employ. The Roos mustered only 45 points on a miserable 29.8% shooting percentage against Loyola, and while they do return their leading scorer from last season in junior guard Xavier Bishop, at 5-8 and 150 pounds he is one of the few players Jordan Bohannon will be asked to cover in which the Hawkeye point guard has a decided physical advantage. Still, while the Hawkeyes could play keep things vanilla and manage a comfortable win, it stands to reason that McCaffery would want to test his players’ ability to operate in various zone defenses in a game setting if they are going to play a larger role in Iowa’s defensive game plan this season. The man/zone ratio will be an interesting trend to watch in projecting what Iowa’s defense might look like this season.
3. Will Iowa exhibit a new level of defensive intensity?
Iowa fans should fully anticipate an energized Hawkeye basketball team tonight; the Hawkeyes will be playing their first real game in eight months, have an entire season’s worth of demons to exorcise, and will have significant size, speed, and talent advantages that should allow them to dominate every facet of the game. Still, fans hoping to get a sense of whether Iowa might be capable of returning to its first NCAA tournament since 2016 would be wise to focus on the energy level displayed by the Hawkeyes on the defensive side of the ball. Coaches and players both stressed their significant emphasis on defense during the offseason and spoke of the new sense of accountability the players feel towards performing on that end of the court.
Even with Iowa’s immense talent surplus, this game should still provide opportunities to observe the extent to which this renewed focus on defense has impacted on-court performance. Hawkeye players SHOULD be able to fight their way through screens against UMKC. They SHOULD be able to attack the defensive glass with urgency. They SHOULD be able to get back in transition defense, which has long been a major area of struggle during the McCaffery era. If the Hawkeyes show signs of continued struggle in the areas against the Roos, it is an indication that their players are either unwilling or unable to form even a league-average defense, and neither of those scenarios bode well for a team looking to work its way back into the heart of the Big Ten race.
Iowa has rarely looked lethargic on offense in recent years due largely to the immense pride that its coaches and players take in the mastery and execution of their offensive system. For Iowa to take the next step as a program, that same mentality will need to translate to the defensive end of the court as well. Hopefully for Iowa fans, that starts tonight.