At long last, the Iowa men’s basketball season is finally over. It’s been month after month of disappointment and frustration for players, coaches and fans alike. Things seemed to be spiraling out of control until things came to an end late last week. And as much as I’ve tried to avoid even mentioning it the last several weeks, the conclusion of the year all but forces my hand.
We have all summer to over-analyze everything about the season and there will no doubt be countless recaps and reviews of the full season at some point. But before we get to those, I’d like to take a quick look back at the good, the bad and the ugly of the season that was. In the spirit of positivity, we’ll go in reverse order.
As I said, I’m going to try to stay somewhat positive, so I promise this section won’t run 2000 words, though it certainly could if we wanted to get in depth. This was, after all, by far the worst season since Fran’s first in Iowa City.
How bad was it? It was Lickliter bad. It was a losing record and 4-14 in the Big Ten bad. Those are both the only times that’s happened since Fran’s first year in 2010-2011 and worse than two of Todd Lickliter’s three seasons with the Hawkeyes.
What’s worse, the expectations were nowhere near as low as in those Lickliter years at the outset of this season. It was an utter disappointment. And after improvement in basically every season for Fran’s first six in Iowa City, this marked the second year in a row with a step backward.
Worse yet, these weren’t a bunch of close losses like a year ago. This season was full of blowouts. In Iowa’s 19 losses, the average margin of defeat was nearly 12 points a game. Of the Hawkeyes’ 15 losses in conference play (14 in the regular season and last week’s OT loss to Michigan in the BTT), they lost 9 by more than double digits.
They were worst away from home, winning only one road game and the average margin of defeat in Big Ten games away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena wasmore than 14 points a game. In fact, Iowa only lost two conference road game by fewer than 13 points - the last two of the year at Minnesota (by 4) and in the BTT against Michigan (by 6).
A big reason for the ugliness this season was the putrid defense. In the 19 losses, Iowa gave up an average of 83.2 points per game. In their 14 victories, that number dropped to 72.6 points per game. Neither is great, but it’s pretty clear the cause of the struggles was not the offense (Iowa scored 79.7 points per game on the season).
For context, Iowa’s 78.7 points per game given up defensively ranks them 316th in the country through Saturday’s games. There are 351 Division 1 teams. Conversely, the 79.7 points scored a game on the year ranks 53rd nationally. This team was downright ugly defensively.
While Hawkeye fans were put out of their proverbial misery with the ugly season coming to an end last week, the bad news hasn’t exactly stopped. As we reported late last week, the rumor mill has been running overtime with regard to potential departures from this team. I suppose that’s to be expected when a team goes 14-19 with the worst finish in conference play in nearly a decade.
Last season, more than 880 players transferred schools according to Verbal Commits. That’s up from roughly 700 the year before according to ESPN. That’s 2-3 players from every division 1 school in America transferring on average. It doesn’t take incredible foresight to see Iowa is likely to have their fair share this offseason after not having any the year prior.
It started already with the untimely departure of Christian Williams before the season even started. Now rumors are floating about a number of current players. They range from role players like Brady Ellingson and Ahmad Wagner to part-time starters like Maishe Dailey and Isaiah Moss to full-fledged centerpieces like Tyler Cook.
And while Cook put to bed the rumors about a potential transfer to his home-state Mizzou (who has been rumored to have been tampering with Cook as far back as November), we may still see him depart for a pro career in the NBA, Europe or elsewhere even if he doesn’t transfer. While no player is above the program and BoilerHawk’s Ewing Theory might indicate there could be some addition by subtraction, it’s safe to say Iowa is a totally different team without Tyler Cook. Not in a way I would look forward to.
The brutally bad season, combined with likely roster turnover has a number of people asking questions of head coach Fran McCaffery. Questions about offseason changes to the staff, changes to the strength training program and how hot his seat is. Those questions haven’t been received very well.
I’ll grant McCaffery that those questions geared toward his job security are both a bit premature and unwarranted, it’s not hard to see why some people want them answered. Athletic Director Gary Barta has a history of inking coach-friendly contracts and the optics of the most recent extension for Fran not being disclosed raised more than a few eyebrows.
That is only made worse by the ugly nature of this past season. Results were far below expectations and not only does it appear those results had no bearing on McCaffery’s contract, they eliminate any possibility of Barta leaning on the head coach to make changes and get results or else. Instead, Fran has all the leverage.
I think he’s completely correct that his body of work stands by itself and to call for his head at this juncture, regardless of the buyout, is ridiculous. But having all the leverage on one side of the table is pretty unwise. While the buyout should never have been a concern this offseason, completely taking it off the table is never a great idea.
If next year looks anything like this one, the questions about Fran’s job security will be more than warranted and the body of work response will no longer fly. I don’t expect it to look like this year, but I didn’t expect this year to look like this year.
So what went well this year? Well, not much. But as I mentioned above, the offense was pretty damn good. Like, good enough to have probably gotten this team into the bubble discussion if the defense had just been around average (175th nationally was 72.3 points per game - I understand this isn’t how statistics work, but Iowa would have won 8 more games if they had held opponents to 72 points in each of their 19 losses).
While the transfer/NBA/whatever else rumors are out there, right now we really only know about Dom Uhl’s impending departure. That isn’t going to hurt the offense going forward. Losing a guy like Tyler Cook would certainly sting, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
And as bad as the defense was all year, we saw some things down the home stretch that should give us all a little glimmer of hope for improvement. For starters, the Hawkeyes won two of their final three games, including a neutral site game in the Big Ten Tournament. I get it, it was lowly Illinois and Iowa had already beaten them previously. But Iowa was just lowly Iowa and this was the first BTT win since 2013 and only the third such win under McCaffery.
Perhaps more important than simply getting a a couple more wins and that BTT monkey of the team’s back was how they did it. They showed some semblance of defensive intensity for stretches of each of their final few games. What’s more, Fran seemed to rely more on a zone defense than he ever has in the past. While that may seem like a small thing, it could mean the difference in wins and losses next season.
Everyone and their dog complained about perimeter defense this year and much of it was warranted. For all the things the Iowa guards do well, on-ball defense in a man-to-man isn’t at the top of the list. That isn’t changing next year. So a concerted effort to installing a zone and spending time to teach the rotations and movements within it is critical to mitigating what has been a deficiency for a while. I’m hopeful.
Beyond the work on defense, this team showed some heart. They played their tails off in the final couple games and took the tournament champion Michigan Wolverines down to the wire. That was a damn good Michigan team and Iowa gave them the biggest scare of the tournament and honestly probably should have won in overtime.
The Hawks were getting after it on defense, hustling for loose balls and fighting for every possession much of the tournament. We didn’t see that from them all year. They seemed to finally take on a bit of Luka Garza’s personality. That is a major positive for the future. The kid is pretty incredible and if the team can embody his effort, intensity and desire to win, things are looking up.
Add in the highest rated recruit in McCaffery’s tenure with Muscatine phenom Joe Weiskamp and my expectations for next year are probably about where they were for the start of this year - a bubble team I hope will be on the right side of the turn. Oh, yeah, and then there’s that “other” recruit. You know, the kid from Kentucky who was a walk on who’s going to get a scholarship now. Yeah, CJ Fredrick might just win Kentucky’s Mr. Basketeball. Neither of these guys is the lightning quick perimeter player Iowa fans are hoping for to penetrate off the dribble or lock down opponents’ guards, but both can fill it up and hole their own athletically. Two more guards on a team that was lacking guard depth is a very good thing.
And finally, this team had and will have a point guard leading them who will undoubtedly go down in Hawkeye lore as a living legend. A season ago, he stole the hearts of Iowa fans everywhere when he stuck the dagger into the still-beating hearts of our Badger counterparts. He kept it last week with his heroics to send the Michigan matchup into overtime with a prayer from Kingsbury-land.
But more than the incredible late-game heroics, the awe-inspiring numbers he’s put up through two seasons (he remains on track to shatter both Jeff Horner’s three-point record and his assist record) and the uncanny moxie he’s shown, Bohannon has proven to be an incredible person on and off the court. His gesture for Chris Street and ongoing relationship with Street’s family captured the hearts and minds of not only Hawkeye nation, but the entire nation.
Bohannon’s leadership and amazing skill-set on the court are matched by his personality off of it. If this team can emulate some combination of Bohannon and the aforementioned Garza, good things will come. I remain both hopeful and cautiously optimistic.
Here’s to a better 2018-2019 season, more positivity and more good than bad or ugly.
WHAT A WIN FOR IOWA! THEY SCORE THE FINAL 7 IN MADISON INCLUDING THIS 3 FROM JORDAN BOHANNON! MUCH BETTER W/TITANIC MUSIC! (@IowaHoops) pic.twitter.com/K3peGffu05— TITANIC HOOPS (@TitanicHoops) March 3, 2017