Last week was a good news week for Iowa fans. On the football front, we learned several of the start times for the Hawkeyes next season. I supposed if you’re the type that likes to get up early and get after it the news wasn’t exactly great, but for those of us who like a little extra time to enjoy the festivities, the schedule is shaping up to be quite good with no 11am starts on the books until mid-October (it’s still possible the Wisconsin game is an early start, though I wouldn’t call that a likelihood).
Over in basketball land, there were a couple bits of news. First, we learned a little about the schedule for Iowa hoops in 2018-2019. The Hawkeyes will take on the Pitt Panthers as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. As you can see, that’s slated for November 27th from Iowa City.
(I also wanted to take just a quick moment to notice how much the U of I has latched on to the block I background that was used on those OSU alternative unis last season for basically all their marketing. Might this be the first time we can all agree the UI Marketing group got it right?)
In a year where Iowa will need to seriously increase their win total, this should help. As bad as the Hawkeyes season a year ago was, it didn’t come close to touching Pitt’s. The Panthers went winless (0-18) in the ACC and finished the year an abysmal 8-24 overall. Don’t expect them to be quite as bad in 2018-2019, but it’s certainly a winnable matchup.
The other bit of news was much more significant. And better. The Hawkeyes learned last week that they would be returning not only Isaiah Moss, but also Tyler Cook, both of whom had previously entered their names in the NBA Draft without signing with an agent.
Here’s head coach Fran McCaffery weighing in on the decisions.
McCaffery Reacts to Cook & Moss Returning pic.twitter.com/gHTmNRnOzf— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) May 31, 2018
While both decisions may seem like the obvious ones from the outside, it was a genuinely difficult one for Cook. He came to Iowa expecting to be headed to the NBA after only two seasons and the interest was apparently there. He had workouts with six different clubs and according to his mother, speaking with Chad Leistikow of the DMR, he had an option.
“He was really, really close (to leaving). He had an option,” Stephanie said. “We just figured, we had an option this time, it’s going to even be better next year.”
That will be the case, provided Cook can improve upon his overall game and take to heart the feedback he got from those six workouts without letting his focus on a dream of the NBA overtake the team goals for the season. That will be the challenge.
One of the primary pieces of feedback Cook received, and the first one mentioned by his mom when asked, was that he needs to demonstrate an adequate outside shot to compete at the next level. I think that’s something most Iowa hoops fans could have seen. The concern would be how Cook can thoroughly demonstrate that he’s developed that part of his game, if he has, and play within Iowa’s offense.
The Hawkeyes have primarily utilized Cook in the post. That’s not surprising given his current skillset. But if he develops from the outside, is that to the benefit or detriment of the team? Depends on how well developed it is, of course. If Cook is a bona fide threat from deep, that could really open things up for the offense. It would give someone like Luka Garza some extra room to operate down low. If it isn’t there, but Cook feels like he has to force it, it could really throw a cog into what’s supposed to be a motion offense. That would obviously do more harm than good.
But where the biggest improvements from the team need to be made are clearly on the defensive side of the ball. While it’s unclear how much feedback Cook (or Moss for that matter) got specifically on their defensive games, it was great to see it acknowledged during the teleconference the team held the day after his announced return.
️ Tyler Cook on how to improve from last year: "For us, attention on the defensive end and making sure everyone is locked in and ready to go." #Hawkeyes— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) May 31, 2018
The entire team needs to be focused on their rotations, closeouts and help defense. Having now heard it mentioned by McCaffery, Cook and the Baer brothers on the HawkeyeReport podcast, I’m starting to get the sense the staff is legitimately committing time in the offseason to shoring things up on that side of the court. Good.
It’s one reason I’m back on the optimism train for this upcoming season.
I know, I know, I’m setting myself up for disappointment, but hear me out.
This is turning point season for coach McCaffery. He’s surely aware of that. We’re coming off back-to-back seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since Fran raised the program from the ashes with a return to the tourney in 2013-2014.
Aside from the relative heat, which I think would legitimately be there after another disappointing season, under McCaffery’s seat, the more important impact might actually be on the recruiting trail. This is a huge year for Iowa in recruiting. Fran is in on some massive fish, including Bettendorf PG DJ Carton and several 4-5 star power forwards in 2019. In 2020, there’s the 5-star center Xavier Foster from Oskaloosa and a top-5 overall player in PG Jalen Suggs on the list. Another down year and none of those guys end up here. Show the kind of improvement and promise an NCAA Tournament return and an NBA draft pick bring and perhaps one or more of them end up in Iowa City.
Any number of these recruits are the type to change the face of the program. This is overreaction Monday and I’m prone to hyperbole, but it’s not an exaggeration to say this upcoming season could be the difference between Fran McCaffery being on the outs at Iowa and being remembered as one of the longest-tenured coaches who brought the program back from the brink to respectability.
The return of Tyler Cook, and to a lesser extent Isaiah Moss, are major piece of the puzzle for this season. Both bring more athleticism than most of the rest of the returning roster. Both can score in bunches. And both have the ability to defend.
As much as I want to believe this team has added weapons like CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery (I’m including him because we really only saw him briefly last season) to overcome the loss of a guy like Tyler Cook, I just don’t see how a 4-14 Big Ten team improves while losing their leading scorer and rebounder. Certainly not to the level to get back to the NCAA Tournament and likely not to the level needed to be attractive to the type of talent mentioned above.
With all those weapons added to the return of Cook and Moss, however, I think this team is poised for a bounce back. I’ll again be disappointed if they don’t make the tournament (full disclosure, I had them pegged for the tourney and a top 4-5 finish in conference last season - eek) next season and I fully expect them to be up north of 20 wins in the regular season.
The offense should be a ton of fun to watch - more so if Cook does improve on that outside shot and Moss plays with consistency and confidence. I can see the offense flowing with space as Cook and Garza play an inside out game with Bohannon and Wieskamp floating around the perimeter waiting to drill an open look, Moss ready to slash through the paint and finish at the rim.
The defense can only go one direction from a year ago and with the apparent focus, I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll see a significant improvement. If Cook puts an emphasis on it, he could be a ridiculous rim protector. Moss and Dailey have length and enough quickness to guard the perimeter. If the entire defense puts an emphasis on closing out on shooters and rotating to help, they could be vastly improved over last year.
If they can do those things, this team will be back to where we all expected them a year ago. It’s a lot of ifs, but none of them are unreasonable. We need them to become realities. I’m ready for them to become realities.
Frankly, I’m ready to be mad again - in the good way.
Happy Monday. Go Hawks.