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Iowa’s 2018-19 Season Gives Reason to Believe More is Possible

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The pieces returning have tasted success and with requisite improvement can take Iowa to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 21 years

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Tennessee Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For the 20th consecutive season, the Sweet 16 begins and the Iowa Hawkeyes are not among the teams remaining. Despite an exit resembling the last two Fran McCaffery-led tournament appearances in result only, I can’t help but feel immeasurably more optimistic about the future than in either of those years.

2015 was one defined by Aaron White’s sheer dominance. In six of Iowa’s last eight games, he received KenPom’s algorithmic MVP. He scored less than 20 points just twice for an average of 22.5/game on 56.2% shooting. Yet when the team ran out of gas against a formidable Gonzaga squad, it felt like Iowa was miles away from the Sweet 16.

2016 had the making of something special. There is nothing denying the heights they reached during the conference season at 10-1, in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten race, with Jarrod Uthoff garnering national acclaim. A loss at Indiana sent this team spiraling to a point where they could never recover. We fans didn’t even have a beam to blame. With four guys playing over 30 minutes a game in conference and a fifth (Adam Woodbury) at 26, the wear and tear led to another lackluster second round performance on the heels of an already disappointing first round win. It didn’t matter that the loss came to the eventual champions.

Ultimately, Iowa’s second round performances under Fran, and 2014’s First Four exit, had fans feeling like Iowa was closer to the 68th best team in each tournament than the 16th.

The arc of 2019 does resemble 2016 in a way. After all, these teams had the same record through 20, 24, and 30 games, but there was a very different feel to them. Whereas 2016’s early season success was defined by dominance, 2019 was defined by mettle. Sure, the comeback wins were coming against lesser foes, but the way they happened didn’t happen to Iowa. That nature (and November B1G season losses) kept Iowa’s analytical and observational rankings in check instead of the skyrocketing to the top of both in 2016.

That mettle carried over into Iowa’s most important games of the season. Facing double-digit deficits and sporting looks like a deer staring down an 18-wheeler, Iowa was able to twice comeback and show they were capable of greatness. Their offense throughout the last 32 minutes of Friday’s game (72 points) was outdone only by their second half defense against Tennessee (22 points allowed). As the lone game in the timeslot on each day, they were social media darlings for the heart and character they showed.

Finally, under Fran, Iowa was able to go toe-to-toe with National Title contender in the biggest game of their season and feel closer to the 16th best team in the tournament than the 64th.

There will not be Nicholas Baer, however, though there is reason to believe his impact will last through at least this senior class. While he was the only one playing his heart out as 2016 came to a close, every damn Hawkeye who saw the floor on Sunday played with that intensity during their furious comeback. He would probably hate the comparison to Voldemort, but we should all hope a little bit of Nicholas Baer’s basketball soul is retained by each Hawkeye returning next year.

There might not be Tyler Cook. For as much heat as he has received, he showed just how important he is to Iowa on the floor as someone who can match anybody’s athleticism with skill and will to put the ball in the basket. Yet with or without him, this should be the deepest and most talented Iowa squad under McCaffery to date.

With the offseason now upon us, so are the questions:

  • Is there a cause/effect to late season slides? What needs to be addressed to mitigate them?
  • What does defensive improvement look like? Does it involve any scheme change (e.g. full-time press)?
  • Can Iowa establish a consistent scoring threat?
  • How do the players (re-)integrate offensively and defensively?

But we always enter the offseason with questions. Not always do we enter it with hope.