Big Ten football is less than three weeks away. Iowa football is less than three weeks away. All attention for Hawkeye fans should be on that building excitement. And yet, it’s hard not to look a month beyond Iowa’s first scheduled football game of 2020 and feel almost giddy thinking about the return of Luka Garza and the Iowa hoops team.
The delayed start to football season means there’s at least some risk of lulling fans to sleep. We’ve had a schedule, a revised schedule, a fully postponed season, then a resumed season with a newly revised schedule and now fans are entering week six of the college football season with nearly three weeks remaining until we get to watch anyone in the conference take the field again. As enjoyable as it is to watch football without having the heart palpitations which have become part of the Iowa fan experience, it’s easy to almost forget that the Hawkeyes in fact are having a football season this year.
That’s especially true when the start of said season is so close to the start of what is expected to be one of the best Iowa basketball seasons in a generation. It’s been more than 30 years since the Hawkeyes came into a season ranked inside the top-5 nationally and nearly as long since Iowa legitimately had Final Four hopes. Having those expectations while there is no Iowa football on TV or in Kinnick is almost enough to forget we even have football. Almost.
But until we see the Hawkeyes back on our TV screens, we have plenty of time to daydream. When it comes to the 2020-2021 season, the sky is the limit for Iowa basketball. That much was clear the moment Luka Garza announced he was returning for his senior season.
Garza, who was the best player in college basketball a season ago, is poised have one of the most prolific seasons in Iowa basketball history. Scratch that, Garza is poised to have another of Iowa’s most prolific seasons in school history. A season ago, the big man set the school’s single season scoring record with 740 points (23.9 ppg) and added 305 rebounds (9.8 rpg) to become only the third player in Big Ten history to top 700 points and 300 rebounds in the same season. He now sits at 1,559 career points and 660 career rebounds, needing just 557 points and 330 rebounds to graduate as Iowa’s all-time leader in both categories. Before COVID-19 meant likely shortened seasons, those were virtual locks. Now, they’re still doable, though the rebound totals would be very impressive.
Particularly given how little the Iowa offense is likely to miss shots this year. Surrounding Garza this year will be one of the best collection of shooters we’ve seen in some time. Jordan Bohannon is back for another season and within 90 three-pointers of leaving as the Big Ten’s career leader (he averaged 88 per season in his first three years). C.J. Fredrick led the conference in 3-point percentage a season ago (the conference website lists Cassius Winston despite Fredrick shooting a full 8 percentage points better because Izzo) and hit more than 50% of his tries. And then there’s “Just Joe” Wieskamp who has shot at better than a 38% clip over his career from beyond the arc. Garza himself shot nearly 36% from deep a season ago. If those are your 3rd and 4th options from deep, you’ve got a potent offense.
But Iowa is also returning the Big Ten’s leader in assist/turnover ratio with Connor McCaffery. They bring back “Turbo” Joe Toussaint who is perhaps the quickest guard Iowa has had in more than a decade and was among the conference’s leaders in steals per game a season ago. AND THEN THEY ADD IN A PAIR OF 6’10”+ BIG MEN TO SUPPORT GARZA IN THE POST, A FORMER TOP-50 SF PROSPECT, THE MOST DYNAMIC PLAYER FROM THE STATE OF INDIANA*, A TOUGH PG FROM THE CHI AND A PAIR OF 6’8” LEGACY SHOOTING TWINS. TO THE BEST OFFENSE IN THE CONFERENCE A SEASON AGO.
It. Is. Nuts. How good this team could be. The only questions heading into the season are whether they can stay healthy, whether Fran can figure out his rotations and how to limit them, and whether this team will even need to play better defense.
But as exciting as this upcoming season is for Hawkeye fans, it’s almost as exciting to look beyond this season. Iowa will lose some legends to graduation as Garza and Bohannon will both be moving on following the season. But beyond that, it’s unknown who else will be gone. Wieskamp tested the NBA waters this offseason and is likely to do so again next year. If Fredrick has a step up from last season into this one, he’s another sneaky one to watch as the draft deadline approaches. But in reality, you’re likely looking at a 2021-2022 Iowa roster that loses three players, +/- 1 player.
That doesn’t spell back-to-back NCAA Tournament runs, but the continuity heading beyond this season will be there. You’ll likely have 2-3 starters back and some serious depth already built. What you’re lacking, Fran will certainly be able to sell to a transfer looking to play for a winner. Coming off what should be a deep run, Iowa will be a hot landing spot in the first year where all transfers will be immediately eligible. That opens the door for this Iowa staff on the recruiting trail.
After going a full year between commitments, that’s some good news. It seems the staff has been planning to lean into that strategy as they’ve limited their offers in the class of 2021. Last week, they got their top target, in state SF Payton Sandfort. Sandfort isn’t a guy that is going to blow you away on tape, but he’s a guy who will be in the right place at the right time for four years and will knock down shots when they come. He looks an awful lot like Nicholas Baer. When paired with a trio of other interchangeable hybrid forward types in Patrick McCaffery and the Murray twins, Fran will have lots of versatility to go with his big men (Jack Nunge and Josh Ogundele) and his dynamic guards (Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins). And of course, there’s the possibility of the eldest McCaffery still stirring the drinks and the Ice Man (CJ Fredrick) drilling shots from all over the court. Anything more in 2021 is big game hunting.
That should be exciting for Iowa fans. Fran has often been able to identify top talent early and make strong relationships. The Hawkeyes have made top-5s and top-3s often for big names but just as often fallen short for some blueblood that came in at the last second. Iowa isn’t going to be a blueblood in 2021, but they’re going to be a household name thanks to Garza and the success this team is expected to have. This is the prime time for Fran to land another Tyler Cook type (in terms of talent and recruiting profile, not necessarily skill set) to mix with a steady guy like Sandfort and a transfer target.
Keeping 2021 focused on 1-2 guys should also allow the staff to get rolling on 2022 where they can still sell this season’s success. Then things get interesting in 2023 (e.g. high school sophomores this season) as the state of Iowa is loaded with talent. As mentioned in Sandfort’s commitment story, the Waukee native has a younger brother in the class of ‘23 who is expected to be a borderline top-50 player. The state will also have a top-10 player in Omaha Biliew, the Sandforts’ teammate at Waukee. Then there’s the youngest McCaffery brother, Jack, who is rumored to be the best of the three (the other two were both top-100 players with Patrick top-50 at one point). And a younger Wieskamp brother, who looks just like a young Joe in virtually every way. And football coach LeVar Woods has a talented son on the same AAU team.
It’s the perfect transitional recruiting class to build another foundation upon.
All of this is to say Iowa is poised for big things this season, but this season should be the springboard Fran and staff have needed to make that leap from good to great. There will be something to sell recruits, both in terms of playing time and name brand. There will be recruits worth selling. If the two can finally meet, we could be looking at a return to the glory days of Olson, Raveling and early Dr. Tom.
Oh to dream.
And thus, it truly is almost possible to forget that we’re two weeks away from an Iowa football game week.
* I know, you didn’t believe me on the whole “most dynamic player in the state of Indiana” thing. I wouldn’t joke about that sort of thing. Really. Tony Perkins is a future star. He was the best player in the state of Indiana last year. The star rankings got this one wrong. This kid is Joe Wieskamp with the juice.