Welp, we are here.
The #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (0-0) return to the hardwood and face the North Carolina Central Eagles (0-0) to begin the 2020-21 basketball season. All systems are go, as of this writing, but weirder things have happened this year than a college basketball game getting cancelled after the preview has been written and published for this here blog.
NC Central is not necessarily the type of team we see from Iowa in this early season setting. Yes, they’re from a low major conference out east, but the Eagles have been perennial champs of the MEAC as LeVelle Morton has guided them to the NCAA Tournament in four of his 11 seasons in Durham. Three seasons were last year, when they projected to be the MEAC’s conference champion and 2013/2015, where the Eagles had 16-0 & 15-1 conference records, respectively, before losing in their conference tournament.
According to KenPom, they’ve settled into the high 200s/low 300s after a stretch of four seasons (2012-2016) where they finished 164th, 92nd, 302nd, & 161st. They enter this game at 299th after coming off their 18-13 (13-3) season. They return three starters and a handful of other contributors from a team which allowed a conference-low .897 points/possession in MEAC play.
In other words, these guys are not slouches. Iowa should win, handily, but NCCU could provide some issues at times, especially with their guard-oriented play.
- CJ Keyser (G, 6’3”, 190 lbs): Keyser returns the most points/game of any Eagle, at 11.6. He does it a number of ways, with strong percentages inside (59.7%) and outside (41.3%) the arc. The question is if the Wichita State transfer can fill the gap of Jibri Blount, who averaged nearly 20 points/game for the Eagles last year.
- Jordan Perkins (G, 6’1”, 190 lbs): Central’s point guard may give the Hawk backcourt some fits with his play. The fellow senior often has the ball in his hands, for better or worse. He ranks second all time in assists for NCCU, but also had a turnover rate of 31.2% (2.7/game). Though he is not a strong shooter from three or the free throw line, he is capable at getting to the free throw line with a .358 free throw rate and could get some Hawkeyes in foul trouble.
- Justin Whatley (F, 6’8”, 235 lbs): Blount, mentioned above, was the Eagles’ primary center last year, according to KenPom, and played 93% of the minutes there, down the stretch. Whatley is the biggest remaining Eagle, and will have the unfortunate task of going against Iowa’s POY frontrunner, Luka Garza. He struggled with fouls last year (called for 6.9/40 minutes) and is likely to serve as the last line of defense in the paint.
- Defense? I don’t know about you, but the thing I am most curious to see is if Iowa has finally turned the corner defensively. Yes, we hear the same song and dance every year, about prioritizing it. But if Iowa looks to build a championship resume, turning that side of the floor from a top 100 unit to a top 40 unit is going to be what does it. It will start at the perimeter, with healthy versions of Jordan Bohannon & CJ Fredrick, and finishes when Iowa secures rebounds. Though NC Central is unlikely to out-big the Hawks, they are willing rebounders, which may pose some challenges if Iowa is too focused on transition offense. Something to keep an eye on: turnovers. NC Central was bottom 15 in TO% last year.
- Rotation? With Jack Nunge out on bereavement, Iowa’s seventh through ninth men get particularly interesting. Will Iowa stagger their three best shooters? Who are the first guys off the bench? Does Josh Ogundele see the floor or will Fran get creative with small ball when Garza is off the court? What freshmen have an impact? Does McCaffery over-tinker or allow some flow to develop. Yes, this is probably a dozen questions within a single question - I’m sure you have plenty of your own which would fall into this category - but who Fran plays may give some insight into what he’s hoping to build in the early part of the calendar.
- Repeat? If Luka Garza backs up his conference player of the year award with another one - or an even bigger trophy - he’ll have to show even more than his 23.9 point/9.8 rebound 2019-20 campaign. This does not necessarily mean more scoring, though that could be fun against an undersized center, but can he find the open man when he is double- or triple-teamed? Does he look more laterally quick in defending the pick and roll? Can he contest, and block, shots without fouling or getting out of rebounding position? As Iowa’s best player, the Hawks will often go how he goes, but if he can successfully get teammates more involved, it’ll lighten his burden, and ultimately make Iowa a better team.