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Too Much of a Good Thing: Making Sense of Iowa Basketball’s Scholarship Distribution

Iowa is set to have more scholarship players than it has scholarships in 2020-21. Something has got to give.

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

As much fun as Iowa basketball has been this season, Hawkeye fans can be forgiven if they occasionally find themselves looking ahead to next year. While the Hawkeyes will lose Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn to graduation, they are set to return every other contributor from this year’s team, along with three injured players (Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge, and Patrick McCaffery) who were expected to play major roles on this year’s squad. Iowa also has five incoming freshmen arriving on campus next year who will have a shot to work their way into the rotation:

Iowa Basketball Recruiting Class of 2020

Name Position Height Weight 247 Composite Rating
Name Position Height Weight 247 Composite Rating
Ahron Ulis PG 6 ft, 2 in 185 lbs 3-star
Josh Ogundele C 6 ft, 10 in 240 lbs 3-star
Tony Perkins SG 6 ft, 4 in 185 lbs 3-star
Keegan Murray SF 6 ft, 8 in 215 lbs 1-star
Kris Murray SF 6 ft, 8 in 205 lbs 1-star

Iowa is set to have an incredible number of talented players on its roster next season. In fact, Iowa may actually have TOO MANY talented players. With ten returning scholarship players and five commits who have accepted scholarship offers to join next year’s team, the Hawkeyes are currently set to have fifteen players on scholarship in 2020-2021 despite the NCAA allowing only thirteen scholarships per program. In other words, Iowa needs to shed two scholarships before the start of next season.

How exactly did Iowa, a team that has seemingly run out of healthy lettermen this season, end up with more scholarship players than they had available scholarships? Jordan Bohannon’s injury and redshirt certainly threw a wrench in coach Fran McCaffery’s plans for the program’s scholarship distribution, as it kept one player who would otherwise graduate this season and gave him another year of eligibility (though one can’t imagine McCaffery being particularly upset about getting another year of Jordan Bohannon). However, not only had Bohannon’s potential redshirt been discussed months before the early signing day, but Fran offered scholarships to the Murray twins (the 3rd and 4th commitments of this incoming class) in October when Iowa was still very much in play for the services of both Xavier Foster and Josh Ogundele, indicating that he was very intentional about bringing in five scholarship players in the incoming class.

Fran McCaffery also isn’t the only coach to “over-recruit” players in a given class. Given the high number of transfers and early NBA defections in college basketball in recent years, coaches have to be prepared for players to depart from their program much earlier than anticipated, which warrants forming strong ties with players who could potentially replace them. Iowa doesn’t have a great track record of landing grad transfers (Evelyn is the program’s first under McCaffery), so it tends to look to the high school ranks instead.

So how will Iowa navigate having two more scholarship players than it has scholarships? Here are a few scenarios as to how this situation might play out:

Scenario One: Iowa loses players to transfer

This scenario is far from unprecedented, with graduate transfers and defections due to lack of playing time becoming increasingly common in college basketball. In fact, Iowa lost two contributors from last year’s team to transfer (Isaiah Moss and Maishe Dailey), as well as two players the season prior (Ahmad Wagner and Brady Ellingson). Veteran players might transfer to maximize their playing time like Dailey and Ellingson, or because they believe, as Moss did, that a change of scenery can help jumpstart their potential pro career. If any of Iowa’s returning scholarship veterans feel they might have a better chance to shine wearing different colors next season, their absence could open up space for Iowa’s incoming players to take their scholarships.

Players like Riley Till and Cordell Pemsl are great Hawkeyes who have made real contributions to this year’s team. They could also get significantly more minutes and play a much bigger role in the rotation if they transferred to a smaller school. Whether they or some of their teammates choose to stick around to fight for more minutes next season or bolt for greener pastures remains to be seen, but this could be one factor worth watching.

Scenario Two: Iowa loses players to the pros

Neither Luka Garza or Joe Wieskamp are showing up on NBA mock draft boards at this stage in the season, but have made huge strides in 2020, and it’s not inconceivable that either player could look to move to the professional ranks. A breakout performance in the NCAA tournament could elevate Wieskamp’s stock considerably, and Garza may choose to strike while the iron is hot and try his luck in the NBA draft if he expects his draft stock to fall next season or if he has already tapped into the potential that he can develop and show in the college game. Jordan Bohannon could also be a candidate to head overseas, though this would only make sense if he had reason to suspect his hip injuries might diminish his production next season, justifying him taking a flyer on the pros before his stock dropped.

Scenario Three: Nobody leaves

While Iowa is likely to lose at least one player before next season begins (some level of attrition is the cost of doing business in major college basketball, after all), it is still very possible that every scholarship Hawkeye opts to remain in Iowa City for the 2020-21 season. Since each of Iowa’s incoming players has already signed their letter of intent and because it’s highly unlikely that McCaffery would look to remove the scholarship of a current Hawkeye without genuine cause, Iowa will have to get creative to accommodate all of its roster talent next season.

Fortunately, the Hawkeyes might have an ace in the hole to help them accommodate this situation. Connor and Patrick McCaffery could consider forfeiting their scholarships to two of the incoming freshmen, allowing Iowa to keep all of its talented players on the roster. This idea isn’t coming out of nowhere: Connor walked on to Iowa his freshman year despite easily having the high school pedigree to warrant a scholarship, while Patrick was committed to Iowa along with Joe Toussaint last season despite the Hawkeyes having only one scholarship senior set to graduate that year, prompting speculation that Fran intended to repeat this practice with his middle son. I’m certainly not advocating that either player do this—Connor has more than proved his value to the team, and Patrick was a 4-star prospect coming out of high school and one of the best recruits of the McCaffery era—but history tells us this is a move that Fran could consider if the circumstances call for it. By having his skilled sons play as walk-ons, Fran could ensure that Iowa accommodates all of its incoming talent without losing any of its current talent.

An uncertain future:

Fran locked down five high school recruits before the first month of the 2019-20 season was even finished instead of waiting to see if roster spots might come available or whether there might be a graduate transfer on the market worth considering. McCaffery’s desire secure commitments from these five players down shows that he clearly believes each of them can play Big Ten basketball and can meaningfully help this Iowa team in the coming years. Will McCaffery have to perform roster magic to make room for this incoming talent, or does he perhaps know something fans don’t about current player intending to move on after this season? Either way, it will be fascinating to watch what happens with Iowa’s scholarship distribution at season’s end.