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The 2017-18 Iowa Hawkeyes: Fran McCaffery’s Worst Team

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A team overly reliant on youth couldn’t match the heightened expectations from 2017’s unexpected success

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

Over the course of 10 weeks, we’re counting down Fran McCaffery’s squads as head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Below are links to previous iterations in the series:


In the fall of 2017, the Iowa Hawkeyes were coming off an unexpected and enjoyable season featuring senior Peter Jok and a cadre of underclassmen. With all but Jok returning, expectations were high for the young bunch. Unfortunately, their youth shined through on the way to a 14-19 record, 4-14 in conference. Thankfully, the season ended a week earlier than normal as a result of Jim Delany moving the Big Ten Conference Tournament to Madison Square Garden the week ahead of the Big East Tournament.

The Lead-Up

Despite losing first team all-Big Ten performer, Peter Jok, there was reason to believe the team might be even better. Putting myself on the chopping block, I wrote a retrospectively hilarious piece and opined:

Iowa is well suited to backfill the 30 minutes and 18 points per game. Two players slated to take his minutes - Nicholas Baer and Brady Ellingson - must maintain their high efficiency in an increased role while Isaiah Moss will have to improve his efficiency, as well. However, Iowa should be able to manage through it with improvement on defense and a return to a more egalitarian offense. Along with individual improvement, I am optimistic Iowa can build on a solid 2017 and surprise the pundits by making a run at a top four conference finish.

HAHAHA

I wasn’t necessarily alone. Tom Dinehart had Iowa squarely in the middle at 7th and Chad Leistikow wrote the season could be “special.” My favorite quote from Leistikow’s is from Tyler Cook: “We don’t ever want to be in the NIT again.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong.

There was plenty of weirdness off the court, as Christian Williams had an 11th hour transfer which forced Connor McCaffery out of his redshirt year and into his year from hell. Nicholas Baer injured his hand and all that rhetoric about defense proved to be just that: talk.

The Statistical Profile

(all ranks vs. McCaffery teams)

Record: 14-19 (9th), 4-14 (T-9th)
Offense: AdjO - 116.6 (4th); 79.7 PPG (3rd)
Defense: AdjD - 108.4 (10th); 78.7 PPG (10th)

Simply put, this team had absolutely no desire to defend. Slow starts plagued the team in a holdover problem from the prior season so games were quickly out of hand. Though the offensive numbers were good, there’s a case they were goosed by playing 30 minutes of garbage time. It’s not an exaggeration to say opponents could score at will against Iowa’s youth and lack of mobility on the perimeter.

The Rotation

(ORtg, % Poss; Points-Rebounds-Assists; FG%/3P%/FT%; MPG)
ORtg & % Poss via KenPom ($); rest via sports-ref

Full-time Starters
Jordan Bohannon, so - 121.6, 0.201; 13.5-2.2-5.4; 0.423/0.43/0.904; 31.8
Tyler Cook, so - 108.8, 0.263; 15.3-6.8-1.8; 0.566/0.143/0.661; 28
Isaiah Moss, rs so - 110.1, 0.213; 11.1-2.2-1.9; 0.42/0.386/0.879; 24.2
Luka Garza, fr - 122.3, 0.239; 12.1-6.4-1.1; 0.557/0.348/0.681; 21.7

Part-time Starters

Nicholas Baer, rs jr - 108.3, 0.152; 5.3-5-1.8; 0.402/0.307/0.591; 21.4
Jack Nunge, fr - 107.8, 0.19; 5.7-2.8-1; 0.443/0.333/0.755; 15.7
Ahmad Wagner, jr - 95.5, 0.138; 1.7-1.7-0.6; 0.5/0.333/0.333; 9.1

Bench

Maishe Dailey, so - 105.2, 0.157; 4.9-1.9-1.6; 0.426/0.389/0.576; 16.5
Cordell Pemsl, so - 106.4, 0.194; 5.7-4.5-1.5; 0.565//0.671; 16.4
Brady Ellingson, rs jr - 101.4, 0.141; 2.8-0.7-1.1; 0.412/0.395/0.4; 11
Ryan Kriener, so - 103.4, 0.192; 3.6-1.9-1; 0.551/0.2/0.381; 10.4

Deep Bench

Dom Uhl, sr - 54.2, 0.143; 0.3-1.1-0.4; 0.222/0/0.25; 4.6
Connor McCaffery, fr - 107.7, 0.102; 2-1-1.8; 0.667/0.5/0.75; 13

First and foremost, the Hawks’ only senior was Dom Uhl, who posted a cool 73 minutes on the season. Baer, Ellingson, and Wagner posted plenty. Wagner and Moss were the last men standing from the 2015 recruiting class, which borders on Lickliterian outside of Isaiah Moss’s swan song at Kansas.

  • Wagner: finished out his collegiate athletic career at Kentucky on the football field
  • Brandon Hutton: redshirted at Iowa before two seasons at Indian Hills CC; played two years at that Northwestern State
  • Andrew Fleming: transferred to Lipscomb; averaged 9.7 points in his senior year
  • Christian Williams: played a season and a half at Indiana State

With limited production from a upperclassmen, the younger guys leaned on what they did best: getting buckets. It didn’t help and many of them were stretched too thin. Jack Nunge slotted at small forward for much of the year despite a plodding 6’11” frame. Nicholas Baer played non-zero minutes at shooting guard. Because of Connor’s mononucleosis, he was unable to play during the latter half of the season, which extended into baseball season and forced a redshirt there. Bohannon played way too much, way too injured because of a lack of depth at guard.

None of it worked. In a way, though, it was a necessary evil. Luka Garza’s skill shone through at times as did his desire. Bohannon, Moss, & Cook all had their moments. And there were lessons learned (sort of) which they carry through today. Defense is no longer a sieve and the offense has just gotten better.

From a recruiting perspective, Iowa is in a rare position where they are OVERFLOWING with guards.

The Low Point

All of it?

In looking back through the season, they had so many ugly stretches, it’s difficult to choose. Though they plodded through a six-game schneid, many of those games were against decent teams, save a bad Minnesota team.

The game that sticks out, though, is a 16-point loss to offensively challenged Rutgers.* Both teams entered with just one conference win, with Iowa coming off an overtime win against Illinois. If Iowa was going to surge into relevance, they’d have to string some wins together.

They couldn’t.

*For reference for how bad Rutgers’ offense was, KenPom ranked their offense even lower than Iowa’s defense

Honorable mentions: Fran McCaffery’s press conference where he had to stick up for Gary Barta not announcing his extension because they just lost to Virginia Tech by 20-plus points; being down 9 points in the 7th place game in the Cayman Islands

The High Point

It’s unquestionable that the high point to this season was their comeback win at Illinois. Despite yielding runs of 13-0 and 10-0 (remember how bad they were at starting games?), Iowa posed a frantic comeback in Champaign, scoring over 1.5 points per possession in the second half.

Each of Bohannon, Cook, and Garza went freaking ham, with a late and-one yielding my still all-time favorite Frank Garza moment.

Honorable mentions: neutral site win at Colorado, rivalry wins against Wisconsin and Minnesota

The What If

There’s not really any positive alternative reality with this team. The defense was just too bad to hypothesize away.

Even if Fran got everyone to stay from that recruiting class, it’s not like they were elite performers at their final destinations and would have filled gaps on this roster outside of being bodies in the correct position.

Maybe it looks different if Nicholas Baer and Connor McCaffery are 100% for all 30 games? Should Baer have been healthy, they might have snagged another win in the Caymans. Connor would enable Bohannon to slide off the ball more but he didn’t really come into his own until this past season.

But does it change the trajectory of Iowa’s season? Hard to see how it would. It was a team destined to fail.

The Why

Though Iowa had a worst record in Fran McCaffery’s first season, the expectations which came attached to this season really set it apart as the worst. They consistently looked lost on defense, lost to mediocre teams with regularity (Louisiana, South Dakota State, Indiana, Iowa State, etc), and lost to decent-to-good teams by wide margins with even more regularity (save a three-point loss against MSU). Just a lot of losing. Coupled with the weird extension off the court, I don’t remember as much dread during Fran’s tenure as existed during this one.

Retrospectively, it’s easy to see how this season went awry. A lost recruiting class and a half left the team devoid of veteran talent amid a backwards roster. Injuries exacerbated those issues and Iowa had no surprises from those remaining as McCaffery couldn’t seem to press any correct button.

Thankfully, many who lived through this season have used it for fuel. 2019 saw Iowa return to the NCAA Tournament and get another win. That upward trajectory continued into 2020 with the most fun squad since at least 2017 and the Hawks look poised for a strong 2020-21 if everyone is back and college basketball is moving forward as planned.