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:
Following the downright bad 2017-18 season where everything that could go wrong, did, the Hawkeyes returned with the 2016 class as juniors (plus Isaiah Moss) with senior Nicholas Baer leading the way. Luka Garza and Connor McCaffery upped their contributions as the rotation thinned with Brady Ellingson and Ahmad Wagner transferring and Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl redshirting and only Joe Wieskamp coming into the fold.
The issues of the prior squad still plagued this iteration at times with bad starts leading to ugly blowouts down the stretch. There were still plenty of positive moments and Big Ten and NCAA tournament wins move this season into an ultimately positive season.
Perhaps it shows just how thin a line it is between the best team of this iteration and this one that flipping the Tennessee game into the win column, pushing them into the Sweet 16 would make it the clear #1 team of Fran McCaffery’s tenure. Ultimately the issues which led to Iowa’s deep hole in the first half of the second round game were too often for the excitement they provided to overcome.
In self-referential content: we generally agreed that they would be a bubble-ish team who might win a postseason game or two. Cool! Matt R wrote a nice piece about Fran’s ability to stay employed, which was aided buy a cush buyout signed the prior year. So we were very tepid in the outlook of the team and we certainly weren’t alone.
Chad Leistikow had a sorta mea culpa, declaring (without much reason to believe otherwise): “barring major injuries, if this team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament, something is systemically wrong with the Iowa basketball program.”
Yet something interesting did happen, as noted in Leistikow’s column, all 9 of Iowa’s top scorers returned. They had the pieces for a run and reason to believe an improvement from a truly wretched defense to only a bad one would result in a return to the NCAA Tournament.
The Statistical Profile
(all ranks vs. McCaffery teams)
Record: 23-12 (3rd), 10-10 (T-5th)
Offense: AdjO - 117.4 (2nd); 78.3 PPG (4th)
Defense: AdjD - 101.3 (7th); 73.9 PPG (8th)
They did it! They improved their defense from an awful 242nd in KenPom’s adjusted defense metric (108.4) to bad (by conference standards) at 101.3, good for 111th in the nation. Their offense even improved a bit.
In conference only action they were second to last by .002 points/possession instead of last by .063 points/possession. The offense actually went down by the same metric, but it was kind of inflated anyways because they were getting beat so bad.
And yeah, those games didn’t go away. The ones which started and Iowa just didn’t seem to have it. But they showed their hand early, winning against Oregon and Connecticut in Madison Square Garden, and were able to lean on that ability in tough times. Their string of tight games - at Indiana, vs. Northwestern, back on the road at Rutgers, then a last-second loss to Maryland before an overtime win against IU - will go down as an all-time exciting stretch in recent Hawkeye basketball.
We don’t need to talk about how the next four games went. (four losses, three on the road, by an average of 14)
ORtg & % Poss via KenPom ($); rest via sports-ref
|Jarrod Uthoff||rs jr||113.8||0.253||12.4||6.4||1.7||0.43||0.372||0.737||30.3|
|Nicholas Baer||rs sr||117.1||0.172||6.7||4.6||1.3||0.435||0.381||0.638||19.1|
- As big a concern as defense was going into the 2018-19 season, Fran McCaffery ironing out a solid rotation was arguably just as big. He cleared it up big time with five full-time starters outside of a couple dings in the post. KenPom had the Hawks with 6 starting lineups as a result of those injuries but Fran was able to roll out the locked in starters 29 times in 35 games.
- Despite bringing back the top 9 scorers, two of them (Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl) found themselves ultimately sitting out the season. Add in freshman CJ Fredrick and the rotation enabled guys to play their primary position. Joe Wieskamp was the necessary wing, in that respect, which allowed Nicholas Baer to return to a stretchier role.
- This group was very egalitarian from a scoring perspective. Tyler Cook leading the way at 14.5 really surprised me when looking back at the numbers as did his 2.4 assists. I’m not sure Fran ever found the perfect role for him, but he had his moments and wowed as much as anybody in the black-and-gold.
- Isaiah Moss topped out at Iowa: MY COLUMN.
- Joe Wieskamp quietly put together as efficient a freshman season as anybody under Fran.
The Low Point
Though I tried throughout much of the four-game slide to end the season, it’s tough to sugarcoat that turd. Just one horrible loss after another:
- at Ohio State, 90-70. Fran gets thrown out of the game and is reprimanded by the Big Ten for chasing down an official. I remember the foul coming at a time where Iowa was inches away from making it a game, then a non-foul, foul, and technical (Connor) went against Iowa. Fran T’d. And so it is written.
- Blowout loss against Rutgers on Senior Day. :(
- 45-point outing at Wisconsin
- OT loss where Nebraska hit everything down the stretch of the regulation and Connor missed a couple free throws.
Once again, they had a chance at the double-bye and BLEW IT.
Honorable mentions: Gary Dolphin hot mic, Gary Dolphin Bruno Fernando incident, first half of the Tennessee game
The High Point
A real, live, NCAA Tournament win!
It was a stressful first half where Iowa fell down by 13 early. It yo-yoed from there, before Iowa ended down just 6 at half after a Jordan Bohannon jumper.
Upon review of the tape above, the second half wasn’t nearly the glide to the finish I remember it being. A Bohannon three put Iowa up a point, though Cincy regained it quickly and extended it even quicker. Back to back threes by Wieskamp and Baer tied and then gave Iowa the lead they would never relinquish.
Though Wieskamp’s performance sticks out when looking at the box score, everybody contributed.
Honorable mentions: video edition (it’s wild that a 15-point win over a top 10 Michigan team doesn’t really feel like a high point)
The What If
This one’s easy: If Iowa closes out their comeback against Tennessee, this is the absolute lock #1 team of Fran’s tenure. All of their warts are forgiven with a return to the Sweet 16. They just couldn’t get over the hump.
One thing never to forget about how this game ended: Joe Wieskamp’s absolutely clutch free throws. If ever you need a moment to wonder if he has “it,” just recall these pressure-packed shots which sent the game to overtime.
This team was a rare one under Fran. They didn’t have the total alpha who led them, for better or worse, throughout the course of the season. There was no first-team all-Big Ten-er. Nobody had an individual award.
They were truly a team effort and one which embodies modern basketball. Anybody could be the reason for victory. They could beat teams inside or out, fast or slow, physical or finesse.
The problem, of course, is they could also lose all those ways, too. Ultimately, it was a season on which foundation was laid for this past season and the next one, where Iowa may return to heights unseen under Fran.