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The 2020-21 Iowa Hawkeyes: Where will they fit on Fran’s countdown?

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If Luka Garza returns, anything less than #1 is a disappointment

NCAA Basketball: Penn State 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:


So the last 10 weeks have been dedicated to counting down Fran McCaffery’s teams as the Iowa Hawkeyes head coach. Above are the rankings so feel free to use the space below as an argument for why I’m an idiot for putting one team above the other.

For me though, any discussion about Fran’s past immediately leads into questions of the future. Which in this context means: Where will the 2020-21 season rank among his teams?

As you may have noticed from the subhead, Luka Garza is the big question mark. But there are four more to pose which could guide just how good, or great this team is poised to be.

#1: Who plays center?

There’s no sense teasing this question out because really, it’s the big question in all of college basketball. 247 captured a recent Matt Norlander hit where he called Iowa a top 5-10 team with Luka Garza and a fringe top 25 team without him.

Judging by Vegas’s odds, they certainly believe he’s returning.

Hypothetically, though, the Hawks are SOL if Garza doesn’t return. Jack Nunge, who is probably poised for a Ryan Kriener-like role alongside Garza, is thrust into the lineup as Iowa’s #1 big man. After him? Freshman Josh Ogundele, who remains in London with family, and ???.

My guess is that we see non-zero time with Connor McCaffery at the 5, should Garza remain in the NBA draft with the Murray twins vying for playing time at the spot, as well.

#2: Can this group defend consistently?

Last year’s group was not necessarily bad, but at 97th according to KenPom, they have plenty of room to improve. McCaffery has put together five outfits which put up stronger defensive rankings according to the site ($). Those teams were largely built around both stout interior defenders (namely Adam Woodbury & Gabe Olaseni) but also a plethora of players who could challenge on the perimeter (Jarrod Uthoff, Aaron White, Eric May).

Iowa does not have any true, lockdown defenders. Joe Toussaint and CJ Fredrick both flashed at times, as did Connor with his ability to slide into the four. However, a concerted effort across 40 minutes is what will take them from a pretty good, offensively-focused team to a great, well-balanced team. (Quick statistical aside: only UCONN had an offense or defense out of KenPom’s top 20 ahead of the tournament and won the dang thing so performing well in both is indicative of high potential)

None of this is to say they couldn’t defend. I found much of the consternation about Garza’s defense a little misguided - his 6.0% block rate ranked 100th in the country and 10th in conference (both higher than Obi Toppin) - and his effort on that side of the floor is never questioned. They regularly clamped down on teams in the waning moments of games (Wisconsin and at Minnesota come to mind) so the “will to” was always there.

Whether it can be translated across a whole game is obviously in question for this group. With added depth, there’s a case they can.

#3: Which Joe Wieskamp does Iowa get?

I will not accept any Wieskamp slander in this house. His ceiling is high and he’s performed in clutch moments. Iowa is better with him than without him.

BUT

There is a case Iowa relied on him too much throughout last season with nowhere else to turn for perimeter-oriented offense. His minutes and usage rate went up so when defenses keyed on him, his efficiency dropped.

One figures that with help on the perimeter will ease his burden. Jordan Bohannon is within range when he steps onto the court so his return will bring help defense away from Wieskamp.

Yet it’s unlikely he returns to his freshman year “corner three/layup/free throw” offense which yielded such a high efficiency. In fact, his impressive freshman year is part of what made the latter half of his sophomore year feel disappointing. His 2020 conference-only efficiency of 111.2 would have been behind only Garza, Bohannon, and Nicholas Baer in 2019.

#4: What does Iowa get from their freshmen?

The 2020 class of Ogundele, Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, and Keegan & Kris Murray is Iowa’s biggest since 2016 and rose as the high school accolades of the players rolled in, finishing at 55, according to 247. It’s a true class you could build around as they could reasonably be on the floor together at a single time.

Yet each of them require some amount of projection. After years toiling away a little north of Iowa City, the Murrays grew in height, weight, and noteriety during their season in prep school. Ulis also performed admirably in his brother’s shadow, finishing second all-time as the highest riser in 247’s rankings. Tony Perkins was only runner-up to Mr. Basketball in Indiana.

Point being: they can ball. But do they need to?

Iowa can conceivably put together a rotation without a single one of their freshmen which probably makes sense in the short term but would do little to bolster depth Iowa has proven to need, a la 2016. With injuries hobbling Bohannon and Fredrick, Ulis and Perkins can provide depth there, as can the Murrays to ease Wieskamp’s burden.

All this brings us to the final question:

#5: Can Fran master a rotation?

When looking at how past teams have won a national championship, Virginia had a rotation of about 7.5 guys. Villanova’s was 6 plus two freshmen playing sparingly. UNC was deeper than the prior two, with a rotation of about 10 guys, though they were dealing with injuries throughout the year. Yet even they played just 8 guys significant time in the title game.

Point being: stability matters.

This is why Fran NEEDS to have his best season in 2020-21 if Iowa is going to hit their ceiling. It is against his nature, but playing time cannot be a carrot for strong performance in practice.

The goal for next season should be to play the best 8 players the most when the games count the most. Using the first 20-25 games to trim the lineup from 11 or 12 to 9-10 should mitigate potential injuries and prepare guys in case they are called up.

Then settle on 8 in March.