Disclaimer: As the title says, this is the optimist’s guide to Iowa’s 2020-2021 basketball season. There are counterpoints to be made, certainly, but this isn’t the time or place for those. The pessimist’s guide will soon be coming and those points will no doubt be made therein. Also note that this is a guide to the 2020-2021 season, not the trajectory of the program or Fran McCaffery’s competence as a coach. Those topics will also surely be beaten to death in the coming weeks and months.
Iowa’s basketball season came to a screeching halt on Monday as the Hawkeyes were blown out in the Round of 32 by 7th seed Oregon. The final game was a major letdown given the expectations for this team and the reaction from Hawkeye fans has been in accordance. But despite the disappointment, there is certainly reason to take a positive view on the season that just ended, however misaligned that may be with current sentiment.
For starters, the simple fact that we had a season is reason to celebrate. No, really, in a year where we’ve all been stuck at home, held back from doing anything remotely normal and totally disrupted from our traditions, getting to enjoy a basketball season that saw not a single game cancelled (OK, so there were two games postponed, but they were eventually played) was a breath of fresh air. Coming off of a season that was cut short by COVID-19 and on the heels of football season that suffered the same fate, it truly was a blessing to be able to take in a full basketball season, complete with a postseason, in 2020-2021.
And what a season it was. Sure, we all wanted to see the curse of Tom Davis lifted and Iowa to finally make that Sweet 16 run. Most Iowa fans expected it, which makes the ending that much more painful. But at the end of the day, we just witnessed one of the greatest basketball seasons in program history.
In 124 season of Iowa basketball, there have only been 19 with a better overall winning percentage than the one which just ended. Only 14 saw Iowa with a better conference winning percentage and in terms of raw totals, this was the most Big Ten wins in program history (tied with 1987 and 1970).
The Hawkeyes earned a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament - the best in program history (tied again with 1987). That came as a result of one of the most successful regular seasons we’ve seen. Iowa entered the year with its highest preseason ranking ever (5th) and largely lived up to the hype, matching the second-highest in-season rank in program history (3rd) and entering the tournament ranked 8th in the nation.
Put simply, it was an historic season at a time when we sorely needed something to be excited about. And not only did the team as a whole give us something to be excited about, Luka Garza gave us all something to tell our grandkids about.
Regardless of the outcome on Monday, we just witnessed the greatest basketball player in Iowa history have an all-time great season. Luka Garza leaves as Iowa’s ONLY two-time first team All-American in program history. He is going to be the National Player of the Year. His dominance on the court was matched only by the example he set off of it.
Garza was the ultimate representative for the University of Iowa as a hard-worker who overcame physical limitations and fought through adversity to take himself and the team to previously unimaginable heights based exclusively on hard work. He was a genuine, humble and generous personality that was constantly put on display for us all to enjoy, again, in a year when there was a lot that was unenjoyable.
As incredible as both Garza and this team (to completely gloss over Jordan Bohannon’s place in the history books) were, it’s easy to let that be overshadowed by how the season came to an end. There is no sugar-coating it - it was a disappointment to all. But perspective is important and should be reason for optimism. Or at least less pessimism.
For starters, Iowa has only made eight Sweet Sixteen appearances in the history of the program. As noted above, this year was a historic one and certainly could have fit this bill (and yes, we all expected it to), but the notion that a season is unsuccessful if it doesn’t end in such a run is frankly absurd. By that definition more than 95% of all Iowa basketball seasons have been a disappointment. That’s not a realistic barometer and using it as such is simply setting yourself up for disappointment and missing the joy of the ride.
So much of making one of those coveted runs comes down to a few factors. For starters, being good helps. The old saying is you’d rather be lucky than good, but come NCAA Tournament time, being good all years creates some inherent luck. Iowa checked that box in 2020-2021 and were rewarded with a 2 seed. In most years, that means one of the easiest paths to a Sweet Sixteen.
But this wasn’t most years. As with every other facet of the year, the NCAA Tournament was the exception rather than the rule and Iowa’s seed was rather meaningless. That second key factor, the luck of the draw, went totally against the Hawkeyes. It didn’t matter in the first round, but Iowa’s 15-2 draw against Grand Canyon was a classic tournament committee setup. Few teams in the country have the big men to compete with Garza inside and Iowa was handed the only low major around with three of them to throw at him. In round 2, it was the polar opposite. Oregon didn’t have anyone to throw at Garza but they had a roster full of athletes Iowa simply couldn’t guard. There are very few teams in the country that can say that and only one came into the tournament as a 7 seed. They did it after winning what has since proven to be the best conference come tournament time. By contrast, Iowa’s counterpart in the Midwest region, Houston (which had an inferior resume by almost any objective measure) is playing this weekend in the Sweet Sixteen against their first opponent of the tournament with a single-digit seed - 8th seeded Loyola (nothing against Loyola - they look great, but they’re seeded behind Oregon and it’s pretty clear the Ducks were under seeded to begin with).
Not only that, but Iowa played the tough draw on the shortest rest of any team in the second round against a team with the most. Thanks to the first round no contest, Oregon came into the matchup with fresh legs and a better opportunity to scout the Hawkeyes. Iowa had no chance to watch the Ducks live while Oregon entered the tournament under the assumption they would face Iowa in the second round if they advanced. Dana Altman was prepared.
What’s worse, Iowa had the third key element working against them. Despite closing the regular season on a relative hot streak, Iowa was certainly not peaking come tournament time. Sure they had stepped up their defense down the stretch, but they were severely banged up.
We all knew the loss of Jack Nunge to a torn meniscus would be a problem for Iowa’s depth behind Luka Garza, and we knew that CJ Fredrick had been battling plantar fasciitis for weeks, and yes Joe Wieskamp sprained an ankle just over two weeks ago, but we had no idea that Connor McCaffery had been playing on torn labrums in both hips that will require surgery to repair.
Fran McCaffery says CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery have been dealing with more injuries than we know, that's why he left them out in the second half. Applauds Oregon and also commends Iowa's fight today and this season.— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) March 22, 2021
In hindsight, it’s easy to see the decline in the older McCaffery’s performance and now we may know the cause. The same can be said of CJ Fredrick, who has clearly been hampered by the lingering effects of his injuries. He looked like a shell of himself Monday as he passed up wide open looks and deferred to teammates. Joe Wieskamp re-injuring the same rolled ankle just added insult to (all the) injury(ies).
It’s easy to get caught up in the frustration and the disappointment of again missing out on a conference championship or deep NCAA Tournament run, but any optimist would tell you the simple fact that we had those attainable goals is reason to celebrate. This was an historic Iowa basketball season that capped off the greatest career by any Hawkeyes hooper ever. This team fought through more adversity than fans knew about and were dealt a bad hand in a game that is equal parts skill and luck of the draw.
It stinks as an Iowa fan to feel like it happens to us more than our fair share, but it shouldn’t take away from what we did see this year (and if anything, that sentiment should have grounded expectations all year and prevented negative sentiment, but that’s not how this seems to work for the Charlie Brown Hawkeye fans among us who just know the football is getting pulled but insist on kicking it anyway, only to yell and scream that it was, in fact, pulled as expected). It was, after all, a hell of a ride.