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Can Iowa Basketball Find a Solution at Center for Next Season?

Between the transfer portal, small ball possibilities, and a few promising young big men, the Hawkeyes could have several options at their disposal to replace Luka Garza and Jack Nunge next season.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Central at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

National Player of the Year Luka Garza is as close to an irreplaceable player as Iowa basketball has ever seen. Unfortunately, Fran McCaffery and his coaching staff are now focused on the unenviable task of trying to find his replacement. Luka’s former teammate Jack Nunge, a skilled and experienced big man who most fans expected to take Garza’s starting spot next year, has moved on to another opportunity at Xavier leaving a 6’11” hole in Iowa’s frontcourt. While the Hawkeyes were able to run their high-powered offense through their All-American center over the past few seasons, the team is suddenly in desperate need of a skilled big man capable of holding his own against the behemoths of the Big Ten on a nightly basis.

Over the past few days, Iowa’s options for finding production at the center position have become increasingly clear. The Hawkeyes will be hard pressed to manufacture the sheer output and efficiency they got from Garza even with a center by committee approach, but there are still several intriguing possibilities to choose from among the players who could man the middle for Iowa next season.

Option 1: The Newbie

In a surprising move which was announced over the weekend, Iowa commit Riley Mulvey, a 6’11”, 230 lb. center who played his high school ball at St. Thomas More, announced he was reclassifying from the 2022 recruiting class and would be graduating high school a year ahead of schedule and joining the Hawkeyes this summer.

Mulvey’s move to accelerate the start of his college career is clearly designed to capitalize on Iowa’s current power vacuum at center, and the talented young player could establish himself as Iowa’s heir apparent in the low post with a successful freshman campaign. However, this plan requires the slender big man to be Big Ten ready as an 18-year-old who would otherwise be playing his senior year of high school basketball. Mulvey was considered an excellent defensive player at the high school level (he averaged a whopping six blocks per game as a sophomore in Albany, NY), but it remains unclear how well his game on either end of the floor will translate to the extremely physical Big Ten. Mulvey should get a shot to compete for the job when he arrives on campus, but he will also have to contend with another big man who is already a member of the program.

Option 2: The Project

Josh Ogundele wasn’t asked to do much on the court for the Hawkeyes this past season, as the 6’10”, 285 lb. freshman from London was focused more on adapting to the speed of the college game and getting into the kind of shape necessary to contribute in the years to come. With Garza and Nunge moving on, however, Ogundele has the distinction of being the only center on the current roster, albeit one who played only 17 minutes in 2020-21. Depending on how much improvement the British big man can make over the course of the summer, he could be in line for a major minutes increase in his second year with the program. Ogundele was late joining the team last fall and should benefit mightily from participating in a full offseason this year. While Ogundele is decidedly raw, his thunderous dunk in the closing seconds of Iowa’s win against Nebraska was enough to have Hawkeye fans salivating about the player he could become if given enough time to develop.

Option 3: The Transfers

Before Iowa’s 2020-21 season had even reached its conclusions, Iowa fans and sports writers were already speculating that Fran McCaffery would dive headfirst into the transfer portal in search of reinforcements for his frontcourt. While the Hawkeyes have been mentioned in connection with several potential targets over the past few weeks, compelling narratives have since emerged surrounding two players who are considered to be serious possibilities for Iowa to land: 6’9” North Dakota forward Filip Rebraca and 7’0” Minnesota center Liam Robbins.

Robbins is well known to Hawkeye fans at this point having played high school basketball at Davenport Assumption and spent two seasons with the Drake Bulldogs before transferring to Minnesota where he played two games against Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes last year. Robbins would be a dream pickup for many Iowa fans; he is a proven commodity who has experience excelling against Big Ten competition after averaging 11.7 points for the Gophers last season, he is an accomplished defender and a legitimate shot blocker who rejected 2.7 shots per game last season and was an All-MVC defensive selection in 2020, and he is an Iowa native whose homecoming whose return to his home state would carry shades of Jarrod Uthoff. Robbins has also been heavily linked to Vanderbilt where his uncle Ed Conroy is expected to join Jerry Stackhouse’s staff as an assistant coach, so Robbins’ decision may ultimately come down to these two schools.

Rebraca may not be a known commodity to Iowa fans the way Robbins is, but his potential fit with the Hawkeyes is readily apparent. The former North Dakota standout was an All-Conference selection in the Summit League last season after leading his team in points (16.8), rebounds (7.6), and blocks (.7) per game. Rebraca is an efficient scorer near the basket where he shot 52.5%, but also proved that he could step outside and hit three pointers when called upon, making 36.6% of his treys on 1.6 attempts per game. Rebraca has already had one positive virtual visit with the Hawkeyes and could make his final decision in the coming weeks.

The Hawkeyes are unlikely to land both big men in the transfer portal, particularly with Mulvey reclassifying to join the team a year ahead of schedule. However, either Robbins or Rebraca would give Iowa a talented veteran option down low with two years of eligibility remaining and could help provide a steadying presence while the Hawkeyes’ young big men grow into their roles.

Option 4: Small ball

Ideally, the Hawkeyes will be able to land one of their major transfer portal targets this offseason and either Mulvey or Ogundele will prove capable of playing meaningful minutes off the bench. However, if neither of these options comes to pass, the Hawkeyes could always consider taking a route that Fran McCaffery’s teams have largely avoided since Adam Woodbury first arrived on campus several years ago: going small. This approach would be a huge stylistic departure from the Hawkeyes after four years of Luka Garza manning the five, but perhaps Fran could role with a lineup that saw the Murray twins and Patrick McCaffery getting significantly more minutes in the post with either Ogundele or Mulvey playing spot duty as needed.

This strategy would obviously require the aforementioned rangy wings to pack on some additional muscle during the offseason, and the struggles Iowa would have defending some of the league’s most skilled true centers like Hunter Dickinson and Kofi Cockburn might be sufficient to dissuade them from going small on a consistent basis. However, playing small ball at the five would dramatically improve Iowa’s overall team speed (which has long been a source of need for the Hawkeyes) and would enable them to create mismatches on the offensive end when opposing bigs are forced to defend Iowa players capable of beating them off the dribble. Keegan Murray’s rebounding acumen and ability to play above rim could make him particularly useful as the anchor of a small ball lineup, and these skills could help mitigate some of the downsides associated with playing without a traditional center in the game. Fran McCaffery likely would not list this strategy as his first option for next season, but if the Hawkeyes fail to strike gold in the transfer portal and struggle to get their young centers prepared for the grind of the Big Ten, it would not be surprising to see the Hawkeyes experiment more with smaller lineups in 2021-22.