Last Saturday night, college basketball fans were treated to arguably the game of the year as undefeated Gonzaga faced off against a surprisingly frisky UCLA team for a spot in the national championship. One of the more compelling matchups of the game was a battle between talented point guards in UCLA’s Tyger Campbell (17 points and seven assists against the Bulldogs) and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (16 points, six assists, five rebounds, and the game winning shot as time expired). Both point guards helped to propel dynamic offensive attacks, showed they could score off the dribble and using their jump shots, and made extremely impactful plays on the defensive end. In another world, both of them might also have been Hawkeyes.
Suggs and Campbell were both major targets of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery in his seemingly endless quest to upgrade Iowa’s athleticism at the point guard position. Campbell, who actually grew up in Iowa, received a scholarship offer when he was still a freshman in high school and had several family members living in the area surrounding Iowa City. Jalen Suggs was arguably an even bigger target of Fran’s. Iowa was one of the first teams to offer Suggs a scholarship in hopes that the talented point guard would become the triggerman for the Hawkeye offense (a hope which Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz also held for himself). Fran and the Hawkeyes were in on both players early but failed to close the deal and prevent them from signing with national powerhouses instead.
Campbell and Suggs are unfortunately just some of the latest athletic point guard prospects who have considered Iowa before ultimately signing elsewhere. From in-state superstars (Marcus Paige, DJ Carton) to national blue-chip prospects (Trey Burke, Tyler Ulis, Tyrell Terry, Marcus LoVett), Fran McCaffery has consistently struggled to sign athletic point guards who can play with high levels of efficiency while consistently beating their opponents off the dribble. In many of these recruiting battles, the refrain is the same—Fran McCaffery identifies a talented young point guard early in the process and is among the first high-major coaches to offer him a scholarship, the coaching staff commits considerable time and energy towards signing him as a cornerstone of the recruiting class, and the recruit ultimately spurns Iowa for another school.
Iowa has signed and developed several fantastic players during the McCaffery era but finding speed and athleticism on the perimeter has long been a weakness of the program. Iowa’s lack of quickness at the guard position has consistently manifested itself in critical games against opponents such as Oregon, Gonzaga, and Illinois whose perimeter players possess next-level athleticism. Hawkeye guards have frequently struggled to get penetration or separation on offense against more athletic defenders while simultaneously failing to get stops on the other end when being asked to stick with opponents who boast a clear speed advantage. Iowa center Luka Garza may have been the best player on the court in Iowa’s NCAA Tournament loss to Oregon, but the Hawkeyes watched their season go up in flames because it simply had no answer for the athleticism of the Duck guards. For Iowa to win games such as those, they simply have to get faster on the perimeter.
This assessment should in no way we read as an indictment of the players who manned the point for Iowa during the 2020-21 season. Jordan Bohannon was a deft passer and a deadly three-point marksman who deserved every bit of praise he earned over the course of his career. Connor McCaffery is an extremely versatile chess piece who is one of the most efficient passers in college basketball. I have extolled the virtues of both of these players in several articles (here, here, and here, to name a few), and would love to see both of them play a major on next year’s squad if their health and financial pursuits enable them to do so. But neither of these players possess the kind of drive and kick, off the dribble offensive game (or the ability to effectively defend it) that the Hawkeyes need to excel against teams with elite athletes on the perimeter. Iowa needs players like Bohannon and the elder McCaffery brother, but it also needs players who possess the skills these two players lack.
Perhaps Iowa’s solution to this gap is already on the roster? Joe Toussaint is lightning quick and can blow by nearly any collegiate defender and has shown a tenacity on defense that points to him possibly developing into a lockdown ball-stopper on the perimeter. Tony Perkins and Ahron Ulis (whose older brother Tyler chose Kentucky over Iowa) both showed glimpses as freshmen of an ability to elevate their games to a higher level, and it is telling that both were asked to play major minutes against Oregon when it became clear that Iowa’s starting guards could not stick with their assignments on defense. However, each of these players has a long way to go before they can match the levels of many of Iowa’s high-profile misses at point guard. Toussaint still has a tendency to play out of control on offense which has led Fran to develop a quick hook for the talented sophomore, Toussaint and Perkins both struggled to avoid fouls (each averaged over five and a half fouls per 40 minutes last year), and the three players combined for only four made three-pointers throughout the entirety of last season. If none of these players are able to take the next step, could Iowa turn to the transfer portal or look to class of 2022 recruits like Dasonte Bowen or Eli King to find the missing piece?
Iowa may have missed out on Jalen Suggs and Tyger Campbell, but the Hawkeyes have ample opportunities to lock down the athletic two-way talent at point guard the team so desperately needs. If coach McCaffery hopes to finally break his streak of being eliminated before the Sweet Sixteen, the team has to make doing so a top priority.