One of the Iowa basketball team’s biggest disappointments this past offseason was its inability to land an impact big man in the transfer portal. The Hawkeyes have seen a serious exodus in post talent over the past two seasons in Keegan Murray, Luka Garza, and Jack Nunge, and Fran McCaffery and his staff hoped to find someone who could challenge returning big man Filip Rebraca for minutes at center and add to the team’s frontcourt depth. While Iowa did manage to retain return center Josh Ogundele after his dalliance with the transfer portal, Iowa’s failure to secure a high-profile transfer big raised serious concerns coming into this season.
While Iowa’s frontcourt depth remains an issue, the Hawkeyes appear to have discovered an impact big man who was already on the roster. Senior Filip Rebraca is having a breakout year for the Hawkeyes and has emerged as a legitimate two-way weapon. Rebraca has seen huge improvements in his scoring numbers (13.1 points per game in 2022-23 compared to 5.8 in 2021-22), as well as his rebounding (8.4 per game compared to 5.6 last season), assists (2.4 per game, up from .7), and shot blocks (1.6 per game compared to .7 in 2021-22). Rebraca trails only Kris Murray in box score plus/minus and has proven particularly valuable to the team while Murray has been out due to injury, averaging 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists during this three game stretch and putting together dominant performances in Iowa’s wins against Iowa State and Southeast Missouri State.
A full year removed from his transfer to Iowa from the University of North Dakota, Rebraca finally seems to have blossomed into the player Hawkeye fans hoped he would be upon his arrival. Surrounded last season by scorers like the Murray brothers, Jordan Bohannon, and Patrick McCaffery, Rebraca was often an afterthought in Iowa’s offense and took over three times fewer shots during his first season in Iowa City (4.5 attempts per game) than he did during his final year in Grand Forks (13.2). This year, Iowa has made a concerted attempt to feed Rebraca the ball on the block and set him up to attack from the high post. Rebraca has rewarded the Hawkeyes by being extremely efficient on his post-ups, shooting an impressive 61.4% from the field, and blossoming into a capable passer who can punish defenses for doubling him (though his recent pass fake against SEMO was still more impressive than any assist he’s made this season).
Rebraca has also made a significant defensive impact on the team this season and leads the Hawkeyes in defensive win shares through Iowa’s first 11 games. Iowa struck out in its offseason attempts to find a true center and rim protector, but Rebraca plays bigger than his 6’9” frame and has shown excellent instincts as a shot blocker and help defender even if he lacks the verticality of some of his peers. He has also proven a much more switchable defender than many of Iowa’s past centers, and while teams can still create mismatches when they get Rebraca matched up against their guards, this scenario isn’t the kind of guaranteed bucket it has been in recent years. Rebraca exerted noticeable effort on defense during his first year in Iowa City and has played an even greater role in anchoring the Hawkeye defense in 2022-23.
While Rebraca has emerged as an important defensive piece for the Hawkeyes, his ability to defend without fouling has arguably been one of his most important assets so far this season. Iowa is seriously lacking in front court depth, and neither Josh Ogundele nor Riley Mulvey has managed to convince Fran to give them meaningful minutes against high-level opponents. Despite playing more minutes this year than last (29.7 per game as opposed to 21.3), Rebraca is still averaging the same number of fouls per contest (2.3) and has yet to foul out of a game. The best ability is often availability, and Rebraca’s ability to play big minutes and stay on the floor in Murray’s absence has helped the Hawkeyes stay competitive without their superstar on hand. For Iowa to compete for a Big Ten title, the team will need Rebraca to continue to play smart yet impactful defense against the team’s conference opponents.
Rebraca’s ascension to impact player status does not mean that his game is done evolving, however, and the Hawkeyes will need to see continued growth from him to find success in the postseason. Rebraca has an excellent array of post moves at his disposal but tends to be extremely reliant on his right hand shot and has not shown the type of ambidextrous scoring ability one might hope to see from a player of his caliber. Iowa will face several Big Ten foes this season who have not only played Rebraca multiple times but will see him in 2-3 games in 2022-23. Rebraca’s right-hand dominance is something that stands out on film, and the Hawkeye center will need to prove that he can continue to score against Big Ten staffs who have scouted him well enough to take his preferred moves away from him.
Rebraca could also stand to make strides in his shooting, both at the free thrown line and from beyond the arc. Rebraca is a rare Hawkeye who shoots better from the field (61.4%) than from the line (59.6%), and while free throws have never been his strength (he is a career 62.1% shooter), he must improve this aspect of this game now that he is averaging a career high 5.2 free throw attempts per game. Furthermore, Iowa would benefit from Rebraca becoming a more confident and willing three-point shooter. Hawkeye fans were surprised to see Rebraca knock down two threes against Iowa State after going 1-6 from deep last season, but this type of shooting would seem perfectly normal to fans who watched him at North Dakota. The big man shot 36.6% from three on 1.6 attempts per game during his final season with the Fighting Hawks, and he would become significantly harder to defend if opponents also had to worry about him firing away from long range. If Rebraca can rediscover his shooting touch from beyond the arc, it could add an extra dimension to Iowa’s offense as the team enters Big Ten play.
Iowa may not have landed a game-changing big in the transfer portal last offseason, but Filip Rebraca rediscovering the star power he showed at North Dakota has been a gamechanger for the Hawkeyes early on in 2022-23. Even if the Hawkeyes can’t count on Rebraca to put up 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists every week the way he did against SEMO, his ascension from role player to two-way impact player has undeniably lifted Iowa’s ceiling this season. Iowa’s lack of front court depth has forced Rebraca to shoulder a massive burden this season. Fortunately for Hawkeye fans, he seems to be up to the challenge.