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Iowa’s Big Men Face Big Questions this Offseason

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Can Iowa find an impact player at center, or does the answer to its frontcourt problems lie in going small next season?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Richmond vs Iowa Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa basketball enters its second consecutive season with a major question mark in the frontcourt. After bringing in North Dakota transfer Filip Rebraca and freshman recruit Riley Mulvey to fill the gap left by the loss of Luka Garza and fellow big man Jack Nunge, Iowa once again finds itself searching for help in the post after the departure of forward Keegan Murray to the NBA and center Josh Ogundele to the transfer portal.

These defections leave Iowa perilously thin in the frontcourt with only Mulvey, Rebraca, and (more likely than not) Kris Murray on hand to occupy the center and power forward spots, and head coach Fran McCaffery acknowledged the need for Iowa to step into the transfer portal to address the situation. The center position is of particular concern, as Ogundele’s transfer leaves Iowa with no “true” five man on the roster. Rebraca started every game this season at center last year but is undersized at 6’9”, 230 lbs., a reality which became apparent when he was asked to guard hulking big men like Zach Edey, Kofi Cockburn, and Hunter Dickinson. Kris Murray played some small-ball center, but spent more of his time at the power forward spot. Mulvey, despite having the size of a center, played most of his 83 minutes last season at the four. For Iowa to navigate a conference loaded with genuine centers, the Hawkeyes could stand to add additional depth at this position.

Iowa appears to have already identified a prime candidate for this role in Fardaws Aimaq, a 6’11”, 245 lbs. center who recently completed his junior season at Utah Valley and who 247 ranked as their top transfer portal prospect of 2022. Aimaq is an extremely accomplished player, having won the WAC Player of the Year award in 2020-21 and twice been recognized as the WAC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-Conference selection. Aimaq is a legitimate threat on both ends of the floor; he can score in the low post and from three (he shot 43.5% from deep this year on 1.4 attempts per game) and possesses the size and athleticism to be a genuine rim protector. Aimaq moves well both with and without the ball, and he is one of college basketball’s most prolific rebounders having averaged 13.6 boards this season and an even more impressive 15 rebounds per game the year prior.

There is also reason to believe Aimaq can succeed against high-level competition. Aimaq posted 15 points and 15 rebounds in a victory against Washington last season and dropped an incredible stat line in a win over a BYU team that narrowly missed making the NCAA Tournament field: 24 points, 22 rebounds, five steals, four assists, and three blocks. Iowa has reportedly made Aimaq’s top five alongside Kentucky, Texas Tech, Arkansas, and Washington, and landing the highly coveted big man would be the program’s most impressive transfer coup since poaching Jarrod Uthoff from Wisconsin. Aimaq projects as an ideal center to start alongside the versatile Kris Murray, which would allow Rebraca to come off the bench as a highly overqualified sixth man who can play both the center and power forward positions. Given Iowa’s recent history of developing elite big men at the college level, the Hawkeyes should be viewed as serious contenders in this recruiting battle.

However, Iowa must also plan for contingencies if it fails to land Aimaq or another big man of his caliber. As exciting as it would be for the Hawkeyes to win this recruiting battle (especially if it comes at the hands of Kentucky), it is highly likely that Iowa will exit the transfer portal having procured a valuable role player as opposed to a potential star. The Hawkeyes are right to focus on landing a player of Aimaq’s caliber, but how will Iowa’s frontcourt fair if the team instead comes away with another project like Ogundele or the big man equivalent of Bakari Evelyn?

Fortunately for Iowa, the program’s current stable of forwards still have room to develop. Filip Rebraca was a solid addition to Iowa’s program last season, but failed to match his production at North Dakota, falling from 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a game in 2020-21 to 5.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 2021-22. However, Rebraca is a candidate to take a step forward next season as he continues to adjust to the physicality of the Big Ten. Rebraca was an adept pick-and-roll defender whose strong play in this area helped Iowa improve its half court defense as the year progressed, but he regularly struggled to guard larger opponents and was sometimes slow to make the right rotation in Iowa’s defensive scheme. He could improve in both of those areas next season if he manages to build up his strength and increase his familiarity with Iowa’s defense, the latter of which seems especially achievable given that he is entering his second year in the program. Rebraca could also regain the three-point touch he flashed in his final season at North Dakota; he shot 36.6% from long range on 1.6 attempts per game in 2020-21 but took only six three-pointers last season and was not a threat to score when he touched the ball on the perimeter. Regaining confidence in his three-point stroke would add another dimension to Rebraca’s game and allow him to make an even greater contribution on offense next season.

Riley Mulvey is also a candidate to grow into the center position. While he played in only 17 games and totaled only 22 minutes against conference opponents as a freshman, he got some run during the Big Ten Tournament Championship against Purdue, and Fran McCaffery commented after the game that Mulvey is “going to be good and he knows it.” Mulvey played last season during what should have been his senior year of high school, and the fact that Iowa’s staff was willing to bring him on a year ahead of schedule shows that they believe he will be ready to contribute sooner rather than later. If Mulvey develops into a solid backup center who can give the Hawkeyes 10-12 minutes per game off the bench next season, the strength of Iowa’s frontcourt would be massively improved.

Finally, the Hawkeyes possess the potential to become an exceptional small-ball team next season. Kris Murray absolutely thrived in this role off the bench last year and proved incredibly skilled at guarding post players who possessed a size advantage over him. While Murray struggled to guard some of the biggest and best true centers he faced, the gap between his low post defense and Rebraca’s was often minimal, and Murray’s offensive versatility and ability to attack opposing bigs from deep or off the dribble frequently allowed him to inflict as much damage against these behemoths as they gave to him. If Iowa strikes out on landing an impact big man in the transfer portal and Mulvey is not ready for primetime, there is nothing stopping the Hawks from starting Murray and Rebraca as its big men and treating Murray as the backup five when Rebraca sits. This would require Iowa to shift one of its wing players to the power forward spot, but both of the McCafferys have proven capable of guarding opposing fours in a pinch. A small-ball lineup would put Iowa at a size disadvantage, but if none of Iowa’s centers can credibly guard the seven-footers of the Big Ten, the team might be better served by turning that weakness into a strength and rolling out a lineup like Ulis-Perkins-Sandfort-McCaffery-Murray to try to play the opposing big off the floor.

Nearly one year ago, I wrote a similar piece questioning whether Iowa could cobble together enough pieces to replace the production of Garza and Nunge at the center position. The Hawkeyes did not find a star center last season but did uncover a winning combination of Rebraca and the Murray brothers that allowed the team to find success. Whether Iowa can do so again in 2022-23 or find/develop a genuine low-post anchor could play a major role in determining the program’s fortunes next season.