The NCAA tournament selection committee did not surprise Fran McCaffery when it announced its 68-team field last season. “With all the prognostications now, you pretty much know when you’re not getting in,” McCaffery says. More importantly, McCaffery knew why his team was a long shot to get one of the 37 at-large bids, and has spent much of the offseason trying to ensure it doesn’t meet the same fate next March.
“I think we’re built for the journey,” McCaffery says of a team that finished last season with a 25-13 record. Last season numerous freshmen played significant role. The year included a multitude of close, hard-fought losses, ended with a bittersweet run to the NIT championship game and left most Hawkeyes fans asking one question: What will it take to make the NCAAs?
Perhaps the most important answer lies in a roster that returns most of its main pieces. Junior forward Aaron White, one of 12 collegians selected for the World University Games team, is back after an impressive sophomore campaign. Sophomores Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury are primed for bigger roles this season. Senior guard Roy Devyn Marble, who averaged 15 points per game and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors last season, is one of the league’s most underrated scorers. In all, the Hawkeyes return four starters and a cast of valuable pieces to form a roster that offers enough talent, experience and depth to contend in the Big Ten.
The NCAA tournament is an attainable goal, and at least one Hawkeye thinks his team is capable of even more.
“We feel like we’re one of the better teams in this conference -- that we can compete for a Big Ten championship,” Marble says.
In order to achieve either of those goals, Iowa needs to improve in two areas. The first is three-point shooting. The Hawkeyes shot 30.5 percent from long-range last season and 28.4 percent in Big Ten play, which ranked last in the conference. Three-point shooting wasn’t expected to be a problem for the Hawkeyes coming into the season as Iowa had plenty of long-range firepower available, including senior forward Zach McCabe and junior guard Josh Oglesby, but both saw their three-point percentages drop after shooting well from beyond the arc one year prior. McCaffery also believes some of his team’s three-point struggles were the product of sheer bad luck. “One or two times in a game where a transition three can be that dagger shot that blows the game open -- we had a number of those that were in and out,” he said.
Another issue was a schedule that failed to provide Iowa with enough opportunities for quality resume wins. Part of this was by design. McCaffery knew his team would be starting two freshmen in the beginning of the season (Clemmons became a starter later in the year), so he wanted to craft a schedule light on early nonconference challenges in the hopes of allowing his freshmen to gain confidence against weaker competition.
The plan worked in one respect, as both Gesell and Woodbury went on to have solid first seasons, but when combined with a soft league schedule, the end result was a solid team with some decent wins, a respectable 9-9 conference record but a prohibitively-high RPI of 77.
“Typically, in the Big Ten, RPI is not a factor. You can play whoever you want in the nonconference, and if you finish 9-9 you’re in,” McCaffery said. “It was kind of a perfect storm: the weak nonconference schedule and an easier Big Ten schedule really wound up hurting us.”
Having already proven itself defensively (Iowa finished 22nd in defensive efficiency last season, according to KenPom.com), guided its freshmen backcourt through its first year of college hoops, and finished with a .500 record in a historically challenging Big Ten, addressing these two issues could well result in a more gratifying postseason in 2013-14.
The latter aspect is a virtual guarantee. The Hawkeyes picked a rigorous nonconference slate, including games against Notre Dame in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Iowa State in the teams’ annual rivalry game and the Battle 4 Atlantis, which features Kansas, Tennessee, Villanova, USC, Xavier, among others.
“We amped it up this year to make sure that wouldn’t be a factor,” McCaffery said.
Fixing last season’s long-range lull is a trickier proposition to predict, but McCaffery believes a couple of new faces, along with hard-earned improvements from current players, will result in his team shooting a higher percentage from deep this season. Freshman Peter Jok, Iowa’s 2013 Mr. Basketball, should help Iowa’s three-point woes right from the start, and Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff will add another long-range boost. Beyond the obvious benefits of forcing defenses to extend out to the perimeter, McCaffery believes better three-point shooting has the potential to take his team’s offense to a whole new level.
“That will change everything,” McCaffery says of the effect of his team making more three-point shots this season. “It will give more driving opportunities, it will give more spacing to our low post players, and change the game dramatically.” But the question remains: Can the Hawkeyes improve enough to roll deep into March?