CORALVILLE — Confidence and optimism have supplanted uncertainty and insecurity surrounding the Iowa men's basketball program.
Iowa is coming off its second straight 20-loss season, the school's second-most losses in program history. It's a fact nobody tries to hide. But Sunday at its annual team banquet, players and coaches appeared anxious to throw dirt on the past and look forward to the future.
Iowa has added four players this offseason, including two in the last nine days, and all seem to fit a need. The Hawkeyes return 88 percent of their offense next season and there's a positive buzz about the program for the first time in, well, years.
"Around town there seems to be a lot of excitement and people are excited about the new recruits and ending the season on a somewhat better note," incoming Iowa senior Matt Gatens said. "We beat Purdue (in the season finale) and played hard against Michigan State (in the Big Ten Tournament), a game we probably should have won. It’s nice for everybody to be positive and on the same track.
"It makes it more fun when there’s excitement about the team here around the community. But nothing’s been done yet."
Iowa's competitive play late in the season — especially at home — has given the program a dose of confidence. Although the Hawkeyes split its final six home games, the Hawkeyes lost two games in overtime to NCAA Tournament teams Wisconsin and Michigan. Iowa also beat NCAA Tournament teams Michigan State and Purdue over that stretch.
"We finished off competing and with the signings we have it’s looking nothing but bright for us," incoming senior point guard Bryce Cartwright said. "I’m ready to embrace it."
Cartwright finished the season as the Big Ten's assist leader in league games. He moved into the starter's role when Cully Payne opted for season-ending surgery to repair a sports hernia. Gatens led the team in scoring with a career-best 12.6 points a game. Freshman forward Melsahn Basabe was an all-Big Ten freshman performer, averaging 11 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. Basabe was the first Hawkeye in six years to post at least five 20-point games in a season.
Iowa also returns part-time starters Eric May, Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe, along with back-up post players Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie. The Hawkeyes do replace three-year captain and unquestioned team leader Jarryd Cole in the post. Payne opted to transfer to Loyola.
This offseason, the workouts are streamlined under Fran McCaffery, who's entering his second year as coach. Last spring he had players and recruits bolting the program, and McCaffery had to catch up with each player's strengths on the fly. Now, he can work on specific areas this offseason based on last season's performances.
"We’re very optimistic for a lot of reasons," McCaffery said. "Last year at this time we had a lot of question marks. There were newcomers that we were sort of counting on. We didn’t know what they would do. We didn’t have a lot of depth, we didn’t have a size, not a lot of experience. This year, they gained a lot of experience and some guys came around. We had some young guys play really well.
"Now you go into this season with a lot more people that we can count on."
Each of Iowa's four recruits add a skill set that likely helps on the court. Cedar Rapids Washington guard Josh Oglesby is a 6-foot-6 shooter who can play multiple guard positions. Strongsville (Ohio) forward Aaron White is 6-8 can play anything from the wing to the post. Junior-college guard Anthony Hubbard (6-5) is a slashing scorer who can make plays off the dribble. The newest signee, 6-10 Gabe Olaseni of Sunrise Christian Academy, is a shot blocker who can run the floor.
"Obviously, we're deeper and bigger and you add four new players to the mix, and I think with those four we addressed some needs," McCaffery said. "In our shooting, size, versatility, and all of this equates well to our style of play, which I think we would like to — as you've heard me say —play faster if we could, press more and create more offense with our defense. There’s a lot of different weapons that we’ll have next year that we didn’t have this year."
Cartwright might have the most impact on next year's success. McCaffery wants to trim Cartwright's minutes and boost his defensive play. Cartwright has worked on his defense this spring and his outside shot.
As he modestly improves his game, Cartwright admits he's excited when he thinks of next year.
"I’m very anxious. I want to get to a tournament," Cartwright said. "I’ve never been, so anybody would say that on our team. There’s a lot of positives coming up for next year."I’m just ready to move on with it and get ready for this new season. Hopefully we have a lot of fans, a lot of good turnouts, a lot of postseason wins and all that good stuff."