EUGENE, Ore. — Iowa’s men’s basketball program enters the off-season with solid foundation and realistic expectations for the first time in several years.
The Hawkeyes (18-17) earned their first winning record since 2007, won their first postseason game since 2003 and return a core of key players next year. Iowa shook off a 5-5 start that included inexplicable non-conference losses to Campbell and Clemson and poundings to in-state rivals Iowa State and Northern Iowa and border opponent Creighton to finish 8-10 in Big Ten play.
Iowa beat four top-25 opponents in 2011-12 and won a Big Ten tournament game for the first time in six seasons. The Hawkeyes twice knocked off border rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota and ended a series-worst seven-game losing skid to Illinois.
"We’ve come a long way," second-year Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "We’ve got a lot of freshmen and sophomores that really played well all season and also (Sunday). So I'm very optimistic about where we’re headed."
But to a man, the players are focused more on improvement than congratulating themselves. Sophomore Devyn Marble bristled at the suggestion Sunday that Iowa's future prospects soften the pain of a season-ending 108-97 loss to Oregon in the National Invitation Tournament.
"This is an opportunity that we missed on," said Marble just minutes after scoring a career-high 31 points. "Opportunities don’t present themselves all the time. You can say next year we could be a better team or we could have maybe a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, but it doesn’t happen like that. You’ve got to put the work in."
Marble leads a corps of six returning players who started at least five games this year. Marble is the team's leading returning scorer next year at 11.5 points a game. Injuries forced Marble to point guard in December, then he returned to his off-guard role in late January. Marble still had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1.
McCaffery plans to hand off the point to incoming freshman Mike Gesell, the two-time captain of the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star's Super-State team. Gesell, a three-time all-state honoree, led South Sioux City, Neb., to the state title game three straight seasons.
"I think with Bryce (Cartwright) graduating and our desire to keep Dev on the wing and take advantage of 6-6/6-7 athletic wing player who can score, we can play (Gesell) at the point," McCaffery said. "I really like Mike’s ability to run an offense, to score the ball, his toughness, his quickness, his ability to play fast, the way we want to play, and make decisions playing fast. With all that, he’s an incredible shot maker.
"I just would really like to play Dev where he belongs, but it’s nice to know I’ve got a guy who’s got a phenomenal assist-to-turnover ratio that is unselfish enough to be our point guard rather than be one of our leading scorers."
Iowa also brings back three underclassmen who combined to score more than 27 points a game this year. Sophomores Melsahn Basabe (8.2 points) and Zach McCabe (7.8 points) and freshman Aaron White (11.1 points) each averaged more than 20 minutes a game this year. White was named to the Big Ten's all-freshman team.
They will compete for playing time with incoming freshmen Adam Woodbury and Kyle Meyer. Meyer, a 6-foot-10 forward from Alpharetta, Ga., helped Northview High School reach the state tournament for just the second time.
Woodbury, a 7-foot-1 center from Sioux City East, was one of the nation's most sought-after big men before he chose Iowa over North Carolina. Woodbury scored 17.3 points and pulled down 11.7 rebounds a game while leading East to the Class 4A state title game.
Although Woodbury fits the profile of what McCaffery wants from his post, it's not automatic that Woodbury will gain the starting job right away, McCaffery said.
"He would have to beat out an incumbent individual (McCabe) as opposed to the job opened up (like Gesell)," McCaffery said. "But I think what he brings to the table is a 7-footer who can run and rebound and trigger the break and finish on the break, and give us that inside presence at both ends of the floor. I think he’s feeling good about his potential to be a major factor right away."
Iowa also returns sharpshooting freshman shooting guard Josh Oglesby, who started five games and hit 45 3-pointers. McCaffery is high on freshman backup 6-foot-10 center Gabe Olaseni, who played in only 18 games but made major strides throughout the season. Junior guard/forward Eric May struggled with a nagging back injury the season's final two months and has 69 career starts, including 21 last year.
Also competing for playing time next year are incoming freshmen guards Anthony Clemmons (Lansing, Mich.) and Pat Ingram (Indianapolis).
Iowa loses four seniors, including second-team all-Big Ten pick Matt Gatens. Gatens scored 1,635 points in his career to rank sixth. He was a top defender and led the Hawkeyes in scoring this year at 15.4 points a game. Cartwright fought through illness and injuries and recorded 21 assists in Iowa's two postseason games. Senior posts Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie also graduate.
The void of Gatens and Cartwright, coupled with five incoming freshmen, will require players like Marble, McCabe, White and Basabe to step into leadership roles. It also means in order to reach their rising expectations, the Hawkeyes need to blend the veterans and youth into a solid unit."You’ve got a young class coming in that’s so talented, they’re still freshmen at the end of the day," Marble said. "You’ve got to prepare them as much as possible. All of us need to do some work."