IOWA CITY — Big Ten teams have earned 36 spots in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since Iowa’s last appearance, in 2006.
That is the doughnut hole the Hawkeyes will try to fill in the season ahead. Someone who gets most of the blame for the present drought is Todd Lickliter, whose three-year run as the Hawkeyes’ coach bore less fruit than the Arctic Circle.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. For without Lickliter’s recruiting, there might be no Devyn Marble on Iowa’s roster today. Young Marble is an experienced junior guard who would be welcome to any program in the nation today.
So, ye Hawkeye fans, perhaps you should stop looking back in anger over the Lickliter era. Devyn Marbles don’t grow on trees.
When McCaffery got the Iowa job, Iowa had recruiting commitments from Marble and forward Zach McCabe (another current asset to the Hawkeyes). New coaches aren’t always enamored of the signed recruits they inherit, and vice versa. But McCaffery says he had no misgivings about Marble.
“We thought he was pretty good,” McCaffery said. “When I met him the first time I was really impressed with him. So much of being a great player is who you are as much as what you can do.
“I talked to him on the phone, went and met him (at his Southfield, Mich., home). Just a delightful kid.”
Here’s where the stories differ somewhat between coach and player, and to no surprise. Coaches sometimes fret they don’t have a player truly committed until he shows up for the first day of classes. Players remember it as if they knew where they were going all along.
“We had to work hard because everything was crumbling and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do,” said McCaffery. “We eventually had to re-recruit him twice.
“I had to re-recruit him and he said he was coming, then he changed his mind and didn’t want to come. We had to go back and re-recruit him a second time.”
Marble remembers it this way: “Once he showed his interest and he laid out what he saw for me coming into this program, I was fine with it.
“We built a relationship pretty fast. I was happy with it.”
Even though his father is Iowa all-time leading scorer Roy Marble, Devyn said “I didn’t really grow up a Hawkeye fan. But when you go on visits to different schools you can kind of get a feel of where you want to play. I only took one official visit, and that was to here.”
The irony of Marble having the coach who recruited him get fired and replaced by McCaffery is obvious. McCaffery’s quicker pace of play seems far better suited for Marble’s many skills. He’s a good open-court player who likes to push and attack. A constrained offense would be a waste of his talent.
“Obviously,” McCaffery said, “we spent a lot of time talking about style of play and where he would fit, and how we would use him.
“I did my homework and I watched him on film. You could tell he was special.”
Marble’s game grew as last season progressed. Sure, he had a memorable 31-point finale in a second-round NIT loss at Oregon. But his shooting from the field and foul line improved dramatically from his freshman year, as did his passing, rebounding and defense.
He averaged 11.5 points a game last season, up from 5.7 as a freshman. It isn’t hard to envision another increase of six points or so this season.
Since he’ll no longer be playing point guard with freshmen Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons on hand, Marble will be the ‘2’ guard, and can focus more on scoring than distributing.
More importantly, he will be asked to contribute the kind of lockdown defense on top opposing scorers that Gatens did so well in Big Ten play last season.
“I know I can do it,” Marble said. “I had mental lapses last year where I had a tendency to slack off on defense. But it wasn’t because of my potential to play defense. It was just mentally.
“I’m at a mental point right now where I’m focused and determined with the game of basketball.”
Don’t dismiss Marble’s mental game. Late last season, McCaffery called him and told him he was missing offensive opportunities.
“I just had to go back and look at some film and see exactly what he was talking about,” Marble said.
In March at Oregon, he sank seven 3-pointers. He’d made a total of 14 threes in the 34 games before that. That’s seizing opportunities.
“We saw a skinny freshman have some phenomenal moments, then we saw him establish himself in this conference as one of the premier players in the league last year,” McCaffery said. “So now what’s that next step?”
If it’s what many think it could be, Iowa’s 6-year NCAA drought could get washed away five months from now.