NORTH LIBERTY — Devyn Marble recognizes this off-season is different from his previous three summers in Iowa City.
No longer are hope and optimism the key buzzwords surrounding Iowa basketball. Those fun, fuzzy catchphrases were left in a Madison Square Garden locker room last April when the Hawkeyes finished second in the NIT. Iowa basketball now is about living up to expectations.
Marble sees it when he talks with fans about the upcoming season. Iowa already has picked up way-too-early accolades from websites. ESPN’s Jason King ranked Iowa 25th, writing “Don’t be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa turns the corner.” Fox Sports and Yahoo also rate the Hawkeyes in the top 25.
Positivity permeates the basketball program, but nothing has changed for the players, Marble said.
“The only difference is other people have expectations,” said Marble, an incoming senior. “But we have expectations of ourselves. As long as we continue to be confident in what we do, we go out there and play the way we know we can play, our elite level and status will come out and show as we play well. We don’t have to force it or anything like that. People will recognize how good of a team we are.”
Iowa finished 25-13 last year, tying the second-most wins in school history. The Hawkeyes were one of six teams discussed for an NCAA tournament slot but their RPI was below the other bubble teams. They lacked a signature road win and their 9-9 Big Ten record couldn’t carry them to their first NCAA tournament since 2006.
But the program has progressed under Fran McCaffery, who enters his fourth season as head coach. He was hired after a disastrous 2010 season when Iowa lost a school-record 22 games and paid attendance averaged an arena-low 9,550. McCaffery’s first team finished 11-20 but at times was competitive in home games against league power programs. In McCaffery second season, Iowa beat Wisconsin and Minnesota twice, knocked off Michigan and Indiana at home and earned an NIT berth.
Last year, the program took another step forward. The Hawkeyes finished 16-2 at home, and the losses were by a combined seven points to Indiana and Michigan State. It was the second consecutive season Iowa grew its win total by seven games — 11 to 18 to 25 — and average attendance blossomed to 13,625, the school’s best mark since 2001-02. Iowa sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena six times, including both of its home NIT games.
“That’s what I’ve been working for since freshman year,” Iowa senior forward Zach McCabe. “We started from no people in the stands to now it’s sold out. It’s great for us.
“We’ve got a lot of expectations coming up, but we can’t think about those too quickly. We’ve got to keep working hard and just stay humble.”
The humility stems from Iowa’s setbacks. Iowa finished 4-8 in Big Ten games decided by nine points or less. Of those 12 games, Iowa was outscored 118-82 in the final two minutes or overtime. The Hawkeyes shot just 32.1 percent from the floor, while their opponents knocked down 51.6 percent of their late-game shots.
Iowa sank just 60.9 percent of their late free throws, while opponents made 79.3 percent. That was particularly galling for McCaffery because Iowa hit 73.1 percent of free throws overall.
The Hawkeyes were 2-7 in Big Ten road games, beating only bottom feeders Northwestern and Penn State. Two of the losses were in overtime — Purdue and Wisconsin. Iowa gave away a 19-point lead at Nebraska and let a two-point lead at Minnesota slip away in the final 11 seconds.
“We’ve got to be better on the road than we were last year,” McCaffery said. “We’re going to have to shoot the ball better. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I think we will.”
The schedule also gets more difficult. Iowa is slated to play six of the top seven Big Ten teams twice and the only single-play — league champion Indiana — is at Bloomington. Non-conference play includes a game at Iowa State, a home date with Notre Dame and three games in the competitive Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
But the optimism is legitimate. Iowa loses only one part-time starter and brings back 92 percent of its scoring. Marble and incoming junior Aaron White were third-team all-Big Ten selections. Marble (15.0 points) is the Big Ten’s second-leading returning scorer. White, the team’s leading rebounder, is the only returning Big Ten player to score at least 12.8 points and grab at least 6.2 rebounds a game.
Primary starters return at all five positions, four others with significant or starting experience. Transfer Jarrod Uthoff and freshman perimeter shooter Peter Jok are key additions that fill roles.
“You can feel the buzz around the team a little bit,” sophomore guard Mike Gesell said. “We know we have a chance to do something special this year. We knew we did last year and now we know for sure we’re capable of that. I think we’re a confident bunch of guys now. But we know the hard work that it takes. We know the close games we lost last year and keeping those in our mind through every workout.”
The next step is the most challenging one for the program, McCaffery concedes. A few decent players and some confidence can elevate teams from bottom feeders to midlevel in most conferences. Elevating the program to elite status in perhaps the nation’s best league means a player putting up 1,000 shots a day in a practice gym or extra reps in the weight room. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, next week and all the way through fall practice.
“I welcome expectations,” McCaffery said. “It’s a part of the growth process. You want to get to the point where certain things are expected of you as a program. Players came here to create that environment and ultimately achieve the success we want to achieve.
“I think we’re smart enough to recognize that because it’s expected, it doesn’t mean it’s ultimately going to happen. There’s too many good teams on our schedule. We have to prepare to work. We have to stay together.”