IOWA CITY — Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery was stunned to hear what people thought of the Drake men’s basketball program entering this season.
The Bulldogs (6-1) were 15-17 last year and fired Mark Phelps after five years. Drake hired former Utah Coach Ray Giacoletti, and the Bulldogs have four wins away from the Knapp Center, including three victories in three days at the Fresno State Classic.
So when it was suggested the Bulldogs were penciled in for around six wins this year, McCaffery bristled almost incredulously.
“That makes no sense to me,” said McCaffery, whose Hawkeyes (8-1) face Drake on Saturday night as part of the Big 4 Classic at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena (Mediacom, BTN2GO). “I know they changed coaches, but what did they win last year, 15? 16? What makes everybody believe they’re only going to win six? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
The low expectations weren’t that surprising. Three starters exhausted their eligibility and another four bolted after Phelps’ firing. The most aggravating loss for Giacoletti was sophomore Joey King, who immediately became eligible at Minnesota. Only two regular starters are back, and that includes center Seth VanDeest, who lost his summer after knee and ankle surgery. Only guard Richard Carter returned to Drake’s starting lineup unscathed from last season.
Perhaps that’s why what the Bulldogs have done thus far is astounding. Drake’s only loss was 67-63 at St. Mary’s, a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament last year. They won all three games at Fresno State by at least eight points, and dispatched Nebraska-Omaha by the same spread (eight) as Iowa this year.
Carter (5-foot-11) was a modest player last season, starting 21 games and averaging 9.3 points and 26 minutes a game. But this year he’s soared in Giacoletti’s offense, averaging 20.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.7 steals a game. He leads Drake in all those categories except assists.
Carter scored 38 points and knocked down all 12 free throws in Drake’s debut at Illinois-Chicago, a 61-59 win. He scored 18 in the team’s Fresno State Classic championship win against CSU-Bakersfield.
“He’s got a really good feel for how to play at both ends,” McCaffery said. “He makes crafty plays, he’s got savvy, he’s fearless. He’s got ability to score outside. He got ability the ability to get to the rim, he’s really good in the open court. He’ll make plays for other people, too. He’s a tough cover for anybody.”
VanDeest has started all seven games, averaging 5.9 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. The Bulldogs are bolstered by senior Aaron Hawley, who started 18 games in 2011-12 and then had his scholarship yanked by Phelps. Hawley sat out last season and returned under Giacoletti. He’s third in scoring at 7.9 points a game.
Gary Ricks started two games last year and averaged 3.2 points for Drake. This year’s he’s started seven, averages 12.7 points and a team-high 32 minutes a game.
“They’re dramatically different team than that team was,” McCaffery said. “This team has tremendous quickness. I think that’s the thing that is noticeable. (Giacoletti) can go small and quick. He can play bigger guys if he wants to. He gets productivity out of pretty much anybody that he puts in. I think that’s the thing that’s been most impressive.
“It’s easy to lock in to a guy who gets 38 in his first game and averaging 20 points and he’s been phenomenal, but there are a lot of other pieces that doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That’s why they’re 6-1.”
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