Editor’s Note: Former Iowa basketball player Jess Settles has joined us as a special contributor: regular “On Iowa Live” guest, analyst for KCRG 9.2 basketball games, and writing occasional Gazette stories. Here’s an abbreviated Top 10 list for why the Hawkeyes have returned to winning basketball.
10. European Tour. Iowa is ranked in the top 15 this late in the season for the first time since 2002. The August journey to London and Paris could not have come at a better time for an Iowa team poised to become a Big Ten contender. Jarrod Uthoff had not played organized ball for two seasons and was able to gain valuable experience competing with his new teammates. Josh Oglesby needed to gain his long-range confidence back, and the coaching staff could evaluate newcomer Peter Jok.
Throw in lineup experiments, team bonding, and an invaluable extra training camp and the trip across the pond truly benefited this team. Add a deep run to the NIT championship game last season, and the Hawkeyes have had an extra month of meaningful games and practices compared to their competition. Maybe most importantly, London native Gabe Olaseni’s parents were able to watch him play college basketball for the first time. Olaseni is having fun again, and his play has been impressive.
9. Scheduling. The Hawkeyes were originally scheduled to play in the Great Alaska Shootout in late November, a tournament consisting of mostly mid-majors, and a tournament Iowa would’ve been favored to win. Last season’s soft non-conference schedule probably cost them an NCAA tourney bid and Iowa wanted to be tested early this season. Fran McCaffery and Athletics Director Gary Barta worked overtime to cancel the Alaska trip and find a spot in the high profile Battle 4 Atlantis. The Hawkeyes are still cashing the dividends with their second-place finish. They proved they could compete with anyone in the country, and they gained valuable national exposure.
Iowa’s only five losses have come to teams ranked in the top 25 and by a combined total of 14 points, including two in overtime. Tuesday’s gut-wrenching overtime loss to No. 6 Michigan State was painful, but in a league where every night is a test, the Hawkeyes’ schedule will impress the selection committee in March.
8. Length. McCaffery likes to mix things up defensively, and he has never had a longer lineup to work his magic. The average height of the starting five is 6-6. With Adam Woodbury and Olaseni protecting the rim, the center position is in capable hands. Those two are combining for 11.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
Aaron White, Uthoff and Melsahn Basabe are versatile enough to guard on the perimeter. In Iowa’s 2-3 zone, their length covers the baseline and wings, and easy looks for opponents are hard to come by. Iowa ranks fourth in the nation in field-goal defense, holding teams to 37 percent, and 12th in the nation in 3-point defense (28 percent). Iowa also is second in the Big Ten with a plus 9 rebounding margin.
Devyn Marble helped hold the Big Ten’s top scorer, Gary Harris, to nine points Tuesday night. Mike Gesell and Oglesby are not long, but have improved their defensive footwork and are very capable defenders. The new defensive hand checking and arm bar rules have probably hurt Zach McCabe the most, but his physical style is refreshing, and he knows how to body opponents up on the post. This is not the quickest or strongest Iowa team ever, but the Hawkeyes are very difficult to score on.
7. Depth. At his first press conference of the season, McCaffery said with a straight face that he would have no problem rotating 10 players and finishing some games with a lineup of non-starters.
No one believed him.
Too many egos, chemistry problems and the temptation to play the top scorers would force him into a tighter rotation, everyone thought.
The reality is that the strength of this team is depth and opposing teams are struggling to come to grips with it. Nine players average more than 13 minutes per game in conference play. Eight players score five points or better each game. The results have been nothing short of spectacular.
Iowa’s bench is averaging 33.8 points 20.7 rebounds per game. Uthoff is averaging 8.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg and is in the running for the 6th Man of the Year award in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes lead the conference in scoring (84.5 ppg) due to a talented bench that usually keeps the pedal down. The bench is so important that in Iowa’s losses the bench has averaged 18 points. As a former college coach, I can attest to how difficult it is to have a few days to prepare your team to compete against five or six players who can score, let alone 10 to 11 guys with the capability of scoring 15 points or more on any given night. It makes for long nights in the video room for the competition.
6. Shooting. Iowa would have been playing in the NCAA tournament last season had it been able to knock down the open shot. The Hawkeyes have good shooters all over their lineup, and this season their shots have been falling more consistently. Marble has been clutch from down town, especially in conference play, where he is shooting 45 percent from behind the arc. Oglesby is shooting 58 percent from the 3-point line since coming back from injury. White leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 62 percent.
While the Hawkeyes have improved their shooting significantly from last season, it is hard to quantify the devastation of their late-game free-throw shooting. Marble and Gesell are only in the 60th percentile for free-throw shooting. If the Hawks were making free throws late in the game, Iowa would be ranked in the top five in the country.
5. Point Guard Play. Keeping the ball in Marble’s hands last year worked well. Due to Gesell’s improvement at point guard, the staff realized quickly that if Iowa was going to make a long run in March, Marble needed to be slashing, running off of screens and posting up. Marble has performed brilliantly on the wing.
However, as Gesell goes, so go the Hawkeyes. His performance at Northwestern was arguably his best floor game as a Hawkeye. He knocked down the open shot, made timely passes and only drove to the rim when he had the advantage, finishing with 11 points, six assists, and only one turnover. Unfortunately against Michigan State, he was outperformed by Keith Appling. When Gesell plays well at point, the sky is the limit.
4. Coaching Staff. When Barta hired McCaffery, he made it clear that he wanted an experienced coaching staff, one that could compete with the best coaches in the country. McCaffery has always been an advocate for training younger coaches and opening up opportunities, but this job was not for rookies.
Embarrassingly, Iowa had not had a former player on the coaching staff since Scott Thompson during the Lute Olsen era. McCaffery immediately corrected that wrong and hired Kirk Speraw, who played for Olson in the late 1970s. Ryan Bowen, a Fort Madison native and Davis alum, was hired to be his video coordinator. Speraw came in with 17 years of coaching experience. Sherman Dillard has 10 years of college coaching experience and has his hands deep in AAU circles. With the addition of Andrew Francis, Billy Taylor and Al Seibert, the Iowa coaching staff has 65 years of combined head coaching experience and 130 years of collegiate coaching experience.
3. Marble and White. Both have professional aspirations, and they are handling their business this year like experienced veterans. Marble is averaging 17.9 ppg in conference play, and is a Player of the Year candidate. White is averaging 13.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg. Marble makes things happen and he has the ability to put tenacious scoring runs together. Against Notre Dame with the game on the line, Marble scored 13 points in row to lead Iowa to the win. He played like an All-American at Ohio State to lead Iowa to its first win over a top 5 team since 2001. White is content to let things happen, taking what the defense gives him.
Neither player was heavily recruited. Both have had to endure tough seasons. Surprisingly, both players are on pace to finish in the top 5 in all-time scoring in Iowa history. They both stuck around during difficult times, and Hawkeye fans will never forget them for that.
2. Veteran Leadership. During the past two coaching staff eras, a plethora of disgruntled players left the program. Iowa fans have finally been able to watch freshmen come in, stay, improve and mature. Marble has grown up before our eyes to become one of the Big Ten’s best. Fellow senior McCabe fights hard every possession and has hit big shots this season. Basabe, another senior, has joined Marble and White in the 1,000-point club. He led Iowa in blocks his first three seasons.
All three remember what it’s like to play in an empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They will be rewarded with the program’s first NCAA tourney appearance in seven years. How far they go will be up to them.
1. Coaching. It is hard to encapsulate what McCaffery has been able to accomplish in his short time at Iowa. Not even he completely understood the mess he was inheriting when he signed on the dotted line four years ago. Iowa’s attendance was abysmal. Former players rarely attended games. The product on the floor was hard to sell.
Barta knew McCaffery had successfully been through the rebuilding process, and that is why he turned over the keys to him. The Architect had successfully turned UNC-Greensboro into a winner. He is the best coach in Siena history, leading them to three straight conference titles and trips to the NCAA tournament.
But the Big 10 is a different level.
Things are now changing. The crowd at the Michigan State game was inspiring. With the play of Uthoff and Oglesby, Cedar Rapids is now back open for business for recruits. Trust with the top AAU programs in the state and Midwest has been reestablished. His first big victory was beating North Carolina Coach Roy Williams for Adam Woodbury.
McCaffery promised up-tempo, and he delivered with the Big Ten’s highest scoring team. Because he started at the bottom, Fran remembers what is like to do laundry and work camps for meal money. He remembers being an assistant, low on the totem pole and what it is like to raise a young family in this demanding profession. He has kept his players and coaching staff intact. He enjoys interacting with fans and has the program back on solid ground.
Because of Fran McCaffery, Iowa fans will finally be able to pencil in the Hawkeyes when they are filling out their brackets in March.