IOWA CITY, Iowa — Basketball season is here. Iowa started practice over the weekend and held media day on Wednesday.
Here are five things you need to know from it.
1. A real assessment of expectations
This is a year of transition for Iowa. Gone are seven players, including four starters, led by forward Jarrod Uthoff. In their place is a roster with 10 underclassmen, including six freshmen. Iowa made the last three NCAA Tournaments, won 22 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. What does coach Fran McCaffery think of his team?
Here’s the short answer.
“I have a good feeling about this team, and I go into every season fully confident that we’re going to be winning, and we’ll see where it ends up,” McCaffery said.
Here’s the long answer.
“I don’t wake up and say, well, (the fans are) going to give up on us if we’re 1-3,” McCaffery said. “I don’t have that feeling. I think they’ll analyze our personnel and say, ‘OK, do we think Tyler Cook is going to be as good as Fran said he’s going to be. Let’s see how Jordan Bohannon comes along with Christian (Williams); can we get the point guard situation where we want it to be? Which one of these other guys steps up? Does Dom Uhl take the step that we think he can take?’
“Each and every one of those guys that I’ve talked about, Ahmad Wagner, Brady Ellingson, every one of those guys has improved noticeably, but what you have to do now is you’ve got to do it in the games. You’ve got to do it when the TV lights come on. You’ve got to do it when the TV lights come on on the road. Then you’ve got to do it consistently, and that’s the hardest thing. That’s the journey, and I think that’s the fun of it, but it’s the challenge as well, and there could be bumps in the road.”
Here’s what it means. Every coach is going to like his team in October. There would be major problems if that wasn’t the case. Iowa is in a rebuilding season. That happens when the majority of a team’s production walks out the door.
McCaffery’s expectations are the same as always. He did mention the bar is playing in April, aka the Final Four, but most preseason projections peg Iowa as a midtier Big Ten team at best. The best way to judge this squad, especially early in the season, is on the progress of the young players and how they fill in around returning starter Peter Jok.
If this team makes the NCAA Tournament it will likely go down as one of McCaffery’s better coaching seasons.
2. Stepping into the spotlight
Jok is the lone returning starter and put up a strong junior season. He averaged 16.1 points and shot 40.3 percent from the 3-point line.
But McCaffery needs more from him as a senior. It’s not all going to come on the stat sheet. The room for Jok to make the biggest growth this season is as a leader.
“I’ve been really, really happy with Pete’s development there, and as you know, it didn’t just start Saturday when we officially started practice Oct. 1st,” McCaffery said. “It’s kind of when the last year ends, and he recognized that immediately, and it wasn’t easy because as you remember, he put his name in. So it was a very critical thing for him to recognize. While he was getting a thousand shots a day up with an NBA basketball and traveling and trying out for teams, whenever we had a workout, he was there early and stayed late, said all the right things to the young guys, and led that group both through example and verbally. So I was really impressed with him there.”
As one of the few players returning with significant experience, the Hawkeyes will look to him to show the way. This can be a mutually beneficial situation. They need him and Jok realizes he will need his teammates. Opponents will key in on him and Iowa will need secondary scoring options to counter it.
“I am ready for it,” Jok said. “It’s a task I’ve got to go through and my teammates are going to help me out, too. I’m going to need a couple of guys to step up and that will help me out also.”
The easiest way for the other Hawkeyes to do that is with Jok leading the way.
3. So who is the secondary scoring option?
There will be a few options, including freshman Tyler Cook (more on him in a second), but one to keep an eye on is forward Dale Jones.
Jones said he was cleared last week after suffering a season-ending knee injury last December. He needs to be 100 percent by the opener. The expectations are high from the coaching staff for the sixth-year senior.
“As we struggled a little bit offensively down the stretch, that was the guy that we looked at and said, ‘You know, if he was here, he’d go get 25,’ ” McCaffery said. “I mean, he has that capability. He makes threes, he’s 6-8, he’s 235, but he’s also a rebounder.”
No pressure, Dale.
He is progressing nicely but is taking things slow in the preseason. He may not play in the exhibition game against Regis University on Nov. 4, but he assures he’ll ready to go for the regular season, when McCaffery is expecting him to score some buckets.
4. Who brings the ball up the court?
The question is who starts at point guard. The right question may be how much time do Williams, a sophomore, and Bohannon, a freshman, spend on the court together.
“Christian is a really good defensive player, so we might need him to go shut down a (shooting guard), especially if Pete is in foul trouble,” McCaffery said. “I’d like to play him with Pete kind of like we did last year with three guards. Christian is a really good offensive rebounder, so we could turn him loose because you don’t send your point guard to the glass.”
Point guard won’t just be limited to those two, McCaffery said. Jok will spend time bringing the ball up the court.
Point guard is one of the biggest unknowns for this team. How Iowa handles its point guard play early in the season will be worth watching.
5. What to expect from Cook?
The freshman is a crown jewel of the incoming recruiting class. ESPN ranked him No. 38 nationally. McCaffery isn’t being shy about his potential.
The 6-foot-9, 253-pound forward is doing all he can to live up to the hype. He’s spent the last several months refining his jump shot. It’s all part of his offensive plan for the season.
“My main focus in the summertime and even now I’ve got to get myself as unguardable as possible,” Cook said. “I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m a lot better than I was.”
Cook has the potential to be one of the best offensive players on this team. If he can quickly show he’s capable of playing at a high level it could change what this team could do.