IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa men’s basketball team that had NCAA Tournament aspirations never planned on starting the season 9-9 overall.
Nowhere was 0-5 in the Big Ten on the agenda or appeared possible. This was a team on the cusp of an NCAA Tournament berth last year and had qualified the three previous seasons.
With all but one player returning, albeit the departure was Big Ten scoring champ Peter Jok, the Hawkeyes appeared set for an NCAA return. An advantageous schedule could vault Iowa basketball in the league’s top third. The dream was as wide as a rural Iowa cornfield.
Instead, every potential negative became magnified. Backup point guard Christian Williams, the backcourt’s best defender, transferred before the season. Connor McCaffery, a 4-star guard, has dealt with a sprained ankle, mono and a pair of tonsillectomies. None of the returnees are solid on-ball defenders, and none can match Jok’s consistent shooting prowess. In the past, defenses marked Jok, which allowed Iowa to better space the floor and gave its motion offense room to move. Now, they all target point guard Jordan Bohannon, and the offense struggles to get good shots.
“It’s been more challenging that we thought it would be, clearly,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “But what you do in those situations is you deal with the situation at hand. ‘OK, we have a guy that’s gone that we thought was going to be here. Who can step in? Who can benefit from this?'”
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There’s not much that Iowa can do for this season. There’s no backcourt cavalry on its way to salvage the 2017-18 season. Sure, the Hawkeyes can win some games, but barring a Big Ten Tournament miracle — with similar odds as hitting the lottery — the Hawkeyes have to save the present to improve the future. But if the current players can make strides this season and newcomers can bolster the roster for next season, a quick turnaround is possible.
“We’re a little shallow back there,” McCaffery said. “But we’ve got two guards coming in next year, we’ve got Connor coming back next year, and so we’ll go from a shallow group to a much deeper group and we’ll have even more flexibility. But we’re not talking about next year; we’re talking about this year.
“So all right, Nicholas Baer has to play some guard. He’s smart and he understands how to play that position. We’ve got to get our front guys like Ahmad Wagner to play a little more on the perimeter than maybe we would have otherwise. It can be frustrating at times, but it’s also an opportunity for others to step up in their games and gain confidence.”
Sophomore guard Maishe Dailey has picked up key minutes and has made strides. He never played point guard before this season but has helped spell Bohannon, who is danger of becoming overworked with the guard shortage. Bohannon has played 28-plus minutes in 13 games this year, including 36 at Maryland on Sunday.
“It’s put a lot of pressure on Jordan. It really has,” McCaffery said. “But I think what we’re seeing with him is the level of mental toughness that he has. I’m proud of him for that.”
The biggest problem for Iowa is its offensive woes. Through five Big Ten games, the Hawkeyes average 71.8 points, the lowest since 2013. The problem is, Iowa gives up 82.4 points a game in league action, worst in the Big Ten and the team’s highest since 1994.
Both issues are connected. Iowa wants more possessions, thus more points for both teams. But as the Hawkeyes struggle with ball movement, they’re not taking good shots, which leads to more transition opportunities for the opponent. As the losses pile up, players often feel more pressure to make plays, which could lead to more mistakes.
“We sometimes seemingly quick-shoot the ball when we maybe needed a longer possession,” McCaffery said. “Or maybe we have a guy who goes on his own which maybe wasn’t the wisest decision. I say this a lot, but that’s a tough call as a coach. You want your guys to have confidence to make a play and want the challenge to go make a play. But as we’ve always said, sometimes the best play is no play at all. Move the ball. There’s nothing there. They’re in a stack defense, you’ve got no space, there’s still time on the shot clock, get it moving, intelligent screening, intelligent cutting, and then maybe get a better one.”
Continual struggles could keep players from buying in. McCaffery said he hasn’t seen that yet and points to the loss Sunday at Maryland for validation.
“I think the start of the game is evident,” he said. “Maryland is a really good team, on the road, a tough place to play. Had overcome a lot in the first half. There we are with 10 minutes to go, with a lead despite everything that had happened. I think we’re in a good position. We had some breakdowns down the stretch, foul trouble, but I think we’ve rectified that.”
There’s no magic button for this team. The NCAA Tournament is a dream, and the losses continue to grind. It will be a difficult two months and longer offseason. But the longer the players stay engaged, the better Iowa’s chances for improvement for next season.