Iowa basketball's 2020 recruiting class has... been in a weird place. Still, there was a lingering hope that Xavier Foster might still commit to Iowa and provide a massive boost to that 2020 class. A week ago, Foster announced that he was down to two schools, Iowa and Iowa State, and that he would be declaring his decision on the morning of Monday, November 11. He announced his decision today and... it was not Iowa.
We don't spend a lot of time talking about recruits who don't choose Iowa -- no use crying over spilled milk, essentially -- but in this case we need to make an exception. Because there's a lot to unpack about Foster's decision and what it means for this recruiting class and for the Iowa program overall.
1. Iowa's future is light on big men
In addition to the boost Foster's addition would have given to Iowa's recruiting class in terms of hype/buzz/star ratings/etc., he was an important target because of his physical attributes -- particularly his size (7-foot tall). Iowa's 2020 recruiting class currently consists of Ahron Ulis (a point guard), Tony Perkins (a shooting guard), and Keegan and Kris Murray (both wing players). On top of that, Iowa's 2019 recruiting class was comprised of Joe Toussaint (a point guard) and Patrick McCaffery (a wing/stretch four). Notably missing from those classes? Big men! None of those six players look like someone who can play the four or the five in a league as physical as the Big Ten.
Iowa is also losing a lot of size in the next few years. Ryan Kriener is set to graduate this season. Luka Garza and Cordell Pemsl are slated to depart after next year. That leaves Jack Nunge as the only player currently on Iowa's roster who is planned to be around when the 2021-2022 season tips off. That seems less than ideal. Iowa is going to need to find another big man (or big men) and fast, either as part of the 2020 recruiting class or through the transfer market.
2. Iowa loses a head-to-head battle with Iowa State
Foster is far from the first elite recruit from the state of Iowa to choose a program other than Iowa; just last year the state's top recruit, point guard D.J. Carton, opted to attend Ohio State over Iowa. We're accustomed to seeing Iowa prospects choose high-profile national programs like Kansas, North Carolina, or Ohio State. But losing a blue chip recruit to Iowa State? That's a new one.
Iowa State hoops has had more success than Iowa in recent years -- they've won four of the last six Big XII conference tournaments, appeared in the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons, and made the Sweet 16 in 2014 and 2016. By comparison, Iowa has... not won four of the last six Big Ten conference tournaments (they've won two games total in the last six conference tournaments, in fact). They've made four of the last eight NCAA Tournaments and haven't been to the Sweet 16 since (sigh) 1999. So it's not that surprising that an in-state player would choose to play his college career in Ames than Iowa City.
But it's still a jarring blow to the Iowa hoops program -- and that blow only hits harder when you see the comments from Foster and his mother about his decision:
Xavier Foster (@XaMan_10) said he felt weight immediately lift off his shoulders when he picked Iowa State yesterday.— Matthew Bain (@MatthewBain_) November 11, 2019
"It was weird. My family is Iowa fans. Im an Iowa fan, personally. But I just felt like I had a better chance at success at Iowa State. It fits me better."
Kristi Foster felt like her son's decision to pick ISU came from his gut & heart:— Matthew Bain (@MatthewBain_) November 11, 2019
"I dont even know for sure if he knows exactly what it was. He just feels like, long-term, his next goal is to get to the NBA & theyve had some success at Iowa State. ... We supported him 100%."
Ouch. That is pretty brutal. They're not wrong in that assessment -- Iowa State has had five players drafted in the last four drafts and some of them (Monte Morris, Georges Niang, Abdel Nader) have been able to carve out roles on NBA rosters (though they've been better at developing guards/wings than bigs). Iowa has also had some players receive interest from the NBA (Peter Jok, Jarrod Uthoff, Devyn Marble, Tyler Cook), but most of them have struggled to get beyond the G League level. If Iowa State can point to better success on the court and in developing talent for the NBA, that's going to complicate things for Iowa when it comes to in-state recruiting and head-to-head recruiting battles with the Cyclones.
3. Why is it so hard for this program to recruit?
Which brings us to the bigger point here: why is it to so hard for Iowa to recruit right now? Fran McCaffery is in his 10th year at Iowa and he's had most of his coaching staff for that entire time; that suggests a great deal of stability in the program, which is generally desirable. As noted above, Iowa has had some success in the NCAA Tournament -- they've appeared in four of the last six tournaments and won a game in three of those appearances. There aren't any concerns about NCAA investigations or sanctions.
Iowa is a far better program than the smoking crater than Fran inherited 10 years ago. It isn't a great program, but it's been a consistently solid one. And yet recruiting success seems elusive right now, unless a prospect grew up down the hall from Fran or had dreamed of playing for Iowa since he was a child (Joe Wieskamp). Perhaps the less-heralded prospects that have comprised the majority of Fran's last few recruiting classes will turn out to be diamonds in the rough that he and his staff can polish into capable Big Ten players -- I certainly hope that's the case. But it's also a big gamble and Iowa's recruiting lately seems light on sure things and heavy on risky bets.