I have a confession to make: I am struggling to place Iowa’s hoops season in its proper context.
Was the season successful because of Iowa’s stirring comeback against Cincinnati? Was it disappointing because of Iowa’s February fade? Was it merely average--a wash, rinse, repeat type season--because of Iowa’s 10-10 Big Ten record?
The answer: all of the above.
But for narrative purposes, let’s call it a much-needed reboot following last year’s disastrous 14-19 campaign. In stark terms, Fran needed this season--a “prove it” campaign to restore faith among skeptical fans scarred by last year’s debacle.
Look, the 2018-2019 season wasn’t that successful (there was the inexplicable late-season meltdown--coupled with Fran’s personal meltdown at Ohio State). But from an impressive non-conference run to a competitive Big Ten finish to the improbable Cincinnati victory, the season reset the program’s narrative--one that had wobbled following our ascension to hoops respectability.
And that, in my humble opinion, is the most important takeaway from the 2018-2019 season.
The 2018-2019 had just enough impressive moments (the Iowa State runaway, Michigan rout, Cincinnati victory, stirring Tennessee comeback) to shift public perception. And instead of a roiling debate about Fran’s hefty buyout/contract security, the debate instead focuses on his substitution patterns (a McCaffrey-Maishe backcourt?) and stubborn refusal to call timeouts during opponent runs.
There is a big difference. If Iowa had repeated its dismal 2017 performance (or improved upon it only marginally), there would have been mounting questions about Fran’s job security (or, at the very minimum, his bloated, Ferentz-like contract). And when a coach is facing questions about his job status, each game becomes a near referendum on the program’s direction. We witnessed this during [REDACTED]’s tenure; personally speaking, I have witnessed this same poisonous mix of apathy and disdain during Matt Doherty’s ill-fated stint at UNC and Tom Crean’s final couple years at IU.
Rather than media and fans speculating about Fran’s future, the program can instead focus on escaping the Big Ten’s swollen middle class and averting its patented February fade. And assuming 2019-2020 is a successful season (which it should be), we can chalk up 2017-2018 as an outlier--the equivalent of Dr. Tom’s forgettable 1993-1994 campaign. Following the desultory ‘93-94 campaign (the Hawkeyes went 11-16), the good Doctor rebounded with five consecutive 20-win seasons.
And while it is anyone’s guess whether Fran will deliver a 20 win season in 2019 (or, better yet, five consecutive 20-win seasons), there is optimism--deservedly so--about Hawkeye hoops. In 2019, Iowa is currently set to return everyone but glue guy Nicholas Baer. Luka Garza and Joe Weiskamp are legitimate program cornerstones. (Ditto Tyler Cook if he returns for his senior season.) The rotation adds Cordell Pemsl and Jack Nunge; there is hope that incoming freshman Joe Touissant can emerge as a defensive stopper at point guard. Moreover, the defense showed signs of life, going from comically bad to mediocre (Iowa ranked #110 in Ken Pom’s defensive efficiency metric--up from #242 during the 2017-2018 campaign). All in all, there are reasons for optimism--perhaps why world’s greatest hype man Fran is already touting next year’s non-conference schedule as the “toughest in program history.” Franny knows he should (emphasis on should) have a squad--and has scheduled accordingly.
But before turning the page on the 2018-2019 campaign, let’s place the just completed season in proper context: with Fran facing scrutiny--arguably for the first time during his Hawkeye tenure, the Hawkeyes rebounded with a successful campaign and, in the process, changed the narrative of a seemingly adrift program. And while legitimate questions about Hawkeye hoops remain (Fran’s temper, his substitution patterns, the February flop), the 2018-2019 Hawkeyes affirmatively answered the program’s most important question: Was 2017-2018 an aberration? The response—as timely as a Jason Bohannon three ball: Yes. Yes, it was.