Like many of you, The Last Dance — reliving MJ’s aerial pyrotechnics and preening contempt for all things Jerry Krause — has been my sports highlight over the past two months. While I am a sucker for the 1990s NBA (and any story with the words Dennis Rodman and Vegas), I am jonesing for a college sports fix. While the world combusts around us, I am still thinking about Iowa’s potential second round opponents in the aborted 2020 Big Dance (for the record, I think Dook and Creighton were winnable match-ups for the Hawkeyes).
For Hawkeye hoop heads like yours truly, the upcoming Hawkeye basketball season promises to be the most highly anticipated basketball season since at least the Recker/Evans campaign in 2001-02. The 2020-21 season has the potential to be Fran’s breakout year. Under Fran, Iowa has reached Dr. Tom levels of stability. With an NCAA berth last March (the Hawks were pegged to be a six or seven seed), Iowa would have reached the Dance for the fifth time in seven years. And mirroring the good doctor (who was undefeated in first round NCAA tourney match-ups), Fran boasts a tidy 3-0 record in round of 64 contests. Following that dreary 14-19 campaign and winter of discontent, Fran has stabilized Iowa hoops. The potential payoff: next year’s team for the ages.
When you eye Iowa’s potential roster next year, a Big Ten regular season title is very much in play. Assuming The Peacock returns to his Hawkeye flock, Iowa’s starting line-up should be devastating, at least offensively. A starting five of Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery, Joe Wieskamp, and Luka Garza boasts scoring and playmaking. Even without JBo -- and his timely three point daggers and expert trolling -- Iowa ranked fifth in the nation offensively. Joe Touissant provides a level of JBo insurance — and an infusion of playmaking himself — while the eternally injured Jack Nunge, if healthy, should provide interior depth. Iowa has the ingredients for a special season.
The question: How special? For the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten (there, I said it), there are lingering questions that need to be answered. While next year will be the year of the Peacock, Iowa needs reinforcements for its indefatigable center. Even with Big Cat Ryan Kriener’s unsung contributions, Garza’s minute totals for the Hawkeyes’ last five games — 35, 40, 36, 38, and 40 — aren't sustainable. Can a combination of Nunge and true freshman Josh Ogundele spell Garza for five to seven minutes per game without submarining Iowa’s offense? For Garza to survive the Big Ten gauntlet again, the Hawkeyes are going to need their two secondary bigs to provide quality minutes.
A related question: Can Iowa hold its own on the glass? In Iowa’s small ball lineups, Weezy will be Iowa's de facto power forward. Yes, Joe Wieskamp, all 210 pounds of him. For Iowa to unleash its most offensively potent lineup (its version of the Warriors’ Death Lineup), we need Wieskamp to serve as a defensive linchpin and consistent rebounder. Can he hold his own against, say, Wisconsin’s burly frontline? One encouraging sign: Despite Weezy’s slender frame, he averaged six boards per game. A less encouraging sign: In Iowa’s last two games, both Purdue and Illinois bullied the Hawkeyes on the offensive glass. Kofi Cockburn, for all intents and purposes, played volleyball in the second half. Iowa, in fact, struggled to clear the boards in its BIG losses — Trayce Jackson-Davis gobbled up seven offensive rebounds in IU’s victory over the Hawkeyes. For Iowa to unleash its own Death lineup, Wieskamp has to put the power in power forward.
A third and final question: Can Iowa confidently go eight deep? In a conference as rugged as the Big Ten, Iowa needs a reliable eight man rotation (and, truthfully, nine is ideal). The preseason candidates: the previously mentioned Ogundele and Patrick McCaffery for the eighth and ninth rotation spots, respectively. I've already touched briefly on Ogundele. My black and gold hope: Ogundele serves as a Gabe Olaseni starter kit for ten minutes per game. As for Patrick McCaffery, he's the ultimate wildcard. A former top 75 national recruit and cancer survivor (how many high profile recruits can say that?), he has the playmaking chops, length, and basketball IQ to provide critical back-up minutes at the small forward and, in small ball lineups, the power forward position. But his last meaningful action came against Dubuque Wahlert and Cedar Rapids Jefferson, a far cry from the rigors of Big Ten play. One obvious advantage: While in corona “hurry up and wait mode,” he can train under Fran’s watchful eye and challenge CMac in those ever-so-casual sibling battles.
This is the year for Iowa hoops to end those inglorious streaks—22 years since its last Sweet 16 appearance and 42 years since its last Big Ten championship. While the BIG will be a meat grinder, it will be hard pressed to match last year’s depth (See ya, Cassius! Buh bye, Ayo! Until next time, Mr. Oturu!). Assuming good Hawkeye health and passable answers to my depth, rebounding, and rotational questions, this can be a banner season at Carver—both literally and figuratively.