Iowa Basketball 2020-21: Do or Do Not, There is No Try

By ClassyHawkeye on November 24, 2020 at 12:00 pm
Final Four, baby
© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Every once in a while, usually around summertime each year, I find myself watching the 1980 Final Four tape on YouTube. Entitled, Louisville at the Wire, the NCAA-produced retrospective details the Cardinals' run to a national title in Indianapolis.

Why would I watch a Louisville championship video you ask? 

Because I just want to see it with my own eyes. I want to make sure it's real.

I want to visually confirm that at some point, in some alternate universe nine years before I was born, Iowa was in the Final Four. 

And sure enough, every time at around the 0:47 minute mark, the Hawkeyes appear in their glorious black and gold warm-ups, taking to the Market Square Arena court before falling to Louisville 80-72 in a National Semifinal. 

And that's about it in the way of national moments in the modern era for the Iowa basketball program. Outside of an Elite Eight trip in 1986-87, the Hawkeyes haven't been close to a Final Four since that night in Indianapolis. Sure they've spent time in and out of the Top 10 of national polls, but when the calendar turns to March, Iowa can't put it all together.

Which brings us to 2020. It's time for that to change.

The Hawkeyes return almost everyone from last season's 20-win campaign, including reigning Big Ten (and by some outlets, National) Player of the Year Luka Garza. Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge are healthy while Joe Wieskamp, C.J. Frederick and Joe Touissant are one year older and wiser. Connor McCaffery seemingly got better by the day last season and that should continue this year, while his brother Patrick, is, by all accounts, ready to go after a 2019-20 redshirt season. Lest we forget, the younger McCaffery brother just happened to be one of the school's highest-rated recruit ever under his father. 

Nationally, Iowa is rightly receiving a lot of love, including its highest preseason ranking (#5) since the 1950s and being installed by some outlets as the betting favorite to win the Big Ten:

As well as one of the betting favorites to with the whole damn thing:

With all of this in mind, it's clear that the expectations for the 2020-21 season are as follows:

  1. Win at least a share of the Big Ten Championship
  2. Capture a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament
  3. Reach the Final Four


I believe that (barring injury) if the Hawkeyes don't reach the 2021 Final Four, this season is a massive disappointment. If they do not win the Big Ten Championship, it is a failure in the regular season. Opening the year as the consensus fifth-best team in America suggests that the Hawkeyes should be at a minimum a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. Anything less than that is a disappointment.

Now, I realize that screaming Final Four or Bust might seem like a stretch given this is an Iowa team that KenPom ranks as only the 13th best team in America per the metrics entering the season, thanks to, of course, its defensive deficiencies. In fact, the defense seems to have a bit of work to do in order to be good enough to win a championship, having finished a porous 97th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom last season and checking in at 64th to start this year.

But is it too much to ask for McCaffery and his staff, in year 11, to at least improve this defense into the top 50?

I'm an admitted Fran apologist, but just because Iowa has never really been great defensively throughout his tenure, doesn't mean we should accept less. It's up to this coaching staff to find a way to improve a defense that has actually dramatically improved its metrics over the past three seasons (242nd in 2018, 111th in 2019, and 97th last year). In my opinion, if that number can just hover right around 50th in the country (with its top-two offense per KenPom), the Hawkeyes will have a very good chance of achieving all of their goals. 

If the defense still troubles you and your expectations for this team can't surpass, say, a top-four finish in the Big Ten and a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I ask you to consider one question:

If you aren't expecting this Iowa basketball team to win the conference and get to the Final Four, will you ever?

This isn't "most years."   

Iowa's preseason #5 ranking would indicate realistic expectations for this season should be a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a trip to the Elite Eight. In most years at almost every program in the country (especially Iowa) a trip to a Regional Final is a monumental success.

This isn't "most years."

In most years, a player that wins a National Player of the Year award doesn't return to school. However, when Luka Garza announced his return to Iowa City in August, he became one of five players in the last 45 years, and the first since 2008, to return to school after being named National Player of the Year by The Sporting News.

This isn't "most years."

In most years, Tom Izzo rolls out one of his loaded Michigan State teams, overwhelmingly favored to win the Big Ten and reach another Final Four.

This isn't "most years."

And in most years, there's a 2002 Maryland, a 2005 UCONN, a 2009 North Carolina, a 2012 Kentucky or a 2019 Duke. A team so chock-full of NBA-caliber talent that no matter how well a program like Iowa puts it together on both ends of the court they likely could never compete with them.

This isn't "most years."

In 2020-21, the Big Ten Championship and NCAA Championship are wide open and within the Hawkeyes' reach for one of the few times in school history. This Iowa team has the capability of being great so we should hold them to that standard.

Under McCaffery, the Iowa basketball program has found itself breaking some dubious droughts:

  • In 2014 they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006
  • In 2015 they won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2001
  • In 2019 Luka Garza became Iowa's first Big Ten Player of the Year ever

The three biggest, though are still alive and well:

  1. Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1979
  2. The Hawkeyes' last trip to the second weekend of the tournament was 1998
  3. Iowa's last Final Four was 1980

2020 should be the year the Hawkeyes break these streaks. 

I'm sick of watching that 1980 Final Four tape. It's 40 years later and we're still talking about Ronnie Lester's damn knee.

It's time for the program to make some new memories. And maybe next summer I'll have a new video to watch.


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