Here's a sign of the black and gold apocalypse: Iowa tied with Michigan State in the Big Ten standings in February (and, yes, February games have already been played).
As a self-loathing Hawkeye fan who questions Fran’s timeout usage (or lack thereof), substitution patterns, and defensive commitment, I have to admit this team has impressed. The 2019-20 Hawkeyes reflect Fran’s, at times, combative personality (combative can be a compliment, right?); there is a real mettle to these shorthanded Hawks. More big picture: Fran deserves credit for his player development, roster construction, and Ferentz-like recruiting gems.
Iowa’s player development deserves praise; during Fran’s tenure, we have witnessed several Hawkeyes jump from solid performers to All-Big Ten first teamers. Among the most notable examples: Peter Jok maturing from an erratic, defense-optional gunner into a well-rounded, All-Big Ten performer; Aaron White morphing from hustler extraordinaire into a viable offensive hub; and Jarrod Uthoff blossoming into an all-conference mismatch. And, of course, there is the Peacock, dominating the Big Ten with a buffet of deft post-ups, rim running, and high-arcing three balls.
But it's not just the All-Big Ten honorees; Hawkeye role players have steadily improved under Fran as well. On this year’s roster, Ryan Kriener and Connor McCaffrey are the two most notable examples. Kriener, once a foul-prone big, has brought some stability to Iowa’s second unit with an arsenal of nifty hooks and timely three-pointers. He rescued Iowa during the Hawkeyes’ code red first half against jNW (if you remember, the Peacock was more spectator than superstar in the first half in Evanston). And Connor, once blind date timid, has morphed into Iowa’s de facto glue guy. A physical defender who defends four spots, boasts a sterling assist to turnover ratio, and rebounds well for his size, Connor his carved out a critical niche for this undermanned Hawkeye squad. He's not a Fran charity case; he never was, but he definitely isn't this year.
Fran’s roster construction, at least this year, also deserves mention -- and praise. Unlike previous years, where there was too much roster overlap (we all know Fran has a love affair with springy forward types), this roster fits like a glove. There is a defined hierarchy, one that encourages complementary basketball. The Peacock patrols inside, Weezy is the prototypical second option on the wing, Fredrick stretches the defense with timely shooting, and Connor serves as the Elmer’s glue guy keeping everything together. The rest of the roster fills in the gaps when necessary.
In previous years, we have seen talented Hawkeye squads struggle with spacing and roles. Tyler Cook, an athletic marvel, needed space within the lane for his rim-rocking drives. The problem: a 7’0” Peacock-to-be named Luka Garza roamed the interior as well. The result: an ill-fitting tandem, one that didn’t necessarily maximize its potential despite some at-times gaudy statistical production.
Another case of positional overlap: Nicholas Baer, the hyperactive jack of all trades. Baer, quite frankly, was a 3.5 -- too lean (read: a bit too scrawny) to serve as a college four, but not quite quick enough to keep up with shooting guards/small forwards sprinting through a maze of picks. While Baer was a dynamic player in his own right (and, incidentally, one of my favorite Hawkeyes), are you really sitting the uber-talented Garza, Cook, or Weezy? While Fran’s Hawkeyes made it work -- more so in 2018-19 than 2017-18 -- there was always an implicit awkwardness, if not tension, in Fran’s roster construction. Now operating with a bare bones eight-man rotation, Fran’s roster has a defined offensive hierarchy -- one that, incidentally, has unleashed a free-flowing, stunningly efficient brand of basketball.
And, finally, Fran has unearthed a number of recruiting gems, providing a legitimate rebuttal to “Why can’t Fran land (insert Tyler Ulis, D.J. Carlton, Xavier Foster)?” While Iowa recruiting remains an ongoing concern--see our trepidation about this year’s recruiting class, Fran has proven himself to be a sharp talent evaluator. Among the list of unheralded Iowa recruits turning into valuable Big Ten contributors: Aaron White, Devyn Marble, Peter Jok, and Jordan Bohannon.
As for this year’s team, there is a mixture of highly touted recruits (Weezy, Connor), overlooked prospects (Garza, Fredrick, Bohannon, Touissant), and consummate Fran grinders (Kriener). For the record, Fran was the first (and only) major college coach to offer The Peacock before his junior year in high school; he spotted something -- a BMW motor, smooth footwork, a competitive drive bordering on the ravenous -- that other coaches didn't see. As for Fredrick, he's another late blooming high school star, one who Illinois coach Brad Underwood lamented is going to be “a pain in the ass” for the next four years. So while Hawkeye hysteria surrounds the latest unheralded Iowa signees (warning: if you are looking for stars, check the sky), Fran’s track record has earned him a level of trust, even confidence, from this Hawkeye homer.
I understand Iowa’s Big Ten title drought is approaching middle age; at 40, it has a paunch and receding hairline. And many Hawkeyes, myself included, won’t be totally satisfied until the Hawkeyes hoist a regular season crowd (despite what [REDACTED] might say, a three-day tournament title is not the equivalent of a regular season crown, but I digress). Regardless, Fran deserves kudos -- and, perhaps, even Big Ten coach of the year consideration -- for steering what once looked like the Hawkeye Titanic into B1G title flirtation and what looks like (at the moment) a surefire NCAA Tourney bid. And next year -- with a possible starting five featuring JBo, Connor, Fredrick, Weezy, and The Peacock -- offers the tantalizing possibility of a real black and gold apocalypse: Iowa, you know, actually winning the Big Ten regular season crown.