One of the themes that emerged from this week's pre-European trip media day was that this year's Iowa team definitely feels disrespected and overlooked -- and they're using that for motivation. No one expects much from the 2018-19 Iowa hoops team, it seems. They're not in Joe Lunardi's most recent mock bracket (June 1), nor are they among the First Four Out or Next Four Out teams. They're not in Jerry Plam's most recent mock bracket (July 28) or his First Four Out, either.
Iowa sits at 10th in CBS Sports' offseason power rankings (July 14). Big Ten Powerhouse puts them at 7th (May 30). Ditto Land of 10 (early April). BTN's Tom Dienhart is most bullish on them, putting them at 6th (March 28). Fans of our Big Ten rivals aren't sweating Iowa much, either -- Crimson Quarry and Inside NU both put Iowa at 9th in their early power rankings.
Although maybe we should amend that earlier statement to say that no one expects much from the 2018-19 Iowa hoops teams outside of Iowa -- after all, Land of 10's Scott Dochterman talked about them as a potential Big Ten title contender this week and Hawk Central's Chad Leistikow was bullish on them as well. Dochterman and Leistikow are both Hawkeye beat writers, but I wouldn't characterize either of them as Kool-Aid drinkers or guys who unfailingly pump up Iowa teams or players.
Obviously Iowa loses a key piece from last year's team in Peter Jok. He led the team (and Big Ten) in scoring at 19.9 points per game and he was also second on the team in rebounds, assists, and steals. Both his long-range shooting prowess and dead-eye free throw shooting will be missed by Iowa next year. But college basketball teams almost always lose key players from year to year; that's sort of the nature of the beast when your labor pool can only stick around for a maximum of four years. And while Iowa loses Jok, they return literally everyone else. That means bringing back 77% of their scoring from last year, 87% of their rebounding, 86% of their assists, and 87% of their steals. That's a whole lot of returning production for a team whose best players will be an improving bunch of sophomores and juniors. They've also added a pair of four-star recruits that should help address two of their biggest shortcomings last year (size and interior defense). There are still question marks -- who backs up Bohannon, can Moss and Ellingson replace Jok, how does the frontcourt logjam sort itself out, to name a few -- but, again, everyone has some question marks.
Iowa had a bumpy road in 2016-17 and endured some ugly losses, particularly early in the year, but last year's very young team certainly improved as the season progressed. Iowa went 7-3 in their final ten regular season games and by most accounts just missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth after a faceplant in the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana. They seemed poised for a good run in the NIT as well, although a narrow second-round loss to TCU (the eventual NIT champion) put an end to that.
It's hard not to think that this Iowa team, a team with so many returning players and so much returning production, who finished the season pretty strongly on the whole, would be generating a bit more enthusiasm if they had a different name on the front of their jerseys. Maryland is another sophomore-dominated team who has lost an upperclassmen talisman (Jok for Iowa, Melo Trimble for the Terps), but they're consistently picked higher than the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin loses everyone of significance from last year's team except Ethan Happ but is routinely picked ahead of Iowa, largely because no one can remember the last time the Badgers finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten (alas, if only past performance was an infallible predictor of future results...). Indiana was gutted by NBA Draft defections, but the presence of Archie Miller and the still-palpable Hoosier mystique obscures many of those holes, apparently.
So why do those teams get the benefit of the doubt, while Iowa doesn't? Brand names help, as does past performance -- especially recent past performance. There's not much Iowa can do about the former -- it generally takes several years of consistent success to become a brand name (especially if you're not in a media hub -- and Iowa City will never be mistaken for that). There isn't a whole lot they can do about the latter, either -- past games have already been played and can't be redone. Fran has done an excellent job of rebuilding the Iowa program from the rubble that remained from the Alford and Lickliter tenures, but the only way to get the benefit of the doubt and attain increased respect around the college hoops world is for the Iowa program to take a step forward. That means contending for Big Ten titles, not just top-six finishes. That means playing into the second week (or beyond) of the NCAA Tournament, not just making it to the Dance. If Iowa can do that, then respect (and higher expectations) will follow. Given the improvement we've seen over his tenure and the increased quality of recruits that he's been bringing to Iowa City, making that jump forward seems very possible -- hopefully as soon as next March.
But in the meantime if they want to give Iowa some extra motivation and put a chip on the players' shoulders, well, that's not a bad thing. Ryan Kriener openly admitted the low expectations were motivation:
“When I really got that chip for this season was — I think it was CBS — came out with (offseason power rankings) and put us 10th in the Big Ten, behind some teams that we clobbered last year,” sophomore forward Ryan Kriener said Wednesday. “… I think that was the biggest slap in the face. That really set the mind right, for me.”
It's fun, but ultimately pretty meaningless, to be well-regarded in June and July. We'd much rather see Iowa contending in February and March and playing deep into the postseason. Next year's team seems like they might be able to do just that -- no matter what the experts think.