The Sweet 16 for the 2020 NCAA Tournament should be getting underway tonight, which makes it difficult to fully say goodbye to the 2020 season. Speculating about the future is always difficult, and even moreso now with the Covid-19 pandemic having forced life to a halt in so many ways. But at some point normalcy will return (hopefully!), and with it, sports. And hopefully that comes in time for the 2020-21 men's basketball season, because on paper Iowa is primed for some very big things.
The Hawkeyes figure prominently in several of the Way-Too-Early Top 25s for 2020-21. ESPN, which has Villanova and Creighton at #1 and #2 (fear the Big East!), slots Iowa at #7 overall -- and tops among all Big Ten squads. Michigan State, at #9, is the next highest Big Tean team. Says Jeff Borzello:
Luka Garza was my pick to win the Wooden Award, and I think he'll head back to Iowa City for his senior season. If that happens, the Hawkeyes are undoubtedly a preseason top-10 team. Fran McCaffery will bring back all five starters from a 20-win team, one that would've likely ended up with a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament. Garza should be his dominant self once again, while double-figure scorers Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick also are back. McCaffery should also get a boost from the expected return of Jordan Bohannon, who redshirted this season after playing just 10 games. A healthy Bohannon is a difference-maker at the point of attack. The Hawkeyes had some issues defensively, especially in Big Ten play, but they were able to outscore most opponents. And most of those weapons should be back again.
USA Today, which goes with Gonzaga and Baylor at #1 and #2, also pegs Iowa for #7 in their Way-Too-Early Top 25. That's again the highest-ranked Big Ten team, just ahead of (ugh) Wisconsin at #8. Per Scott Gleeson:
Assuming big man Luka Garza (23.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) is back, coach Fran McCaffery will have himself a Big Ten championship-caliber team centered around the 6-11 All-American. The nucleus around Garza is strong with guards Joe Wieskamp, Joe Toussaint, CJ Fredrick and the coach's son — Connor McCaffery. The Hawkeyes could also get a huge boost if former All-Big Ten guard Jordan Bohannon earns a medical redshirt year of eligibility after missing most of his senior year.
NBC Sports, which has Villanova and Gonzaga at #1 and #2, isn't quite as bullish on Iowa -- but still has them at #13 in their early Top 25.That makes Ioaw the second-highest ranked Big Ten team in that poll, behind Michigan State at #6. Says Rob Dauster:
I’m assuming Luka Garza will be back for his senior season, which is a helluva way for Fran McCaffery to anchor a roster that looks as good as anyone in the Big Ten. I think Joe Toussaint has a chance to be one of the breakout stars in college basketball next year, which is a pretty good sign for a team that also returns the preseason Player of the Year along with talents like Joe Weiskamp and C.J. Frederick.
Finally, CBS Sports, which pegs Gonzaga and Kentucky as its early picks for #1 and #2, also has Iowa as a Top 10-ranked squad, slotting in at #9 overall. Like ESPN and USA Today, that makes Iowa the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the rankings; Wisconsin is next-highest at #11. Per Gary Parrish:
Luka Garza will be the obvious preseason national player of the year if he returns to Iowa for his senior season, which is among the reasons he's expected to return to Iowa for his senior season. Presumably, he'll be joined by the four other starters from a team that finished 23rd at KenPom. And don't forget: Iowa will get Jordan Bohannon back after a redshirt season. So Fran McCaffery should have the best team he's ever had in 22 years as a Division I head coach.
Parrish elaborated on his thoughts about Iowa in a brief video interview with Chris Hassel, too:
.@GaryParrishCBS has @IowaHoops as his biggest off-season riser up 17 spots to #9.— Chris Hassel (@Hassel_Chris) March 26, 2020
He says of Iowa fans:
Theyre fired up and my message to them is you should be. Because on paper paper youve got one of the best CBB teams in the country next season. pic.twitter.com/ktS1mitCQy
Vegas also likes the cut of Iowa's jib next year. The William Hill sportsbook gives Iowa 30/1 odds of winning the national championship, tied for 12th best in the nation. They're also tied (with Wisconsin and Ohio State) for the second-best odds among Big Ten teams; Michigan State has the best at 18/1. Overall, Gonzaga, Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas lead the way with 10/1 odds, followed by Virginia at 12/1, Baylor at 14/1, MSU at 18/1, and Villanova and Creighton at 20/1.
The reason for Iowa's high levels of hype for next year is pretty simple: they could return basically every player of consequence from this year's team -- which was a pretty damn good team. The only departing seniors from the 2019-20 team are Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn. Kriener was a key reserve off the bench for Iowa (as well as a frequent starter when CJ Fredrick missed games due to injury) and his minutes provided a big boost for Iowa; replacing him won't be easy. Evelyn's lone year at Iowa was inconsistent, but many of his strongest performances came for Iowa down the stretch of the season and he provided very welcome experience to the Iowa roster.
That said, Iowa could return all five starters from the lineup that started most games down the stretch -- Garza, Wieskamp, Fredrick, Toussaint, and McCaffery. They'll also get Bohannon and Jack Nunge back from season-ending injuries and hopefully Patrick McCaffery will get a clean bill of health has well and be able to contribute to next year's squad. And that's without even mentioning the large class of incoming freshmen and what roles they may play next year.
Obviously, all of this hype hinges on all of that returning star power and production actually deciding to return to Iowa City. Garza, a National Player of the Year finalist this year and the likely preseason Player of the Year frontrunner next year, will have to decide if he's likely to be selected in the NBA Draft in a few months -- and, even if he is, if he would want to pursue a potential dream season at Iowa next year instead. Wieskamp tested the NBA Draft waters a year ago and may do so again this year. This hype is also contingent on Bohannon getting a medical redshirt, though that seems very likely.
And it's contingent on no one deciding to transfer away from Iowa, too. It doesn't seem like any Iowa players are likely to depart via transfer this year, but one never knows -- the transfer carousel spins faster than ever these days.
But we can cross that bridge when (and if) we get to it. For now the immediate future looks very, very bright for Iowa men's hoops. Iowa could be set for a very big season next year. An end to the 20+ year drought of Sweet 16 appearances? An end to the 40+ year drought of regular season Big Ten championships? Those things are very much on the table if everyone is back (and healthy) next season. November is a long, long way away -- but it's OK to get a little excited now for the thrills it might bring.