Iowa MBB: Key Questions Ahead of the 2021-22 Season

By houksyndrome on November 9, 2021 at 9:28 am
go hawks go
© Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s been quite a while (fall of 2016?) since I had so little sense of what to expect from the men’s basketball team in an upcoming season so this article is admittedly speculative.  I follow a couple of statistical analysts (Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik) who attempt to project the quality of teams based on who returns (with analytics-based expectations of improvement) as well as the new arrivals.  This season, Ken and Bart have divergent opinions on how good the team will be. 

Ken Pomeroy projects us to be 23rd nationally (10th offensively and the 58th best defensively) among the 358 teams that currently reside in Division I men’s basketball.  Bart Torvik is less rosy in his projections:  61st overall (37th best offense and 97th defensively). Let’s hope that Ken’s projection is more accurate than Bart’s.  It’s worth noting, though, that both analysts use similar projection systems and the difference highlights the amount of uncertainty we all have going into this season.  Read on for my takes on some key storylines that will shape the upcoming season and the ones that follow.

What is the rotation going to be?

The starting five against Slippery Rock was: Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, Keegan Murray, Pat McCaffery and Filip Rebraca.  No surprises there.  From interviews during the offseason, it sounded as though Bohannon would move over to shooting guard and Connor McCaffery would move to the bench.  I expect this to continue being the starting five unless injuries or poor play demand a change.  The real question is going to be how deep Fran goes with the bench and who manages to carve out roles in what should be a deep rotation.  More on that shortly.

Who are the stars going to be? 

Every good team has at least one player who can generally be counted on to dominate their individual matchup.  For the last two seasons, Iowa has had Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp.  Now they're both gone and someone is going to have to step up and become the new star.  Jordan Bohannon is a great shooter and he’s clutch but he doesn’t have the physical tools to be the dominant star that this team will need.  In my opinion, there are two players on this team who might and we are going to talk about them right away:  Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery.

Keegan Murray -- 6’8", 225 pounds

After signing as a very unheralded recruit coming out of high school, Keegan stepped right into an important reserve role last season and played well, averaging 7.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game last season.  He was quite efficient at scoring the ball with an overall shooting percentage of 51% (61% on two pointers and 30% on 1.7 attempts per game from three point range).  During the off-season, he picked up considerable buzz as an NBA prospect and is a pre-season all-conference pick.

Here at GIA, we're hoping he lives up to the hype.  Last year, he was a low usage / high efficiency player (with good defensive versatility) and Iowa will need him to maintain that efficiency (while improving the three point accuracy) in a high usage role.  This is hard to do (higher usage means taking more contested shots which typically reduces efficiency) but it’s what star players do and it’s what Iowa will need Keegan to do.  The length, jumping ability, quickness, and body control are obvious (and the reason why there is so much buzz around him).  I think his in-game three point shooting accuracy will come around (that was the best part of his game in high school and he was a flamethrower in prep school). 

The other big key for him is just improving his strength.  I saw a lot of plays last season where he got a step on his defender and then either got partially stripped or bumped just enough to knock him off balance, resulting in a misssed shot.  That’s what's standing between him and stardom.  He has some post-up ability as well, which could be unlocked with some strength improvement.  He’s not going to be Reggie Evans and that shouldn’t be the goal.  He just has to get strong enough to really use that length and athleticism to attack the rack.  He had several nice drives (and a nifty post-up in transition) against Slippery Rock.  He finished with 17 points on 7/10 shooting from the field and 3/3 from the free throw line, which was encouraging but “The Rock” had such a small team that we can’t take too much away.

Pat McCaffery -- 6’9", 200 pounds

After a medical redshirt in 2019-20, Pat McCaffery finally got significant playing time last season and, in a reserve role, flashed the talent that made him a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school.  He averaged 5.2 PPG and 2.7 RPG last season while shooting 44% from the field (50% on two-pointers and 30% on three-pointers) and 71% from the FT line. Importantly, he used his length/athleticism combo to impact the game defensively and is great in transition.  Now Iowa will need him to play a larger role and become a major scoring option on this team.  Patrick McCaffery has not received the offseason NBA buzz that Keegan Murray has but his length, athleticism and overall game have a lot of similarities with his more hyped-up teammate.  Like Keegan, the questions are whether he can impose his will against determined defensive efforts in the half-court setting and whether his three point shooting accuracy will improve. It’s also noteworthy that he plays the game with a confident attitude which is necessary for a go-to guy.  For this team to earn another NCAA tournament bid (I think the ceiling for this team is somewhere in the vicinity of a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament) it's going to need both Keegan and Pat McCaffery scoring around 15+ points per game.  Like Keegan, he looked great against Slippery Rock finishing with 18 points on 7/9 from the field (1/2 from 3 point range) and 3/3 from the free throw line.  But, again, weak competition.

These guys are all projection at this point, but they clearly have talent.  If this team ends up meeting Ken Pomeroy’s projection, then these two guys will have led the way there.

What’s the plan at center this season?

The starting center for this team is going to be Filip Rebraca who is a transfer from the University of North Dakota.  He's listed at 6’9", 230 pounds, which is a bit undersized for a Big Ten center but not egregiously so.  He put up good numbers (16.8 PPG / 7.6 RPG) with good efficiency at North Dakota (53% on 2s and 37% on 3s last season), including a 23 point performance (on 10/19 shooting) against Minnesota and Liam Robbins.  He only attempted about 1.5 three pointers per game last season so he’s not *that* perimeter oriented.  He doesn’t seem to be a pure post-up player either, though.  Only 45% of his two point attempts were around the rim last season (by comparison, 63% of Garza’s two point attempts were around the rim) so he seems to have a lot of mid-range game.  This is all inference from stats though, I haven’t seen him play outside of the exhibition against Slippery Rock.  I expect Iowa to run a lot of perimeter ball screen action with him as the screener, as opposed to really focusing the offense on him in the post.  Defensively, I could see him being an improvement over Garza on the perimeter but I worry about his ability to match the physicality of Big Ten centers around the basket.

There are two other players on the roster with big enough bodies to hang with Big Ten centers -- Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey.  Both are unproven.  We saw a few minutes of Ogundele (Our Large Adult Son) last season and he looked... raw.  He also looked like a guy who could stand to shed a few pounds.  Ogundele scored six points and grabbed two rebounds in seven minutes of action against Slippery Rock and he looked to me like he’s slimmed down a bit and moves pretty well.  We will see where the basketball skills are.  Mulvey (listed at 6’11" and 245 pounds) was originally a Class of ’22 recruit but he re-classified to join the team this year.  He turned 19 in October, though, so it’s not like he’s out here trying to push around Big Ten centers at 17.  He has a Big Ten center’s body already and didn’t look horribly immobile either in his ten minutes of action against Slippery Rock.  Both Mulvey and Ogundele look like young, raw backup centers to me and, hopefully, that’s all Iowa will need them to be: backups who can come in and play good defense for a few minutes and don’t burn the house down.  I think both have the tools to do just that.

It’s also worth noting that against Slippery Rock neither Ogundele nor Mulvey came into the game to replace Rebraca when he first went to the bench.  Rather, Iowa initially used a small ball lineup with Kris Murray at the five.  I suspect this decision had to do with Slippery Rock being a very small team and not a desire for Fran to actually use Kris Murray at center on a regular basis.  Or at least I hope not.  If we see a lot of the small ball lineup then we’ve got major problems this season.

What’s the backcourt going to be like?

This section is pretty far down in the article because, relative to the rest of team, this is more of a known commodity.  Joe Toussaint will start at point guard and Jordan Bohannon will play shooting guard, a position that many have thought he was best suited for. Toussaint/Bohannon was a very effective combination on the rare occasions that they were on the floor together last season.  I expect Bohannon to have a big year shooting the ball.  I really like Toussaint’s game but he must reduce his turnover rate significantly.  Many of his turnovers have been footwork issues -- either shuffling his feet when he starts to drive or dragging his pivot foot.  These should be fixable.  I haven’t seen him habitually make stupid decisions with the ball.  With his athleticism and defensive intensity, he can be an average Big Ten PG if he cuts the turnovers and well-above-average if he cuts the turnovers while also developing a three point shot. 

Backing them up will be Connor McCaffery, a known quantity at this point, as well as Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins.  We haven’t seen much of Ulis and Perkins thus far but their athleticism makes them intriguing prospects, especially Perkins.  Also in the mix for minutes in the backcourt and wing positions will be Kris Murray and Payton Sandfort.  So there will be heavy competition for bench minutes and it will be interesting to see who emerges as key bench players.

What’s the offense going to look like? 

It’s going to look like 2012-2014.  Transition baskets will be critical.  In the half court, it won’t be as low post-centric as it was when Cook and then Garza were the major offensive focal points.  Rather, there should be a lot of movement, a lot of cutting from our forwards, a lot of curl screens, and a lot of perimeter ball screen plays like pick-and-roll  or pick-and-pop.  Hopefully someone steps up and becomes a go-to playmaker.  I expect Jordan Bohannon to thrive in the shooting guard role (at least on offense).  However, Iowa doesn’t have a lot of proven shooters apart from him on this team.  Obviously, Keegan Murray and Pat McCaffery could provide that but they haven’t proven themselves to be consistent from three-point range at the collegiate level yet.  Payton Sandfort could also contribute in that area.  The 6’7" freshman from Waukee settled in nicely after an early airball and turnover against Slippery Rock, making a pair of three pointers on his way to 12 points.  However, it will be a crowded rotation at the wing positions with Connor McCaffery, Tony Perkins, and Kris Murray also competing for playing time as reserves at those spots.  

What’s the defense going to look like?

It’s not hard to see some potential parallels between this roster and the teams of 2012-2015, which were pretty good defensively.  Long athletic wing players like Murray and Patrick McCaffery are reminiscent of the Aaron White/Jarrod Uthoff combo.  With Toussaint set to play major minutes, and with Perkins likely to play more, Iowa should also have guards who can apply intense ball pressure.  Rebraca is probably better suited than Garza was for the aggressive hedging and switching that Fran likes to use against perimeter screens.  However, those 2012-2015 teams had Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni at center.  In contrast, Rebraca is undersized, while Mulvey and Ogundele are young, inexperienced, and raw.  I still saw some poor coordination on ball screens against Slippery Rock (i.e., guys not knowing if they were switching or trying to fight through screens).  This has to get cleaned up as Iowa probably won’t have an elite offense to lean on this season, as has often been the case in recent years.

Overall, I think the Pomeroy and Torvik predictions span the likely range of outcomes for this team.  If Iowa can make it back to the NCAA tournament this season, that would be a major accomplishment in my view.  Guys will have to step up to make that happen but they have the talent to do so.  We'll soon find out if they're able to do just that.

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