The regular season starts for Iowa Men's Basketball on Friday. Here's what I will be looking for.
After two exhibition blowouts against lesser opponents, Iowa is slated to suit up against the Chicago State Cougars on Friday night. As far as quality of opponents go, there is really no difference between Chicago State and William Jewell or Belmont Abbey -- this is basically just another glorified exhibition game. The only actual difference come Friday, is that this game actually counts toward Iowa's season record.
With that in mind, as the "real games" officially start this week, here are some things that I will be watching closely on Friday evening, as well as probably all year.
This is probably at the top of everybody's list of things to watch. The Hawkeye defense struggled last season, and ultimately held them back from making the NCAA Tournament. No one's predicting that they will become a defensive juggernaut in one year's time, but they have to be at least a little better, don't they?
One of Iowa's biggest problems last season was perimeter defense, and while we heaped a lot of defensive blame on the offensively-talented Jordan Bohannon, defense is still a team activity. When slashing guards got in the middle of Iowa's defense last season, the Hawkeyes lacked a big body who could block or alter shots. Fortunately, that should be less of a problem this year with the addition of the long and tall Luka Garza at the center position.
Last season, Fran McCaffery's defense allowed their opponents to convert 67.2% of their shots at the rim. Through two exhibition games over the last couple of weeks, that has gone down to 52.8%. The competition is less-than-stellar to put it mildly, but it's already been clear just how much of an impact Garza can have on Iowa's defense at the rim. In addition to blocking two shots per game recently, he's also altered a number of other shots.
Last year, a guard penetrating Iowa's defense usually led to an easy layup. So far this offseason, that has been the case a lot less often.
The addition of Jack Nunge should also help the Hawkeyes on defense. He's already shown that he can block shots at the rim, but he is also going to have to make an impact on the perimeter, since he will be playing mostly at the three spot. His length, though, should hopefully help Iowa's defensive three-point percentage improve from last season's 35.8%, which was easily the worst by an Iowa defense since 2012's 34.5%. Not only should Nunge be able to block shots on the perimeter, his long arms should also make it difficult for opponents to shoot over him.
For whatever it's worth, Iowa's opponents made 32.6% of their attempts from distance in their two exhibition games.
While the infusion of 6'11" players to this year's roster is certainly welcome, it would still be nice to see if Iowa's guards can contain their opponents and keep them out of the paint this year. So, on Friday, I will also be watching Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, (the hopefully healthy) Isaiah Moss, and Brady Ellingson. Because while size inside can help alter shots, frequent attacks on the middle of Iowa's defense can also leave them vulnerable to kickouts on the perimeter.
Small Forwards Not Named "Baer"
With the recent news that Iowa will be without their most important player for the next 3-4 weeks, that leaves about 20+ minutes per game open for guys like Ahmad Wagner, Jack Nunge, and Dom Uhl over that span. Every player has their strengths and weaknesses, but perhaps no player on the roster plays up their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses to the extent that Nicholas Baer does. He never forces a play, and he rarely does something that leaves you scratching your head. His replacements, however, all have some questions marks surrounding them this season.
Starting with Ahmad Wagner, the positives with him are clear: He's a high-energy guy who is good on the glass and whose defensive versatility allows him to defend the post as well as the perimeter. He's not even a black hole on offense. When he plays to his strengths, he can be an effective scorer while attacking the rim or by grabbing second chance points off rebounds. The big question mark for him, though, remains: How effective he can be playing on the perimeter?
As I said in the Parquet Spread, the decision to move Wagner to the small forward position this season was based on the fact that Iowa has too many bodies on the block. Wagner is certainly athletic enough to play outside on both sides of the ball, but he lacks any semblance of an outside shot. Not to mention that, outside of running the break or putting his head down and dribbling straight to the basket, his ball-handling isn't going to scare a lot of defenders. This was made pretty clear in the Belmont Abbey game.
As you can see above, Iowa got out on the break, and looked to push the ball for an easy basket. Wagner was left wide open on the wing because the Crusaders were more worried about Tyler Cook posting up than they were about Wagner shooting the three. As a matter of fact, Wagner's defender didn't even worry about him until he took a few dribbles toward the basket. And once Wagner realized he didn't have a clear lane to the basket, he pulled up and missed the jumper by quite a bit.
I'm not trying to knock Wagner, because I think he's a very valuable player when he's playing to his strengths. But I do worry that playing the small forward position will keep him from playing to his strengths as often this year.
That brings us to Jack Nunge. He could be the answer to all of Iowa's ills at the small forward position while Nicholas Baer is out. He will likely benefit the most from the open minutes left behind by Baer. That's because Nunge is the player on the roster who has the closest skillset to #51. He can knock down the three, he can block shots, and he's a willing passer. And the bonus? He's four inches taller and has a wingspan over seven feet, making him an intriguing option at the top of the 1-2-2 press that Fran likes to run.
The only real question with Nunge is that he is a true freshman, which makes you wonder about his consistency against good teams. Will he prove a reliable threat to stretch the defense against tougher opponents? His shot-blocking should pay dividends on defense, but will he be able to keep opposing wing players in front of him?
Wagner is probably the starting small forward for now, but don't be surprised if Nunge is starting sooner rather than later. (Assuming Baer is still Fran's sixth man.) After all, he saw more action than Wagner did in both exhibition games. At this point, Nunge clearly has the most upside out of the three players behind Nicholas Baer.
That, of course, leaves the third and final player, Dom Uhl. Iowa's lone senior should also get more run with the injury to Nicholas Baer and because Iowa's schedule to start the season is hilariously soft. Uhl's skillset is pretty similar to Wagner's, in that his defense is good, but he lacks a real offensive game. That said, Wagner found his niche on offense last season, attacking the basket when he had a lane and racking up second chance points. Uhl, on the other hand, has never really found his feel on offense -- outside of that hot streak he had during his sophomore campaign. His three-point shot has never developed and he still looks out of control when he attacks the rim. His defense and experience should be enough to get him on the court while Baer recovers, but his playing time will likely fall off a cliff when Baer returns.
Overall, I expect the minutes breakdown at the three to go something like this while Baer is out: Wagner (starter) 13 minutes per game, Nunge 17 minutes per game, Uhl 10 minutes per game. And if Iowa happens to face Cincinnati and Baer isn't back for Virginia Tech, I obviously expect we will see more Wagner and Nunge and less Uhl.
Tyler Cook, Willing Passer
Everybody's expecting big things from Tyler Cook this year, and rightfully so. He's Iowa's most dynamic offensive player, the way he seems able to just explode from about any position in the paint and throw down an emphatic dunk. What Cook needs to improve on this season, however, is becoming a more willing passer.
Last season he looked to catch the ball and make a move to the basket as soon as he got it. That worked out well for the most part, but there were also times when he lost control and got called for an offensive foul or lost the ball. Fran has already said that he's playing smarter in the post early on this year, and that looked to be the case against Belmont Abbey. After having no assists and three turnovers against William Jewell, Cook dished out four assists and turned the ball over zero times against the Crusaders.
With Peter Jok gone this year, defenses are going to really hone in on Tyler Cook, and that means he will probably see a lot more double teams than he did last season. As you can see in the clip above, Cook seems prepared for them. That play started when Cook grabbed the offensive rebound, and instead of making a rushed decision to attack, he patiently waited and assessed the situation. He sized up his man and then waited to see if the double team would come. When it did come, he calmly disposed of the ball to Nicholas Baer, who drained the three-point shot.
Along with the inside-outside game, Cook also played nicely with Luka Garza in the post. He actually found Luka twice in this game -- once in the first half and once in the second. Here is the one from after halftime:
Again, Cook wasn't looking just to score. He turned and faced his man, but saw Garza diving to the bucket and immediately fed him the ball.
This game was obviously a tiny sample of one, against bad competition, but it was still encouraging to see Cook looking to get the ball to his teammates when they were in position to score. Hopefully we will see that passing game paired more frequently with his offensive abuse of rims.
So that's a look at what I'll be paying attention to on Friday (and for most of the year). This is not an exhaustive look necessarily, but just three of the bigger things that I'm curious about to start the season. This team has a lot of talent, but that talent is also still young. That means the sky is the limit with this team, but how soon will they reach that peak altitude?
What will you guys be watching for on Friday?