Big Ten Basketball Preview: Iowa

Story posted November 6, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

It’s been seven years since the Iowa Hawkeyes have heard their name called on Selection Sunday, but that drought could finally be coming to an end in 2013-14. After advancing to the NIT Championship Game a season ago, the Hawkeyes return their five leading scorers and are primed to take the next step forward in head coach Fran McCaffery’s fourth year at the helm.

Key Returners

Just about every key contributor from an Iowa team that posted 25 wins last year---the third most in program history---is back in the fold this season. Highlighting that group will be senior guard Roy Devyn Marble, who was an All-Big Ten Third Team performer a season ago.

Marble posted 15 points per game in 2012-13 to lead the Hawkeyes in scoring, and he carried his team during its NIT run, averaging 21 points in five games. The 6-foot-6 guard also chipped in four rebounds per game and led Iowa with three assists per contest.

Marble’s supporting cast is headlined by junior forward Aaron White, who contributed 13 points and a team-high six rebounds per game in 2012-13. White may not possess the raw talent that Marble has, but he was still a very consistent producer last year, scoring in double figures in 27 of his 38 games.

Another player to watch is sophomore guard Mike Gesell, who started 30 games in his freshman year and netted nine points per contest. Gesell missed some time late in the season with a foot problem, and his injury woes continued this summer as he was held out of action for about a month with a broken hand. The talented point guard will be in the Hawkeye lineup though when the regular season gets underway.

Key Losses

Of the nine Iowa players who averaged at least 16 minutes per game in 2012-13, only one of them---guard/forward Eric May---won’t be returning this season. May averaged five points per game in a starting role last year.

Offensive/Defensive Ranks

Fran McCaffery’s squad was a well-balanced team in 2012-13, putting together solid efforts on both ends of the floor. The Hawkeyes ranked fourth in the Big Ten by scoring 70.1 points per game, and they allowed 62.8 points per contest, which was sixth-best in the conference.

The key for Iowa offensively last season was its knack for getting to the free throw line and converting on those opportunities, as the Hawkeyes finished second in the conference in both free throw attempts and percentage. Iowa ended the year shooting 73% from the foul line, thanks in large part to Marble’s 81% conversion rate.

An area in which the Hawkeyes could use improvement, however, is their jump shooting. They ranked eighth in the Big Ten with a 42% field-goal percentage and shot just 31% from beyond the arc, which was second-worst in the conference.

Two years ago, Iowa surrendered 72.5 points per game on defense, which was worst in the Big Ten by more than four points. However, the Hawkeyes saw that number drop by nearly 10 points in 2012-13, a drastic turnaround that was probably the biggest factor in their 25-win season.

Iowa held its opponents to a 39% field-goal percentage in 2012-13, which was third-best in what is probably the best defensive conference in the country. The year prior, Iowa had let its opponents shoot 46% from the floor, which was worst in the Big Ten.

In addition, the Hawkeyes did a nice job of taking away the three-point shot last season, as their opponents converted on just 29.5% of their tries from long range. Iowa also led the Big Ten by pulling down 39 rebounds per game and was second in the conference with five blocks per contest.

Schedule Analysis

Despite playing in the toughest conference in the nation, the Hawkeyes finished the 2012-13 with a strength of schedule ranking of just 93, which brought their RPI down to 61 and probably cost them a tournament berth. Their Achilles’ heel was a very weak nonconference schedule, and that will be even more so of an issue in 2013-14.

Here are Iowa’s first five opponents and their RPIs from last season: UNC-Wilmington (304), Nebraska-Omaha (288), Maryland Eastern-Shore (345), Abilene Christian (newly in Division 1), and Penn (273). There’s no harm in starting the year with one or two cupcake games in order to ease your team into the season, but beginning with five such games could be a very costly move. Iowa’s strength of schedule and RPI will take a free fall in the month of the year, and that will be a hole they’ll be fighting to climb out of all season long.

The only three challenging games on Iowa’s nonconference slate are a neutral site match-up with Xavier, a home date with Notre Dame during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and a road test against in-state rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes may be favored in each game though, and an 11-0 nonconference record is a definite possibility.

Iowa went 9-9 in Big Ten play a season ago and should have a good chance to improve on that mark in 2013-14. The Hawkeyes will be tested often, as they face each of the four ranked Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) two times apiece, but that will also present plenty of resume-boosting opportunities.

Three of those chances for signature wins will come during a four-game stretch in late January-early February when No. 2 Michigan State, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan all pay a visit to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Iowa did a nice job of beating the teams it should have beaten last season, but it failed to beat any truly elite teams. However, getting these three upper-echelon Big Ten teams on their home floor in such a short span is an opportunity that the Hawkeyes will need to take advantage of.

Coach’s Hot Seat

Scale: 1-10, with 1=coach’s job is safe and 10=coach is on the hot seat

Fran McCaffery: 1

When McCaffery took over Iowa’s coaching duties in 2010, he inherited a team that had gone 10-22 (4-14 Big Ten) the year before. The Hawkeyes’ results were similar in McCaffery’s first year on the job, but ever since then, they have been a program that is rapidly on the rise.

In 2011-12, McCaffery guided the Hawkeyes to an 18-17 (8-10 Big Ten) record as they made their first postseason appearance since 2006 with a second round exit in the NIT. This netted him a seven-year contract extension. The Hawkeyes really took flight in McCaffery’s third season, as they finished the year 25-13 en route to an NIT runner-up finish.

This year, expectations are higher than they have been in a while in Des Moines, and that’s primarily because of the work that McCaffery has done to get Iowa to where it is today. Anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth would be a major disappointment for the Hawkeyes, but even so, McCaffery is firmly entrenched as Iowa’s head coach for years to come.

Prediction

With just about everyone returning from a team that was very effective a season ago, there is no reason for the Hawkeyes not to be much-improved in 2013-14. Many are thinking along the same lines, as Iowa is ranked 29th in both the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls and was picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten.

Gesell will emerge as one of the league’s better point guards in 2013-14, and Marble and White will continue to carry the scoring load. The Hawkeyes will take advantage of an easy non-conference schedule to start the year 10-1 before beginning conference play.

In the Big Ten season, Iowa will go 7-2 at home, which will include a pair of court-storming victories against Michigan and Ohio State. On the road, Fran McCaffery’s squad will post a respectable 4-5 record and finish Big Ten play with an 11-7 mark and a fifth-place finish.

Iowa’s depth will enable itself to survive the grueling Big Ten season, and the Hawkeyes will beat Wisconsin in the conference quarterfinals before falling in the semis, enough to earn McCaffery Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. Iowa will be playing like a Top 15 team at this point in the season but will be dealt with a five seed in the NCAA Tournament due to poor computer numbers.

The Hawkeyes will win a tournament game for the first time since 2001 and then advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999. They’ll put up a fight against a number-one seed but will ultimately fall short to end their most successful season of the new millennium with a 25-10 record.

Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email btc5082@psu.edu.