staff, November 8, 2011

With the 2011-12 regular season nearly upon us, we here at Big Ten Geeks will be previewing all 12 conference members over the next couple weeks, in reverse order of expected finish. Penn State led things off Monday, and now it's time for Iowa.


10-11 Overall Record: 11-20
10-11 Conference Record: 4-14
10-11 Conference Efficiency Margin: -0.13
Percent of Returning Minutes: 86.7
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 32.1

Iowa's Fran McCaffery

All things considered, the first season of the Fran McCaffery era was a rousing success. Despite starting three holdovers, the Hawkeyes underwent a complete stylistic makeover. Gone were the plodding tempo and constant threes of the Todd Lickliter days, replaced by the Big Ten's fastest attack and improved offensive rebounding. The comparison is stark:

AdjTempo AdjOffEff AdjDefEff 3PA% OR%
Iowa 2009-10 62.6 101.6 101.6 46.2 30.7
Iowa 2010-11 67.9 103.6 94.8 26.7 34.7

Of course, style ultimately means very little; it's results that matter. And while Iowa's won-loss record was nearly identical to the season before, there's no mistaking that this was an improved basketball team. The offense got only marginally better, but major strides were made at the defensive end. In nonconference play, the Hawkeyes were often stifling, as they held three different teams to what would end up being their lowest outputs of the season. Big Ten play was tougher on Iowa, but this remained a team that relied on their defense for victories. All told, the Hawkeyes went 11-1 when holding opponents below a point per possession, and 0-19 when allowing more than a point per trip.

Perhaps the most important development for Iowa was the play of freshman Melsahn Basabe. It's hard to believe that the 6-7 New York native was all set to play at Siena before following McCaffery to Iowa City. Basabe ended up garnering Big Ten all-Freshman honors thanks to his rebounding, shot blocking, and surprising offensive ability. In fact, if you squint hard enough, Basabe's conference numbers aren't all that different from those of a better known Big Ten newcomer:

Shot% 2ptFG% FT Rate OR% DR% Blk%
Melsahn Basabe 23.7 58 46 15 19 5.4
Jared Sullinger 26.3 54 59 12 25 1.7

Basabe isn't the shot consumer that Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is, but he otherwise matches up quite well. Fans of the Siena Saints may need a tissue right about now.

On the perimeter, seniors Bryce Cartwright and Matt Gatens will be the key players. In his first season after transferring from junior college, Cartwright had some struggles with his shot and turned it over too much, but he also showed moments of brilliance. He led the Big Ten in both assists and turnovers while also taking Iowa's heaviest shot diet. In other words, as Cartwright goes, so goes this offense.

Gatens is basically the same player he's always been: a sweet-shooting wing with good size. In his Iowa career, however, Gatens' effective field goal percentage has never really matched his apparent stroke:

eFG% 2pt% 3pt% FT% 3PA%
Gatens, 2008-09 50.9 47.3 36.0 87.3 53.8
Gatens, 2009-10 42.8 40.7 29.8 78.9 53.3
Gatens, 2010-11 48.9 44.1 35.6 86.8 52.1

Those lofty free throw percentages indicate a player with excellent shooting ability, and his three-point shooting reflects that as well (minus a sophomore slump). Clearly, the culprit is lackluster two-point shooting. To really help this team, Gatens needs to either get a lot better at converting twos or simply stop taking so many of them. Sure, he's already taking about half of his shots from beyond the arc (as shown in the far right column), but there's no shame in bumping that up to 70 percent. Go the way of the Hoff, young man!

As far as the supporting cast, there's plenty of room for offensive improvement. Eric May, with his superb athleticism, was seen as a breakout candidate for McCaffery's uptempo system, but he instead regressed in nearly every facet of the game. A mere return to the output of his freshman season would provide a nice boost on the wing. Zach McCabe and Roy Devyn Marble put up strikingly similar numbers as freshmen, so they share the same list of needed improvements: turnovers and shooting accuracy, mainly. It wouldn't be a surprise for either or both of these players to make a nice sophomore leap.

In all, Iowa has the look of a solid team. Our projection of an 11th place finish says more about the depth of the Big Ten than it does about the Hawkeyes, and we wouldn't be shocked to see them finish three or four spots higher. The McCaffery era is coming along nicely in Iowa City.