staff, October 29, 2013

Last year Iowa returned to respectability, amassing 25 wins for the first time since Steve Alford was the coach.

This year, I look at whether Iowa can realistically get its first Big Ten title since Magic Johnson was in college.

2013 Record: 25-13 (9-9)
Conference Offensive Efficiency: 1.01 (6th)
Conference Defensive Efficiency: 0.97 (4th)
Percentage of Conference Minutes Returning: 89
Percentage of Conference Minutes Played by Returning Freshmen: 28

Considering how successful he?s been in rebuilding the Hawkeyes, the silence surrounding Fran McCaffrey?s impact on the program is deafening. Sure, the insiders and folks around Iowa City certainly believe in the coach, but as every offseason seems to include at least a couple of high-profile job openings, the mention of McCaffrey?s name as a candidate is an oddly rare occurrence.

Frankly, I?m not sure what?s happening here. At Siena, he was playing chess while all the other MAAC coaches were busy with checkers. McCaffrey won the conference in each of his final 3 seasons, going a silly 46-8 in conference play. His teams also won 2 NCAA Tournament games over that span as well.

He took over a program that had become a revolving door of transfers under former coach Todd Lickliter. In Lickliter?s last season at the helm, Iowa went 4-14. As was tradition in the Lickliter Era, the season was followed by the transfer of the team?s best player. McCaffrey struggled through a tough first season with a young roster, but he?s increased the team?s win total by 7 games in each of the following three seasons. If he does that again, that probably means Iowa goes to the Final Four.

And it?s not crazy to start thinking that way. This is a team that had a positive efficiency margin in the nation?s toughest conference last year, and it brings back more minutes than any other team in the Big Ten. That alone is worth another 1-2 conference wins. But that?s not all. Iowa can also count on sophomore jumps from point guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, along with talented center Adam Woodbury. And if his play in the NIT was a harbinger of things to come (20.6 points per game, 121.2 ORtg, 33.0 Poss%), Roy Devyn Marble appears primed for a 1st-team season.

But wait, there?s more. Perhaps the biggest reason for Iowa?s struggles last year was its atrocious three-point shooting, which did not line up with Iowa?s free throw shooting:

And while Matt Gatens was a very good shooter, his absence cannot account for the dropoff in Iowa?s three-point accuracy last year. Even if you ran the exact same team (and everyone was still the same age and had the same experience) out there for another 38 games, you would expect Iowa?s outside shooting to be better.

So yes, the expectation should very much be that Iowa is on the shortlist for Big Ten title contenders. And that status carries ?Final Four Contender? with it. Yes, five years after this was written, we should see a powerhouse Iowa basketball team.

And frankly, that probably means that this will be the defining season of Fran McCaffrey?s coaching career. This is his 4th year at the helm of a high major school, and this is unquestionably a team that he built. If McCaffrey can live up to the expectations I?m bestowing here, he should absolutely be on the annual shortlist of the top replacement candidates for major openings.

But maybe I?m aiming too high. After the team?s overseas trip, McCaffrey said that ?I know people are picking us to go to the NCAA tournament…But we can?t get caught up in that. We have to earn it.?

Maybe, but probably not. Sorry to raise expectations on you, Coach, but hearing Iowa?s name called on Selection Sunday will not be enough this season. Nor will it be enough for the Hawkeyes to win an NCAA Tournament game-something that the school hasn?t done since Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. There?s just no reason that Iowa should be in the same zip code as the bubble this season.