You have to feel for Matt Gatens. He did, after all, come to Iowa in a torrent of optimism. New coach Todd Lickliter had just finished his first season, and at that point could be reasonably expected to rebuild the Hawkeyes in the manner of his former Butler program. Gatens was ranked No. 99 overall in the class of 2008, the sort of impact recruit Iowa desperately needed. And, to top it all off, Gatens was a hometown kid, an Iowa City native that committed to Steve Alford as a high school freshman and stuck with Lickliter when Alford was unceremoniously let go.
Needless to say, things have not gone well. Lickliter presided over sub-.500 seasons; the Hawkeyes never won more than six games in the Big Ten and never qualified for the NIT, let alone the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, fans abandoned the program, and the rollicking Carver-Hawkeye Arena of Gatens' youth (Jess Settles: never forget) fell silent.
Now a junior, Gatens is playing under his second coach (third, technically, if you want to count the commitment to Alford), and Iowa is again in the first year of an entrenched rebuilding process. It's probably not quite the tenure the Iowan envisioned for himself.
Still, there might be one bit of positive news here, and that's that in 2010-11, under new coach Fran McCaffery's up-tempo system, Gatens will have every opportunity to make a name for himself. Why? Pace. From Basketball Prospectus:
Iowa was 341st with a 58.5 adjusted tempo in the 2008-09 and 333rd with a 60.4 mark in 2007-08. The Hawkeyes failed to score 60 points in 54 of Lickliter's 96 games. Not surprisingly, Iowa's attendance dropped to an average of just 9,550 a game last season. By comparison, McCaffrey's Siena teams were held under 60 points just nine times in 163 games in five seasons. [...]
Gatens was Iowa's leading scorer last season when he averaged 12.3 points/4.3 rebounds/3.3 assists/36.7 minutes a game while ranking 20th in the nation in percentage of minutes played with 91.3. Slimmed down to 208 pounds, Gatens is moving from forward to guard this season and McCaffrey is expecting big things, saying "He's actually driving and dunking the ball like he used to.”
There are at least four encouraging signs in those two paragraphs. The first is McCaffery's desire to play up-tempo. That's nothing new, of course; the former Siena coach has been touting the benefits of high-speed hoops since he got the job this spring. The second is Gatens' usage rate, which doesn't figure to dip thanks to a rather shallow Iowa roster. The third is the guard-forward switch. The fourth is Gatens' weight loss.
All four factors figure to make Gatens a much more statistically impressive scorer. Gatens was already putting up solid, if not great, numbers in Lickliter's brutally slow system. Even if Gatens doesn't get any more efficient (and he might), a drastic increase in possessions is bound to significantly improve his counting stats. Throw in the position switch (more time facing the hoop can't be a bad thing) and the weight loss (physical fitness is always good, right?) and you've got a potential breakout candidate on your hands.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Hawkeyes will be good. They, um, won't. But for a player that has stuck by his hometown school after two regime changes and two years of horrendous performance, a little individual recognition might be the next best thing.