It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Big Ten basketball coach must be a frustrating endeavor. Add a solid recruiting class, return talented vets and maintain some continuity from an NCAA tournament squad that lost just one starter and you can still get left behind in the conversation about contenders.
That’s Iowa’s situation right now.
The Hawkeyes will miss all-Big Ten first-teamer Aaron White (16.4 p,pg 7.3 rpg) and off-the-bench cog Gabriel Olaseni (8.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg). That’s a certainty. But Jarrod Uthoff, Peter Jok, Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell -- four starters from 2014-15 -- are back for an Iowa team that lost to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament after finishing in a three-way tie for third in the Big Ten.
But that’s far from the most compelling narrative in the conference. Tom Crean started last season on the hot seat, it appeared, but he’ll enter next season with a top-10 squad. Maryland was a top-10 team before it added former Duke standout Rasheed Sulaimon. Michigan State lost former commit Caleb Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American, but West Virginia transfer Eron Harris, star recruit Deyonta Davis and Denzel Valentine will be backed by a fleet of Spartans who will help the program make noise in the Big Ten again after reaching the Final Four in April. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are the new leaders for a Wisconsin team that always overachieves. Caris LeVert is back for Michigan. A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas will form a monster frontcourt that could grow if Swanigan picks Purdue.
So how will the Hawkeyes fight through that heap?
It all starts with Uthoff.
What the immediate future holds: Last season, Uthoff (12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.2 bpg) led the Hawkeyes in blocks and finished second in rebounding and scoring. But his inside-outside game will become the primary offensive option for a team that will switch its offensive emphasis from the paint and offer a more balanced attack next season.
Per hoop-math.com, White (49.1 percent) and Olaseni (49.7 percent) took nearly half of their shots at the rim last season while Uthoff registered just 15.2 percent of his attempts at the cylinder.
Fran McCaffery’s program will miss the big, rugged bodies in the paint. But the Hawkeyes will be bigger on the perimeter as Uthoff gets more touches in 2015-16. Incoming freshman Isaiah Moss, a 6-foot-5 Chicago product, is very talented and could earn minutes early for the Hawkeyes.
The Iowa staff expects Uthoff to make another stride next season and potentially become the program’s third consecutive All-Big Ten first-team selection. Uthoff, who scored 20 points (10-of-19) against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament, must persist through the double teams he’ll see and still find a way to play with consistency that sometimes eluded him last season. Uthoff, however, should rise to carry the program.
Consistency is the key with this entire team. Woodbury, a 7-1 center, just has to play bigger and stronger. And he has to be tougher. The Hawkeyes need more of those 16-point, five-rebound efforts (versus Maryland on Feb. 8). And he has to avoid foul trouble, especially with less depth inside. Woodbury picked up four or more fouls in nine contests. He fouled out three times, including his team’s second-round loss to Gonzaga in the Big Dance. Jok (7.0 ppg, 34.3 percent from the 3-point line) will log more minutes next season. He has to make smarter decisions with shot selection and ballhandling. He had a rocky stretch of 12 turnovers in four games late in the season. That wasn’t acceptable in 2014-15 and it’ll prove more costly with an expanded role next season. It’s time for Jok to transform himself from a youngster with potential to a more productive veteran.
Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons will handle point guard duties. The two combined to average 5.9 apg and 2.4 tpg last season. That’s encouraging for a program that won’t have to worry about floor leadership.
But can Dom Uhl handle more minutes? He’ll probably have to as a member of a team that needs his 6-9 frame.
The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage during conference play. And they registered a top-40 defense, based on adjusted efficiency per kenpom.com, all season. They’ll need to maintain those marks to fight with the best in the country.
Without White, Iowa still has a collection of talented athletes and one of the best players in the conference and league.
That said, there are no guarantees that the Hawkeyes emerge from the Big Ten gauntlet and finish in the top tier, although they should be an NCAA tournament team again.
Such is life in the Big Ten.