With Luka Garza back, Iowa Basketball is projected to compete for the Big Ten title and a national championship.
Behind the consensus National Player of the Year, Iowa Basketball will enter the 2020-21 season with their highest preseason expectations in 65 years. That outlook is more than well-deserved for a team returning 81.5% of last year’s scoring output – but Fran McCaffery’s squad will have to overcome a few notable obstacles to live up to those expectations.
The Hawkeyes had an unexpectedly stellar season in 2019-20, entering the season unranked but rallying off solid non-conference victories over Texas Tech, Syracuse, Iowa State, and Cincinnati to enter the Big Ten regular-season ranked 23rd in the AP Poll.
After dropping their first two games of the calendar year and going unranked, Iowa embarked on a five-game win streak with victories that put them in the national spotlight, knocking off Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, and Wisconsin and finding them back in the national poll.
The Hawkeyes finished the year in the extremely competitive on a rocky note, going 5-6 after their win over Wisconsin. That streak included significant victories over Illinois, Ohio State, and Penn State, but also featured disappointing losses to Indiana and a sweep by Purdue.
Despite limping through that stretch, the Hawkeyes still concluded the regular season ranked 18th in the nation and were a guaranteed NCAA Tournament team after recording a 20-11 overall record and 11-9 mark in Big Ten play.
Their strong season was made possible through one of the best starting fives in college hoops, comprised of CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery, Joe Wieskamp, Luka Garza, and the duo of Jordan Bohannon – who was sidelined in December with a hip injury – and Joe Toussaint, who took over Bohannon’s point guard duties.
The obvious headliner here is Luka Garza, who was the best player in college basketball last season alongside Dayton’s Obi Toppin, earning Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American accolades after averaging 23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in his junior season.
Garza’s decision to opt-out of the NBA Draft – along with his fellow starters choosing to return for another go – has cemented Iowa has the potential 2020-21 favorite in an incredibly deep Big Ten, evidenced by their no. 5 placement in the preseason AP Poll – their highest preseason position in 65 years.
Iowa will undoubtedly be good, but they have a few significant hurdles to overcome if they hope to be a legitimate contender. The Hawkeyes do not have much of a defined bench – more on that later – and their defensive woes last season will almost certainly haunt them again this year, with nearly everyone back.
McCaffery’s team had few issues scoring last year. They had the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten last year at 77.7 ppg, the 29th-highest mark in Div. I. The Hawkeyes struggled mightily defensively, however, giving up 72.3 ppg, placing them at 257th in college hoops and 13th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Nebraska. They gave up over 90 points in three of their losses last season, including 103 to Michigan and 104 to Purdue.
They have also earned the reputation of overachieving before falling short of their expectations during McCaffery’s eleven-year tenure. In 2015-16, the Hawkeyes entered the season unranked before climbing as high as third in the national polls by late January – before going 3-7 in their final 10 games.
Iowa has also struggled to achieve postseason success under McCaffery. Despite maintaining a 194-143 overall record, McCaffery has not been able to get the Hawkeyes past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament – that has been their ceiling three of the four times the Hawkeyes have made the tournament under him. The other time was a loss in the First Four in 2014.
On top of being their highest preseason ranking in 65 years, this is also the first time the Hawkeyes have been ranked in the preseason polls during McCaffery’s tenure. Expectations are undeniably high, and – unlike teams like No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor, who were routinely at those positions last season – Iowa is ranked here based largely on potential rather than production.
None of this is to say the Hawkeyes are not meant to be here – they are more than deserving, particularly considering they feature one of the best starting lineups in college basketball as well as the de facto National Player of the Year – but they have a lot of work to do in order to live up to those expectations.