Expectations are more modest for the Iowa men’s basketball team this season. The Hawkeyes are picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten Conference, one season removed from a 22-9 campaign (including 14-6 in the league, good for third place).
Iowa lost two-thirds of its production from last season, and the conference doesn’t get any easier. The Big Ten has five teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 (most of any Power 5 conference) including three in the top 11 (Michigan, Purdue, Illinois).
The underdog role is just fine with Iowa. The lower expectations have served as a motivational tool throughout the offseason, and this year’s team is excited to show what it can do.
That quest unofficially began on Friday night with a 99-47 exhibition win over Slippery Rock. The Hawkeyes’ first official game is on Tuesday at home against Longwood at 9 p.m.
We know what Keegan Murray brings to the table (and he flashed that on Friday with 17 points), and the same can be said for sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon. But outside of those two, there are more questions than answers right now.
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Friday’s exhibition means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it provided some clarity about what Iowa is right now and potentially where it could be at season’s end.
Here are five preseason thoughts:
Expect a lot of small-ball lineups
Coach Fran McCaffery emphasized on media day that one of the most intriguing aspects of this team is lineup versatility. Friday’s exhibition against Slippery Rock provided a glimpse of one possibility: small ball.
It appears Iowa’s starting lineup is set with Joe Toussaint and Bohannon at guard, Patrick McCaffery and Murray at forward and Filip Rebraca at center. The size, length and athleticism of the front court creates new offensive and defensive dynamics.
“We have three guys in the lineup who are 6-foot-9,” Rebraca said. “We can switch between each other or if it’s me and (Toussaint) on a ball screen we can hard hedge and stuff like that. We’re an athletic lineup so it just feels nice to be able to guard anyone.”
Offensively, having five players on the court who like to run means that Iowa can play even faster this year and be productive in the transition game: 36 of Iowa’s 99 points in the exhibition were on fast breaks. The first wave of substitutions showed the same trend: Ahron Ulis, Tony Perkins, Payton Sandfort, Connor McCaffery and Kris Murray playing the center position.
Backup centers Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey are still big factors though according to McCaffery, especially against bigger opponents. A lot of it will depend on matchups, but bet on McCaffery going smaller more often than not.
Patrick McCaffery is healthy. That’s huge.
Patrick McCaffery’s health was a major question mark entering the season. Two ankle sprains sidelined him for six weeks over the summer and he still wasn’t practicing when the team began preseason camp.
That appears to be behind him now, and that’s great news for the Hawkeyes. McCaffery led all scorers and rebounders against Slippery Rock with an 18-point, eight-rebound performance.
McCaffery showed flashes of what made him a Top 100 recruit in the 2019 class. Defensively he affected shots while recording one steal and one block. On all six of his defensive rebounds, he pushed the pace himself and looked to set up his teammates for opportunities. His scoring came at all three levels as he finished an impressive 7-of-9 from the field.
The redshirt sophomore could be an x-factor for Iowa this year if he can develop into another reliable two-way player alongside Keegan Murray.
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Shooting development will determine success or failure.
The Hawkeyes’ poor shooting night from 3-point range was one of the few low points against Slippery Rock (6-for-21 or 28.5%). Bohannon, the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter, Patrick McCaffery and true freshman Sandfort likely will be reliable options. Whether Iowa is successful or not this year will rest on the development of other shooters.
Several players were mentioned as working on improving their shooting in the off-season including Toussaint, Perkins, Keegan Murray and Connor McCaffery. Those three combined to shoot 0-for-5 (Perkins did not attempt a 3-pointer).
One exhibition game is not enough sample size to make any conclusions about shot making, but it will be a trend to follow. Iowa’s open-flowing offense and the speed with which they’ll move the ball will set up players for good shots. The challenge is knocking them down with consistency.
Several ballhandling and playmaking options
Friday’s exhibition provided the first look of Iowa’s offense with Bohannon moving to point guard to shooting guard. The school’s all-time assists leader still had his hands on the ball plenty and finished with three assists, but Iowa’s offense can flow through several players at any time.
Toussaint had a game-high five assists and narrowly missed on a few passes that could’ve resulted in baskets. On the second unit, Connor McCaffery set up players for baskets as he did as a member of the starting lineup last year and finished with four assists.
Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray were also aggressive off of defensive rebounds on Friday and other players had to be ready in case of a pass in transition.
“We want to get out in transition,” Rebraca said. “We need to get used to this, having them run down the court like that.”
The number of options will take some pressure off Toussaint, who’s transitioning into the starting point guard role, and keep Iowa’s offense open without having to constantly rely on one player to set up the offense.
Who will emerge on Iowa’s second unit?
There’s a clear gap between Iowa’s starting lineup and second unit. It’s still unclear how the bench rotation will fill out. It’s a work in progress.
In the first half, Iowa’s reserves scored only one field goal in about seven minutes of time on the court. The other five points came off free throws from Perkins, Kris Murray and Ulis. Coaches and players acknowledged that they played tight, partly due to jitters of playing in front of fans again.
In the second half they settled down. Fran McCaffery started his bench unit and they opened on a 12-0 run. Overall, they combined to shoot 16-for-33 from the field in the second half (48%). That’s an early-season and potentially all-season reality: up-and-down play by a second unit that’s largely inexperienced.
The two standout second-half performers were Connor McCaffery and Sandfort. All four of McCaffery’s assists came in the second half, and Sandfort scored 10 of the 12 points in the second half, including two straight 3-pointers.
A large part of the second unit’s resurgence was Connor McCaffery’s leadership. His move to the bench could pay dividends as he’s a veteran who can calm the storm when needed. He addressed the team before the coaches did at halftime and had the bench unit prepared for the start of the second half.
“The coaches have preached to me that I have the green light,” Sandfort said. “I talked to Connor at halftime and he said he’d be looking for me and get those shots up.
“(Connor) is one of the best leaders I’ve been around. He’s just kind of bringing us all in. We’ve been practicing with him and building that chemistry so a lot of good stuff out of Connor.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men’s basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.