Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants (SBN's Iowa Hawkeyes site) was kind enough to take some time to participate in a question and answer session with us about Xavier's first Battle for Atlantis opponent. The last time the Musketeers met the Hawkeyes on the court, Jeff Robinson was doing his annual impersonation of a swing four with loads of talent. Since then, both teams have reloaded and are gearing up for a new season in which they hope to compete for a conference title. Without any further ado, here's Ross:
BHGP- In a nutshell, 2013-13 is primed to be the breakthrough year for Iowa. That's what the coaches have been saying, that's what the players have been saying, and that's what the fans have been saying. Iowa's shown very consistent progress under McCaffery (literally: they've improved by seven wins each year he's been there, from 11 to 18 to 25; if he does that again this year... uh, it was a very, very, very good year) going from feisty conference near-doormat to inconsistent-but-capable to good-but-not-good-enough-to-beat-the-big-boys. This is the year that they need to get over that hump and push for a top-4 finish in the Big Ten and, yes, get back into the NCAA Tournament. Iowa hasn't been there since 2006, a long, painful drought that really needs to end this season. Iowa has the coach to do it and they should have the team to do it; they return nearly every player of consequence from a team that, a year ago, was probably 1-2 good wins away from making the NCAA Tournament. This team has the talent, the experience, and the hunger to get Iowa over that hump -- now it's just a matter of seeing them actually do it on the court.
Banners-Just by the numbers, Iowa looks like a really bad shooting team. Is this some schematic failure of the offense to get players good looks, or can the Hawkeyes simply not shoot very well?
BHGP- A little from column A, a little from column B? I think Iowa's shooting problem is twofold, although the two factors are also interrelated. One, Iowa was an absolutely wretched three-point shooting team last season. Two, Iowa just didn't get enough good looks at the basket last year. I say those two things are related because, well, they are -- defenses didn't fear any of Iowa's long-range shooters last year, which made it easy for them to sag into the paint and contest most of Iowa's shots near the bucket. Iowa also struggled last year because they didn't have a top-flight point guard who could break down defenses and get good looks for his teammates. Iowa rotated two true freshmen at point guard for most of last season, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, and while they both have good potential and both played well last year, they also had their share of freshman mistakes.
Iowa's offense actually looked its sharpest last year in the run to the NIT Championship Game, when Gesell (who was hobbled by a foot injury that limited his playing time and effectiveness) gave way to Roy Devyn Marble at point guard. Marble is more naturally a swingman, but he he really kind of flourished in more of a playmaker role on the offense and, in turn, the Iowa offense looked (and played) much more effectively. He's the Iowa player who's probably best able to break down opposing defenses and get good looks for himself and his teammates. Gesell and Clemmons are healthy now and will likely see a good amount of playing time (at both guard positions), but it seems like Marble will retain his role in charge of the offense.
Any improvement in Iowa's shooting ability in 2013-14 is likely going to come down to two things: Marble's (or Gesell's or Clemmons') ability to penetrate opposing defenses and generate good looks (for themselves or teammates) and Iowa's ability to shoot three-pointers effectively, creating space for its post players to work. I'm cautiously optimistic about the first point (especially if Marble is able to maintain the level of play he showed for the last 5-10 games last year) and hopeful about the second point. Iowa's two key newcomers this year, transfer forward Jarrod Uthoff and freshman guard Peter Jok, should be able to help out on that front and I'm also optimistic that guys like Marble, Gesell, and Clemmons, as well as Josh Oglesby (Iowa's designated long-range specialist) and Zach McCabe (a stretch forward) can improve their three-point shooting from a year ago. (It would be hard for it to get too much worse, frankly.) If those two things happen, I think Iowa will be a much, much better shooting team in 2013-14... which will also make them a much more difficult team to defend.
Banners- -This team brings back nearly everyone of consequence from last year. Is this a group that enjoys playing together and will benefit from that, or is it a roster that appears to just tolerate one another (as was the case with some recent X teams)? Also, do you see potential minutes-distribution problems for this team, or do they seem to have solidly defined roles carrying over?
BHGP- I think Iowa fans are very interested to see how the minutes break down for Iowa this year because this does appear to be a very deep roster with a lot of guys (deservedly) jostling for playing time. This Iowa team could legitimately go at least ten players deep, but obvioulsy there are only 200 minutes to divvy up among all those players, so the challenge for McCaffery will be finding a way to keep guys happy and finding the most effective combinations. One of the things that helps is that McCaffery wants to play at a high tempo and pressure hard on defense; a style like that requires a lot of substitutions, so there will definitely be opportunities for a lot of guys to see the court.
But this question is also one of the reasons I'm glad that Iowa was able to go on a European exhibition tour last month; it gave the coaches an extra chance to work with the players and to tinker with the rotations and the distribution of minutes. Hopefully that pays dividends when the season gets underway in November. And, yeah, it really does seem like this team enjoys playing with one another and enjoys playing under McCaffery and his assistants. The pictures and stories about this team that leak out almost universally seem to show them having a good time and enjoying one another, which seems like a pretty positive sign.
I think the other key indicator that this is a pretty happy, united team is that the transfer rate has been shockingly low ever since McCaffery arrived. Iowa was a revolving door program under Todd Lickliter, McCaffery's predecessor, even by the transfer-happy standards of college basketball, but that's almost completely stopped under McCaffery. There was one player who left when McCaffery was hired (Aaron Fuller, who went to USC; he seemed to have one foot out the door before McCaffery even arrived, though) and another player who left after this past season (Pat Ingram), mainly because it was going to be difficult for him to get minutes in a deep backcourt. Other than that (and a few walk-ons), the transfer merry-go-round has really slowed down at Iowa, which I think has to be a sign of a team that likes one another, enjoys their coach, and understands and accepts the roles they have on the team.
Banners- Finally, and this is barely a question at all, how excited are you for Uthoff? He's a player I've kind of passively tracked since he was putting up monster numbers in high school, and he seems to be a tailor-made fit for this Iowa roster. Great get for McCaffery and his staff.
BHGP- Iowa fans are very curious to finally see Uthoff in action. He was an excellent local recruit (from Cedar Rapids, just up the road from the University of Iowa) who chose Wisconsin, and then was in the center of that chaotic transfer saga from the Badgers. But he never played a minute for the Badgers and, as a transfer, he had to sit all of last season at Iowa... so no one's really seen him play a competitive minute in over two years. Our first pseudo-glimpse of him in action was in the Prime Time League this summer, a local summer league featuring current and former players from Iowa and UNI. But that setting isn't exactly conducive to figuring out how a player will perform in the heat of Big Ten play. We've heard excited proclamations about his talent from Iowa players and observers for a year, so, yeah, we're very excited to see what he can really do come November.