Experience, determination, and the nation’s best player positions Iowa for greatness

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FILE – In this Feb. 29, 2020, file photo, Iowa’s Luka Garza (55) dunks as Penn State’s Myles Dread (2) looks on during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Iowa City, Iowa. Big Ten player of the year Garza says he is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return to Iowa for his senior season. Garza says his heart is in Iowa City and that it would have been hard to close the book on his college career without a last chapter. (AP Photo/Cliff Jette, File)

This weekend a majority of Hawkeye fans have their sights set on West Lafayette, Indiana as Iowa opens their upcoming football season on the road against Purdue. But, for Coach Fran McCaffery and the rest of the Hawkeye basketball team, they have their sights set on redemption after a Big Ten title run was cut short.

It was less than a week before the pandemic was officially declared in the U.S. that the Big Ten Tournament was canceled, and the outlook of college athletics has changed (and most likely will continue to change) as guidelines are put in place for teams to compete and fans to cheer in a safe manner.

Iowa has returned to the hardwood for practice as they poise themselves for another run at a Big Ten title, something experts believe to be well within reach. CBS Sports currently has the Hawkeyes ranked 5th in the nation, which is the highest-ranking for a Big Ten team (just one spot ahead of the Illinois Fighting Illini).

So far, just one game is on the schedule for the Hawkeyes. Iowa will take on Gonzaga (ranked 1st in the nation by CBS Sports) on December 19 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota which will air on CBS. Two of the nations heavy-weights going at it gives Iowa a trial by fire to see where they’re at, but outside of that a competitive Big Ten Conference will force the Hawkeyes to overcome challenges and potentially sharpen their sword before the NCAA Tournament kicks off.

With all five starters returning from their last game of the 2019-2020 season, a Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year favorite, and a head coach heading into his 11th season with the black-and-gold, Iowa could be looking at one of their best years yet if they can execute come tip-off.

Welcome back

The Hawkeyes 2019-2020 campaign ended on a two-point loss to Illinois in Champaign. While the way the season concluded wasn’t satisfactory (to the Hawkeyes or anyone, for that matter) it does contain a bright spot heading into their upcoming season. The starting five from that game will all be returning to Iowa City.

Junior wing Joe Wieskamp, a Muscatine Muskie alum, is coming off of an All-Big Ten selection and gives the Hawkeyes size on the perimeter with his 6-6, 210 lb frame and shooting with a career 38% clip on three-point attempts. His playtime and production increased from his freshman to sophomore year, a trend that you can expect to continue as the upperclassman continues to polish his game.

CJ Fredrick earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team after putting up a 10.2 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 2.8 APG line while hitting 46% of his shots behind the arc. Fredrick is considered to be one of the best pure shooters in the NCAA, and a pairing with Wieskamp in the frontcourt forces opposing defenses to pick their poison. The sophomore guard had surgery this summer on his right foot, but has ample time to recover and will hopefully keep him healthy after repeated ankle and foot issues last season.

Heading into his senior year, Connor McCaffery is coming off of his best season yet. During his junior season, McCaffery had an Offensive Box Plus/Minus of 2.0 and a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 3.0. He also earned 1.8 Offensive Win Shares and .8 Defensive Win Shares. While his individual stats may not blow you away, he proved his time on the court can help a team win basketball games. Not to mention, every coach likes to have an extension of themselves on the court.

Joe Toussaint saw the least amount of minutes out of the starting five, but the freshman showed signs he has the talent and heart to be a contributor to a winning program. While many of the Hawkeyes other guards rely on their outside scoring (see Wieskamp and Fredrick), Toussaint gives Iowa a downhill attack from the perimeter which gives the Iowa offense a versatile attack. Playing at 6-0, 185 lbs with the ability to drive and be a pest on the defensive side of the ball, Toussaint may be the driving force of energy on the court for the Hawkeyes. If the sophomore can develop a more consistent jumper (37% from the field, 29% from three-point range in 2019-2020), he can be an X-factor in an Iowa national championship run.

It’s not just the returning starters that have the Hawkeyes in a position to succeed. Jordan Bohannon only played 10 games in 2019 before having hip surgery. Bohannon decided to redshirt, giving him the chance to take a second crack at his senior season. Bohannon is a career 11.7 PPG scorer with a consistent shooting stroke (career 40% on three-pointers, 88% from the free throw line), has the ability to facilitate on offense, and may very well have the record for most NCAA March Madness rugs taken by a player.

Also returning are Michael Baer, Jack Nunge, Austin Ash, and Nicolas Hobbs. While incoming freshman will certainly do their best to find minutes in the rotation and contribute right away, Fran McCaffery is by no means short of experienced players who can help take the Hawkeyes a step closer towards winning their first national championship.

Big Man on Campus

Oh, right. Almost forgot. There’s one more returning player who will suit up for the black-and-gold this year: Luka Garza. The senior center, considered by many to be the favorite for player of the year, is returning to bring Iowa City the success he came to achieve four years ago. The consensus All-American put up 23.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG while expanding his range (more than doubled his made career three-pointers last season) and securing the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2019-2020.

His old-school back to the basket style of play, mixed with his mobility and ability to hit a shot beyond the arc when called upon is a match-up nightmare for anyone who lines up against him. Hitting the court at 6-11, 260 lbs, he gives opposing teams few options besides double-teaming in the post. With sharpshooters like Wieskamp, Fredrick and Bohannon waiting to catch-and-shoot, Luka Garza opens up great looks for his teammates while still being a top ten score in college basketball, making this Hawkeye offense is dynamic as any.

With another year under his belt and hunger to leave Iowa as a champion, Garza has the potential to leave Iowa City as one of the greatest student-athletes in the history of Iowa Hawkeye athletics.

Looking beyond #200

Head Coach Fran McCaffery has been at the front of the helm for the Hawkeyes since the 2010-2011 season. With just two losing seasons since then and 194 wins to show for, Coach McCaffery is in prime position to secure his 200th career win with the Hawkeyes; but the goal for this season goes far beyond that.

Even without knowing the Hawkeyes’ full schedule, it’s hard to imagine it takes him more than 10 games to secure that 200th win. Once that milestone gets clinched, a larger and more elusive one becomes front and center. 4 Hall of Fame coaches have come and gone from the Iowa men’s basketball program (Sam Barry, Ralph Miller, Lute Olson and George Raveling) but none have been able to end the season hoisting a national championship trophy. With the roster Coach McCaffery has at his disposal, the time is now to rewrite Iowa history.

Under Coach McCaffery, the Hawkeyes have not yet advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. While it certainly looked like Iowa had the talent to do it last year before the season was cut short, they call it March Madness for a reason and who knows what may have happened. Now, with an experienced group returning and arguably the best player in college basketball, expectations for the team are as high as ever. It’s up to Coach McCaffery and his staff to get their team ready for a unique season, build off of last year’s success and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

For the first time in a long time for the Hawkeyes, it’s championship or bust this year. With this team? They just may get it done.

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