IOWA CITY, Iowa – All-American center Luka Garza spoke of winning a Big Ten basketball championship and an NCAA title on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can make some history this year,” said the reigning Big Ten player of the year after announcing he would return to the University of Iowa for his senior season.
The national storylines were compelling: Garza is now the leading contender for national player of the year, the Hawkeyes are a solid favorite to win the Big Ten title and Coach Fran McCaffery likely has a preseason Top 10 team.
Take a deep breath. It’s a long way to March Madness, especially in these uncertain times. But yes, Iowa has the pieces to make 2020-21 a special season.
The history Garza speaks of is this: Iowa has not won a share of the Big Ten regular-season basketball title since ’78-79. Or two decades before Garza was born.
And Iowa has never won an NCAA title. The ’55-56 Hawkeyes were a runner-up to the great Bill Russell and San Francisco and also reached the Final Four in ’55 and ’80.
Since the Associated Press started releasing a preseason poll in ’80-81, Iowa has started the year in the Top 10 on six different occasions. None of those teams were ranked higher than seventh in the inaugural poll. Iowa hasn’t started a season in the Top 10 since ’01-02. The last time the Hawkeyes landed in the AP preseason poll at all was in ’05-06, when they were 20th.
So this kind of stuff doesn’t happen around here every day.
“The first thing you do is embrace it,” McCaffery said Sunday.
The coach loves the pieces at his disposal, the leadership on his roster and the grit and unselfishness this team has shown him.
“We can be really good in what will again be the best league in the country,” he said.
Having an all-American at center, a tremendous leader with a blue-chip work ethic, is a great place to start.
Maybe the most impressive statistic in Garza’s remarkable junior season is the fact that he had 11 consecutive games with at least 20 points against AP Top 25-ranked teams. That’s the longest streak in the nation over the past 15 seasons.
Garza scored a school-record 740 points last season, giving him 1,559 for his career. That leaves him 558 points away from passing Roy Marble (2,116) as Iowa’s career scoring leader. The only thing that might hamper Garza’s run to the record book would be a shortened season due to the ongoing pandemic.
Senior guard Jordan Bohannon also returns with two healthy hips and a shot at becoming the Big Ten’s career leader in 3-pointers made. Bohannon has 284 for his career, and needs 91 more to pass Ohio State’s Jon Diebler for the Big Ten lead.
Bohannon will also bring 102 career starts, and a wealth of experience and leadership, with him to the court in 2020-21. Garza is next with 87 starts and Joe Wieskamp has 66. Connor McCaffery, who led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and Jack Nunge have 31 starts apiece, CJ Fredrick 25 and Joe Toussaint 20. A promising five-man recruiting class adds more options.
“They have a common goal and that is to do something special,” Coach McCaffery said of his 11th Iowa team.
None of the six Hawkeye teams that started the season in the Top 10 won a Big Ten title.
Coach Lute Olson’s ’81-82 squad started the season ranked ninth, was in the Top 10 for the first 13 polls, was rated every week and finished 16th. That team tied for second in the Big Ten, made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and finished 21-8. Junior Bob Hansen, freshman Michael Payne and senior Kenny Arnold were double-figure scorers.
The ’83-84 team, under first-year coach George Raveling, was seventh in the preseason poll but dropped out of the Top 25 on Dec. 19. The Hawkeyes tied for seventh in the Big Ten and went 13-15 overall. Junior Greg Stokes was the leading scorer.
Tom Davis made his Iowa coaching debut in ’86-87 at No. 10 in the inaugural poll. That team, led by seniors Kevin Gamble and Brad Lohaus and sophomores Marble, B.J. Armstrong and Ed Horton, won a school-record 30 games and made it to the Elite Eight. They also reached No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in school history on Jan. 19, ’87 after beating three straight Top 10 opponents (at Illinois, at Purdue and Indiana).
Iowa won its first 18 games that season before getting upset at home by Ohio State and finished third in the Big Ten race. The Hawkeyes spent the entire season in the Top 10 and finished sixth.
Big things were expected heading into the ’88-89 season. Armstrong, Marble and Horton were seniors and freshman Ray Thompson fit perfectly at the front of the full-court pressure defense Davis used.
That team started the season seventh in the preseason poll, and was in the Top 10 for 12 of the first 13 weeks before finishing 14th. Iowa was fourth in the Big Ten, 23-10 overall and got beat in double overtime by North Carolina State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The ’95-96 team had five players – seniors Kenyon Murray and Russ Millard and juniors Andre Woolridge, Jess Settles and Chris Kingsbury – average between 15.1 and 9.5 points a game. Iowa started the preseason ranked eighth. That team was fourth in the Big Ten, reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament and was 23-9 overall. They spent six weeks in the Top 10, were rated 18 weeks overall and finished 21st.
The ’01-02 team, led by seniors Reggie Evans and Luke Recker, started the season at No. 9. But Coach Steve Alford’s team dropped out of the Top 25 after Jan. 14, tied for eighth in the Big Ten and finished 19-16 overall after a home loss to LSU in the NIT.
There was no preseason poll when Iowa reached the Final Four in ’55 and ’56 under Coach Bucky O’Connor.
The ’54-55 team was ranked No. 4 in the first poll on Dec. 6, and was ranked every week. That team spent just two weeks in the Top 10 – the first and final weeks of the poll. The Hawkeyes finished at No. 5. That team won the Big Ten title and was 19-7 overall.
With starters Carl Cain, Bill Logan, Bill Seaberg and Sharm Scheuerman back as returning starters, Iowa was ranked fourth in the first poll on Dec. 5, 1955. The Hawkeyes were in the Top 10 for the first four and final three weeks of the season. That team repeated as Big Ten champion and reached the 20-win mark for the first time in school history (20-6).
Now the ’20-21 team is poised to add a chapter to Iowa’s basketball history.
“I think with our team, we all are extremely motivated and mentally tough,” Connor McCaffery said. “We all agree on the fact that nothing is going to be given to us just because of our preseason ranking. We are all extremely hungry.”