Howe: Closing Time – Final Thoughts on ’18-19 Hawkeye Season

March 26, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – At this time last year, the Iowa players committed to each other. They were determined to change for the better.

Nobody liked the 14-19 season they’d just experienced. For most of them, it was their lowest low.

Talking about it is a lot easier than doing it. That’s why these Hawkeyes deserve a tip of the cap for carrying out the plan.

The campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion on Sunday when their comeback against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament fell short in overtime. The finish didn’t wipe out the strides made in posting a 23-12 record and a return to the Big Dance for the first time in three years.

Now we turn out attention ahead, seeing a path of this winter being a springboard for Iowa. Lone senior Nicholas Baer represents the only sure subtraction from this squad.

Here are some thoughts on what we just saw and what might transpire next season:

Big Shoes to Fill: As much love as Baer received from teammates, coaches and fans after his final game Sunday, he’s still under appreciated. As a result, people will underestimate how big of a loss he will be for next year.

The former walk-on from Bettendorf served as the heartbeat of this team. His impact stretched well beyond statistics. He helped set the culture that resulted in the turnaround.

Iowa adds Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl, both of whom red shirted this year, along with four-star freshman Patrick McCaffery to the front court mix in ’19-20. It’s a talented trio. It must show in can replace Baer’s intangibles and unfiltered desire.

Some folks thought Iowa would improve last season after Peter Jok left and allowed other players to shine. It didn’t work out that way. He brought leadership and toughness.

Time will tell how the Hawkeyes replace Baer’s hustle. It won’t be easy.

Raising Expectations: Perception plays a huge role in how we see our sports teams. How they measure up against our own expectations determines how we feel about a given game or season.

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The bar was set low for these Hawkeyes, inside the fan base and nationally. Few outsiders saw a return to the NCAA Tournament. That they reached the second round and finished sixth in the Big Ten satisfied most people. Sunday’s fight against Tennessee after being down 25 points created even more positives vibes moving forward.

The bar has been raised.

In Year 10 of coach Fran McCaffery’s tenure, some will see Iowa as a Big Ten contender. Playing in March Madness and winning a game won’t be enough to satisfied a starving fan base that’s gone 20 years without a Sweet 16 appearance. The Big Ten regular-season championship drought has been twice that long.

Nobody wants to end the dearth more than Fran McCaffery and his team, if only for the fact they won’t hear about it any more. They’ll need another step forward to satisfy the expectations they created.

Finding Consistency: As mentioned, the Hawkeyes bottomed out last season and as one would expect struggled with consistency. This team showed an ability to play at a higher level more often, particularly on defense.

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They’re ranked 109 nationally in Ken Pom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. While that’s nothing to brag about, it’s an improvement from the 242 it posted a year ago.

Still, these Hawkeyes experienced too many valleys. It cost them a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. And there were times where they just fell apart, including starts against Tennessee and Cincinnati last week, and second halves versus Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Rutgers.

Much of the low lights can be attributed to poor defense. And Iowa has a habit of letting cold shooting affect effort and energy on defense. That needs to be rectified.

Numbers Game: Fran McCaffery found enough minutes to satisfy his nine available scholarship players this season. The coach played a much tighter rotation than he had in his previous eight years.

Putting together the puzzle next season might be much more difficult. As mentioned, Baer is the only player known to be exiting the program. That leaves eight guys all of whom logged at least 12.4 minutes per game this season.

Iowa then adds in three players who red shirted this season. Cordell Pemsl has two years in the rotation and Jack Nunge has one. C.J. Fredrick brings another shooter to the backcourt.

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Patrick McCaffery arrives as a four-star prospect as rated by Rivals, 247 and ESPN. His father, Fran McCaffery, expects early contributions. New York City point guard Joe Toussaint, a four-star per ESPN, brings a missing element of speed to the backcourt.

That’s 13 scholarship players looking for playing time. Maybe Tyler Cook and/or Isaiah Moss move on after testing the NBA Draft waters last year. Perhaps deep reserve, Maishe Dailey, leaves if he doesn’t see a path to more playing time.

Of course, that trio owns a lot of experience. At different levels, all could contribute next season.

It’s good to have a lot of good players. It also can be problematic of the coach expands the rotation too much. It’s something on which to keep an eye.

The Time is Right: Next year is the year. After nine seasons of Fran McCaffery, it seems clear he’s running a developmental program much like Kirk Ferentz does with the football program here.

As such, in theory, next season should be one where Iowa thrives. It returns five starters and plenty of other experience.

Cook and Jordan Bohannon are three-year starters. Moss and Luka Garza have two seasons starting behind them. Pemsl, Dailey and Ryan Kriener are multi-year members of the rotation. Nunge and Connor McCaffery each has a season seeing significant minutes.

Chemistry and cohesion should be abundant from the first jump ball. Experience means a deeper playbook and few growing pains. High expectations are justified.

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