Can Iowa contend for the Big Ten men’s basketball title in 2014?
“It will take each player playing to the best of his ability and continuing to get better,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said this week. “If we play the right way and defend, share the ball, support one another, compete and don’t make a lot of mistakes, then we’re going to win games. And then we’ll be in serious contention for a championship. If we don’t, we won’t be. It’s pretty simple.”
Quite a few ifs there. More ifs than Michigan State, the hands-down favorite now that Adreian Payne has decided to return for his senior year.
“Michigan State would have been very good without him,” McCaffery said. “Now they’ve got four starters back.”
But the fact that McCaffery isn’t laughed at for even talking about a Big Ten title shows the progress he’s made in three years.
Iowa was picked for seventh last season and carried the league’s sleeper tag. The Hawkeyes snuck into the first division, placing sixth all alone at 9-9. June’s NBA Draft looks to help Iowa move up.
Last season’s all-Big Ten first team — Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., of Michigan, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller of Indiana and Deshaun Thomas of Ohio State — all declared for that draft. It was a blow to all three programs, but hardly a death knell.
“Michigan’s still got three pros,” McCaffery said. “Ohio State lost a really good player, but they’ve got everyone back and a really good recruiting class. I thought at the end of the year they were playing extremely well and it was a lot of different people. Indiana has signed nothing but high level guys for a couple of years.”
Indiana also lost two experience-rich seniors in Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. They, along with Zeller and Oladipo, were the Hoosiers’ top four scorers with 398 career starts among them.
“They do have two really good seniors to replace,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes that’s hard to do, when you have two guys who were that productive for that long. Night in and night out, sometimes those guys are harder to replace than those guys who leave early.”
Indiana has signed four members of the Rivals Top 150, including No. 8 Noah Vonleh, a forward; No. 47 Troy Williams, a forward; and No. 56 Stanford Robinson, a guard. In all, 14 of Rivals’ top 100 players are headed for Big Ten schools, another sign that the league is not zapped of talent despite the NBA’s raid of marquee names.
Iowa has the pieces in place to sit at the Big Ten’s big boy table this season. The returning players will have to improve. Newcomers Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok will have to contribute. Better perimeter shooting is a must. And the Hawkeyes, once defensively challenged, will have to continue to get better at that end of the floor.
“You saw what we tried to do two years ago, outscoring people,” McCaffery said. “It was fun some days. Other days, not so much.”
Iowa hasn’t had a winning conference record since 2007. That should change in 2014, when Iowa’s NCAA drought (2006) also should end … as long as all of those ifs don’t become what-ifs.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa sportswriter of the year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @RickBrownDMR
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball
About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.