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Harty: McCaffery’s Hawkeyes ready to go

[ 0 ] September 26, 2013 |

The NCAA decision makers did Iowa basketball fans a huge favor by moving the start of practice up two weeks beginning this season.

For the first time ever, basketball practice will be held in September, with Friday marking the official start of it.

The Iowa men’s basketball team won’t hold its first practice until Saturday morning, but finally the season that fans have craved almost since the moment last season ended with a loss to Baylor in the NIT championship game is here.

The first game is still more than a month away, but practice will do for now.

Practice marks the start of a journey that many expect to be the latest crowning achievement for fourth-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose knack for rebuilding Division I programs has gained more attention since taking on the challenge at Iowa.

McCaffery has endeared himself to a fan base that was in shambles before his arrival in 2010. Fran is the man around these parts and it’s impossible to find a Hawkeye fan who doesn’t believe that Iowa is poised to take the next step in the rebuilding process, which is making the NCAA Tournament.

Many of the prognosticators also have climbed on the Iowa bandwagon.

“I would be very surprised if they didn’t make (the NCAA Tournament) this year,” said Mitchell Light, executive editor for Athlon Sports.

McCaffery’s passion and energy have helped to fuel his popularity. But it ultimately comes down to winning and McCaffery has done enough of that to earn credibility and trust with Iowa’s win total increasing from 11 to 18 to 25 in his first three seasons.

The climb isn’t over, though, and it won’t be until the McCaffery, 54, leads Iowa to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. He came close to doing it last season, but the combination of a soft non-conference schedule and a 9-9 Big Ten record ultimately cost the Hawkeyes a bid.

Advancing to the NIT title game was Iowa’s way of saying it deserved better. It also served notice for this season that Iowa, with the bulk of its roster returning, is on the rise.

Iowa is picked to finish in sixth in the Big Ten by Athlon Sports, which some Hawkeye fans might consider too low because that’s where Iowa finished last season. But it’ll still be good enough to end the drought, with Iowa among seven Big Ten teams that Athlon Sports has making the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

“They did just go 9-9 last year,” Light said when asked why Iowa wasn’t picked higher than sixth. “It’s not like everybody is back from a team that went 12-6. I realize they lost a lot of close games, but you have to factor in, too, only winning nine games in the league last year.”

Athlon Sports picks Michigan State to finish first in the conference followed by Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue. Those seven teams also were picked to make the NCAA Tournament.

Light said an argument could be made for picking Iowa to finish as high as fourth, but he’s reluctant to do so because in his opinion the program still hasn’t gotten over the hump under McCaffery.

“There is always a little hesitancy to jump on the bandwagon of a team that hasn’t done it,” Light said. “Last year they clearly had the talent to be an NCAA Tournament team, but just didn’t get it done.

“I can’t see them in the preseason being picked any higher than fifth, maybe fourth.”

Iowa returns nine of its top-10 scorers from last season, including the top five. The two new additions to the roster are Peter Jok, a 6-foot-6 freshman shooting guard from West Des Moines Valley, and 6-8 Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff. Jok’s biggest strength is perimeter shooting, which is perhaps what Iowa needs more than anything else after shooting just 30.5 percent from 3-point range last season.

Jok had the opportunity to play with his new teammates during Iowa’s six-game exhibition tour last month in London and France, as did Uthoff, who has been redshirted in each of the past two seasons and is now a sophomore.

Power forward Kyle Meyer also could figure in the mix after being redshirted as a true freshman last season.

Combine Iowa’s talent and depth with McCaffery’s reputation for rebuilding programs and you have what Light considers a promising foundation.

McCaffery rebuilt programs at Siena, North Carolina-Greensboro and Lehigh before taking on the Iowa project.

“Another pro Iowa point is Fran McCaffery has done it at other places, too,” Light said. “He hasn’t done it yet at Iowa. But it’s not like he’s a first-time head coach. He has gotten over the hump at other places.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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