By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – An Iowa fan reached out to me a few days ago and asked if I could write something positive about the much-maligned Iowa men’s basketball team.
He was depressed and concerned about a program that just four months seemed on the rise with a young and talented roster.
He embraced the preseason hype and figured Iowa would make the 2018 NCAA Tournament with four starters returning from a team that barely missed making it last season.
But like so many of us, including myself, he was wrong.
There is no way to sugar-coat what happened this season because Iowa’s records of 14-19 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten speak loudly for themselves.
You kept waiting for Fran McCaffery to right the ship, but it never happened for lots of reasons, including the inability to defend.
Iowa was arguably the worst defensive team in the Big Ten and one of the worst in the country from a statistical standpoint.
The Hawkeyes failed time and time again to stop the ball in transition and to identify open shooters. They also struggled with help defense, man-to-man defense and zone defense.
It was so bad on defense that you have to think that McCaffery will take steps during the offseason to address the problems.
McCaffery has to realize that his approach to coaching defense didn’t work and that changes are needed, beginning with a new mindset and a new commitment.
The Hawkeyes weren’t very good on defense during the 2016-17 season, either, but they scored enough points and won enough games to do damage control.
Defense has to become a bigger priority and there is reason to think it will because of what happened this season. Some things have to get worse before they can get better.
The fact that Iowa could return all but seldom-used senior forward Dom Uhl could be viewed as good or bad depending on your perspective.
You hope for the sake of his current teammates and coaches that forward Tyler Cook makes a decision about whether to return for his junior season sooner than later.
And you hope Cook makes the right decision because the last thing Iowa needs is for one of its star players to not be fully invested. You wouldn’t want Cook to return just so he could stuff the stat sheet in order to help grow his stock.
Cook obviously isn’t fully committed to being a Hawkeye at this stage, or he would’ve said so after the loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament instead of being non-committal about returning.
So it’s reasonable to think that Cook will either be fully committed to the cause if he returns next season or he won’t return.
His loss would be felt on offense, but not so much on defense, because at this stage, the 6-foot-9 Cook, like most of his teammates, is a liability on defense.
Senior-to-be forward Ahmad Wagner is probably the only player on the current roster whose biggest strength is playing defense. But Wagner struggles so much on offense that it’s hard for him to earn playing time because the object of the game is to score points.
This offseason will be much different for the Iowa players compared to the previous offseason when they were showered with praise.
It makes you wonder if the players were too comfortable and too satisfied during the previous offseason and that caused them to be mentally soft when adversity struck this season.
That shouldn’t be a problem this offseason because there is very little for the players to feel comfortable about. Their egos took a major hit due to all the losing and criticism and now it's time for the players to look in the mirror and do something about it.
McCaffery is reportedly meeting individually with all of his players this week, which is standard operating procedure. The tone of the meetings has to be a lot different than a year ago.
And if we’re to believe the rumors, Cook isn’t the only player on the current roster who is considering transferring. The number of potential defections seems to grow with each day.
Attrition goes with the territory, especially after a disappointing season.
But sometimes attrition can be a positive with addition by subtraction.
McCaffery currently doesn’t have any scholarships available, but that is likely to change this spring and summer.
And if does change, McCaffery will have a chance to restructure his roster, which is currently heavy on frontline players and short on guards, especially athletic guards who can defend.
The addition of an athletic point guard could do wonders for the team as a whole and for junior-to-be point guard Jordan Bohannon, who needs help at his position.
Iowa’s current roster isn’t short on talent with players such as Bohannon, freshman center Luka Garza and incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp to build around.
Bohannon already has established himself as one of the greatest 3-point shooters in program history, while the 6-11 Garza shows signs of being special.
And they’ve both been humbled by what happened this season, which should make them work harder on their weaknesses during the offseason.
The 6-6 Wieskamp has enormous potential and should help immediately at small forward.
The addition of a healthy Connor McCaffery also should help in the backcourt.
And while defense was by far Iowa's biggest problem this season, the offense also failed to deliver against quality opponents. Iowa scored a lot of points, but that's sort of misleading because most of the games in which Iowa scored at least 90 points came against weak opponents.
So even Fran McCaffery's up tempo offense has to get better.
Fran McCaffery at this stage still deserves the benefit of the doubt based on his track record. The program was in shambles when he replaced Todd Lickliter in 2010 and that has to count for something.
Iowa’s Big Ten record this past season matched Lickliter’s worst mark in conference play, but that’s where the similarities end.
The situation felt hopeless under Lickliter because he never had any sustained success during his three seasons at Iowa. His teams went from being bad to horrible, whereas McCaffery has led Iowa to a postseason tournament in six of the last seven seasons.
It is easy to become a prisoner of the moment and to assume the worst based on what happened this past season because it is unacceptable.
The hope is that McCaffery and the players won’t accept it and will take the necessary steps to get back on track.
That’s about as positive as I can be at this stage.