I need proof on defense before believing in the Iowa men's basketball team

Fran McCaffery reacts to a play on the court in a game from last season. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - In all my years of covering the Iowa men’s basketball team, it’s hard to think of a team that is more intriguing than the current one.

But that isn’t necessarily a compliment because part of what makes the current Iowa team intriguing is that it’s so hard to trust the sum of all the quality parts in the wake of last season.

You wonder if last season’s collapse was an aberration, or a temporary setback, or the start of a disturbing trend under Fran McCaffery.

Iowa’s inability to even be average on defense last season took what appeared to be a promising team on paper and turned it into a mess on the court.

The goal at this time last year, with four starters returning from a 19-win team, was to get back to the NCAA Tournament after having barely missed a fourth consecutive trip the season before.

But then Iowa had enough trouble even getting back on defense and the inability to get stops ruined the season as Iowa finished 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall.

So until I see this team play defense for an extended period against decent competition, I’ll remain highly skeptical.

Fans can get their first look at the current team when it faces Guilford College in an exhibition game at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Offense isn’t a concern for Iowa because there are capable scorers up and down the roster. But that was also the case last season and how’d that work out?

It’s fun to watch Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon make a bunch of 3-point baskets, and to see power forward Tyler Cook rattle the rim with one of his left-handed slam dunks.

But there is only so much fun without winning.

And it wasn’t just that Iowa lost on a regular basis last season, some of the games weren’t even competitive with 10 of the 19 losses by at least 10 points.

Iowa tried to outscore its opponents using McCaffery’s frenetic playing style, but there was just too much dysfunction on defense to win that way.

Iowa’s individual parts are impressive from an offensive standpoint, even more so with the addition of 6-foot-6 freshman Joe Wieskamp.

“Joe’s been what we thought he would be,” McCaffery said. “It’s funny because you forget sometimes that he is freshman. He doesn’t play like a freshman.”

The 6-9, 250-pound Cook enters his junior season having scored in double figures 44 times, and last season he joined Greg Stokes as the only Hawkeyes to total more than 500 points and 200 rebounds in their sophomore season.

Bohannon enters his junior season having scored in double figures 40 times and is the only player nationally to total at least 150 assists and 80 3-point baskets as a freshman and a sophomore over the last 25 years.

And 6-11 sophomore center Luka Garza is one of just two Hawkeyes to total more than 400 points and 200 rebounds as a freshman, with Jess Settle being the other.

Junior shooting guard Isaiah Moss also scored 19 points in 96 seconds in a loss at Minnesota last season.   

Combine them all together and you have five capable scorers, but also five question marks on defense.

Garza showed flashes on defense last season, but it was hardly his strength.

Defense was nobody’s strength on the team last season and it showed as opponents averaged 78.7 points per game and repeatedly beat Iowa in transition and in half-court sets.

Wieskamp should play significant minutes, but it’s uncertain right now whose playing time will be affected the most by his presence at small forward and at shooting guard.

It’ll be interesting to see if McCaffery rewards playing time to those who perform well on defense because that would signify a change.

I look at the current Iowa team and see anywhere from seven to 11 conference wins. That would be an improvement from last season, but not enough for Iowa to return to the NCAA Tournament, which has to be the goal in McCaffery’s ninth season as head coach.

Some in the national media believe that McCaffery is on the hot seat, but that isn’t case, nor should it be at this stage.

And I say that based on McCaffery’s body of work, which includes six postseason tournament appearances in eight seasons as head coach, including three trips in a row to the NCAA Tournament from 2013-16.

McCaffery also signed a contract extension barely a year ago that includes a lucrative buyout.

So he isn’t coaching for his job this season.

But McCaffery has to stop the bleeding ASAP because a head coach only has so long to right the ship at the major college level.

Should Iowa struggle again this season and finish below .500, then yes, McCaffery’s seat will be very warm.

That is part of what makes this team and this upcoming season so intriguing.

There is a lot at stake from a team standpoint, and from an individual standpoint.