IOWA CITY, Iowa — NCAA Tournament or bust. It might as well be the unofficial motto for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
After a furious rally over the final weeks of the season, the Hawkeyes nearly qualified for the 68-team field with a 19-15 record. They were one of the first teams left out of the tournament and earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT.
This year, they are eyeing an invitation to the big dance. Early bracket projections aren’t kind for the Hawkeyes, but the team is bullish because an overwhelming majority of the rotation returns. With the 2017-18 season set to tip-off against Chicago State on Friday, here are five things the Hawkeyes must do to make the NCAA Tournament next March.
1. Defense, defense, defense
How the selection committee passed over Iowa isn’t a mystery. The team struggled playing defense and it cost the Hawkeyes games throughout the season. They ranked No. 123 nationally in adjusted defense with a 102.5 rating, according to KenPom.
“We have a lot of firepower on the offensive end,” forward Tyler Cook said. “Our improvement has to be on the defensive end. We have to keep guys in front of us.”
Yes, Iowa needs to improve, but how much? The average KenPom adjusted defense rate for the 1 through 11 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — that covers all at-large teams berths — was 95.5. That was the exact adjusted defensive rating for No. 8 seed Northwestern, the No. 32 ranked defense, according to KenPom.
So 95.5 is a number the Hawkeyes should keep in mind this season.
2. Realize Jordan Bohannon is the most indispensable player
Iowa is deep nearly everywhere on the court, but at point guard. Jordan Bohannon is a playmaker at the point, both for himself and others. He shot 41.6 percent from the 3-point line and dished out 5.1 assists last season.
He is vital to Iowa’s success this season, but if he misses any time or is limited, the Hawkeyes could find themselves in a tough spot.
Following the transfer of Christian Williams, the only other point guard on the roster is freshman Conor McCaffery. He is a former top 100 prospect, but is untested and was planning on redshirting and focusing on baseball this season before Williams left.
3. Star power must perform
In a lot of ways, the ceiling of a basketball team is tied into the ability of its best player. If Iowa is to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, it needs its top performer, Cook, to play like it.
A former Top 40 recruit, Cook seems poised for a breakout season. He scored 12.3 points and grabbed 5.3 rebounds last season and spent the off-season expanding his offensive game.
Iowa needs a go-to scorer with Peter Jok and his 19.9 points per game off to the pro ranks. Cook is the best bet to replace him as Iowa’s biggest impact player on offense.
“To be dominant,” said Cook on his expectations for the season. “Offensively, I feel like my game is 10 times better than it was last year. I am super confident and super ready to get started.”
4. Let Nicholas Baer rest
Forward Nicholas Baer is out three to four weeks after he broke his left pinky finger. Iowa needs to let him fully recover, even if it means missing an additional game in December.
Baer is too valuable to Iowa to rush him back and have this be a lingering issue during the heart of Big Ten play.
Baer, the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, can do a little bit of everything and his strength is in being able to fill whatever hole a specific lineup needs. If he must score, defend or rebound he is more than capable of doing it.
There are a lot of options for this last spot. Iowa needs production from its newcomers in the post. It also needs to find out who will replace Jok as a perimeter scorer.
But both options take a backseat to rebounding.
Everything Iowa wants to do this season — defend better, push the pace and score — is tied to rebounding. If the Hawkeyes can control the glass they can establish the up-tempo style they want, which usually leads to positive results on offense.
In general, winning the rebound battle isn’t the best stat at predicting success, but for the Hawkeyes, defensive rebounding is a sign they may be playing the kind of basketball coach Fran McCaffery wants.
“We’ve got to solidify the point of attack,” McCaffery said. “We’ve got to eliminate second-shot opportunities because especially in today’s world, second-shot opportunities lead to made threes.
“You know, and those are back-breaking possessions because you’re digging in hard for 30 seconds, now you’ve got to play another 30 seconds, now you give up a made three, and you’ve been on defense for a minute. That’s not what you want.
“I think our guys understand that, and if we can eliminate second shots with the size that we have, we can really get our break going.”
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