This offseason, Iowa did a lot.
The Hawkeyes lost a lot. The Hawkeyes returned a lot. And the Hawkeyes added a lot.
It might sound strange, but Fran McCaffery is calling it one of the more unique teams he’s ever had. And as Iowa is slowly climbing the ladder of progression as a program, even a season after losing one of the best players in program history, there’s reason to be optimistic about this team.
“I think this is one of the most unique teams I've had in in all my years in coaching in the sense that we have four starters back, can almost count (Anthony) Clemmons as a fifth starter, and after that, everybody's young, with the exception of Dom Uhl. He's the only one who played. Everybody else is a guy who sat out last year, freshman or a transfer that didn't play last year,” McCaffery said earlier this month at Big Ten media day. “So It will be a real challenge to get those young guys ready because I think, you know, in this league, five guys isn't enough. You need at least 10. I think they'll be ready. It's an exciting time to try to get them ready. We've got talent. We've got character. Looking forward to it.”
So what did Iowa lose? Well, that can be summed up in two words: Aaron White.
White, one of the Big Ten’s best players a season ago, carried the Hawkeyes at times last year. He averaged 16.4 points per game (fifth in the conference) and 7.3 rebounds per game (fourth in the conference) and ranked in the top 10 in the league in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and steals.
White graduated as the program’s all-time leader in games played with 140. He also finished second in program history in scoring (1,859 points) and third in rebounding (901 boards).
And while all that production will have to be replaced, certainly, it’s not the biggest issue in the wake of White’s departure. What is the biggest issue is finding a team leader, finding someone to provide the intangibles that White did last season.
As alluded to, White put the team on his back consistently throughout the season and especially down the stretch, when the Hawkeyes secured an NCAA tournament invitation and then won their first NCAA tournament game under McCaffery, the program’s first win in the Big Dance since 2001.
“On the floor, I think Aaron was one of the best players in college basketball last year. He’s a guy that’s just a leader on and off the court, and obviously you lose that,” senior point guard Mike Gesell said. “But we have a lot of guys stepping into that role. When you lose a guy like that, not a single person is going to pick that up, it’s going to be a group effort. We have a lot of seniors this year, a lot of returning starters, guys that watched him do it and really learned from him.”
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This is where what the Hawkeyes returned comes in.
Filling White’s shoes from a leadership perspective will be a team effort, as Gesell said. Gesell is one of four returning Iowa starters, along with Jarrod Uthoff, Peter Jok and Adam Woodbury. Those four — along with Clemmons and Uhl, who both played sizable roles last season — form a core group of six guys who have plenty of Big Ten experience and plenty of ability to lead, play and win as a unit.
“I think when you have four seniors, all of whom have played as much as these four guys have, it's kind of a collective effort,” McCaffery said. “Last year was Aaron White's team, no question about that … This year, it's a little bit different. Mike's the point guard. Woody's a little more verbal. Jarrod has really, I think, taken his game to the next level, but he's not a big verbal guy. Clemmons is, and he's rock solid and has tremendous respect of everything in the locker room. So I think all of them will contribute in that area.”
“I think we’ve got a lot of experience returning,” Gesell said. “I think we’ll have even more experience than last year. Now we’re a team that’s been to the NCAA tournament two years in a row. We know what it take to get there, and we know what we’ve got to do on a daily basis to prepare ourselves for that.
“The difference between winning and losing in the Big Ten is very small, it could be one or two possessions a game. Having that experience playing in big environments, playing in hostile road environments, we know what it takes to win, and I think that will help us a lot this year. I think we’ve got a ton of potential with this team.”
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But with all that returning experience, there’s a lot of new, too. Altogether there are 10 newcomers on this year’s roster: five true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and three juniors who transferred in from junior college ahead of last season and sat out.
Three of those true freshmen are Illinois products: Brandon Hutton (De La Salle), Isaiah Moss (Simeon) and Christian Williams (St. Teresa).
All the newness mixed with all the experience means getting integrated this preseason is a real challenge.
But it also could create a concoction that keeps the Hawkeyes on the path McCaffery has them traveling. He’s increasingly produced more successful teams in each of his five seasons. In Year 1, Iowa won just 11 games, but in Year 2, the win total increased to 18. Then came a 25-win season, followed by the first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Hawkeyes won their first tournament game under McCaffery. So the pattern is a good one, and if the pattern holds, even more success awaits this season.
“We’ve been getting ourselves ready, worked hard all summer, worked hard all fall. Now practice has started, and I think we’re very hungry,” Gesell said. “We’re not settling on our one win in the NCAA tournament last year, we’re looking to just continue to make strides for the program.”