NIT run shows Iowa’s promise for next year

Iowa’s impressive run to the NIT championship game showed the men’s basketball program should have a bright future. It also means that anything but a berth in next season’s NCAA tournament will be a huge disappointment.

The Hawkeyes capped a marvelous stay in the NIT with an underwhelming loss 74-54 loss to Baylor in the title game Thursday.

Iowa finished 25-13, its best season since its last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2005-06. The Hawkeyes won 11 of their final 15 games – including four straight in the NIT – behind a core group of players that returns nearly intact in 2013-14.

“Nothing will take away the fact that we won 25 games,” coach Fran McCaffery said. “Hopefully what we’ll do is learn from this experience and be better for it.”

That’s exactly what Iowa’s re-energized fan base is counting on.

Iowa will lose senior wing player Eric May, whose athleticism, defensive skills and steady leadership will be missed. But the Hawkeyes will likely bring in more than they lose – and that doesn’t include the expected uptick in production from their youngsters.

Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff, known more for the circumstances surrounding his departure from Madison than his skills, will finally get his chance to compete in the Big Ten in 2013-14.

Uthoff, a Cedar Rapids native who originally spurned the Hawkeyes, was Iowa’s Mr. Basketball in 2011 after averaging 26.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks as a senior. He’ll join a crowded but talented frontcourt that will include seniors Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe, juniors Gabe Olaseni and Aaron White and sophomore Adam Woodbury.

Iowa will also add freshman Peter Jok, one of the more intriguing newcomers in the Big Ten.

Jok was considered among the nation’s best in his class before knee issues cooled his recruitment. Jok was Iowa’s Mr. Basketball in 2013 for West Des Moines Valley, and he could give the Hawkeyes the outside shooter they desperately need after hitting 42 percent of his 3s as a prep senior.

“We’ll incorporate Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, and I think what we’ll do is enter the season next year with a tremendous focus and concentration knowing what we’re capable of, but also knowing some of the things that we didn’t do that we now have to go out and do.” McCaffery said.

But Iowa likely won’t have to lean heavily on newcomers next season.

It’s been a long time since the Hawkeyes could say that.

Guard Devyn Marble scored 20.3 points a game during the NIT, solidifying his status as the program’s go-to scorer heading into his senior season. White built on a promising freshman season with a standout sophomore season and will be among the top returning big men in the Big Ten.

Mike Gesell’s role should expand as a sophomore next season, either at point or shooting guard, and the emergence of Olaseni should allow Woodbury to develop at his own pace.

A more experienced roster should also encourage McCaffery to put together a tougher non-conference schedule. The Hawkeyes could have earned an NCAA tournament berth this season had it picked up another quality win or two outside of the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes have tons of depth, a fan base so excited about their future that they sold out two NIT home games and a lot of momentum gained from a strong end to the season. It will be tough to say the Iowa basketball is “back,” so to speak, until it gets back to the NCAAs.

But it’s hard to look at the Hawkeyes roster and imagine them falling short for the eighth year in a row.

“There’s just no substitute for experience. You can’t rush it,” McCaffery said.