NCAA tourney on minds of Hawkeyes

IOWA CITY – The buzz is back, and the expectations are at an all-time high in the Fran McCaffery era.

The next step for the Iowa men’s basketball team is to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

And with four starters and 12 letter winners back from a 25-win squad, that has to be the goal inside the Hawkeye program.

“I don’t think you can have a successful season this year without making the NCAA tournament,” said junior forward Aaron White at Iowa’s annual media day Wednesday. “We have enough experience and have enough talent and there is no reason we shouldn’t be in the tourney. But just because we have that doesn’t mean that they are going to put us in there. We are still are going to have to beat teams ahead of us and beat some ranked teams.”

Iowa lost seven games by four points or less in the Big Ten Conference last year when it finished 9-7 in league play. That trend will need to slide the other way this season if the Hawkeyes want to put themselves in the Big Ten championship conversation.

“We just want to get better,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Are we capable of winning a Big Ten championship? Absolutely. But there are a number of teams that feel the same way. It’s not like we can’t beat those teams. It’s a reasonable goal.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we are excited that people think enough of our team to rank us in the top 25 and project us to be in the NCAA Tournament. That’s exciting. It’s an accomplishment for some of the guys who have been here and haven’t had that before. But the reality is now we have to go out and do it.”

McCaffery will have a host of returners to help end an NCAA Tournament drought that dates back to 2006.

The challenge will be finding minutes for a deep roster that will go 10-12 deep on any given night.

“I am as interested in it as you are,” said White. “I want to know what his go-to lineup is, too. I think even coach is intrigued by it. It will help us for game by game situations but also will help late in the year when the minutes start piling up. The depth on this team is a strength for sure.”

One change to the lineup this year involves Roy Devyn Marble moving back to point guard. Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Josh Oglesby and incoming freshman Peter Jok are all expected to see significant minutes in the backcourt as well.

“I think it gives us the best chance to win and I feel like I play my basketball there,” said Marble, who led the team in scoring last year at 15 points per game. “But I think I can be just as efficient at the 2. I will be off the ball even when I am on the ball because of the motion offense so I can showcase my ability at both spots.”

The rest of the rotation includes frontcourt players White, Zach McCabe, Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni, Melsahn Basabe and transfer Jarrod Uthoff.

“I’m trying to figure out who can play together, who makes sense together, and I guess at this point what I’ve concluded is we have a lot of good players, and they’re all going to play,” McCaffery said. “As long as you have unselfish people that are committed to winning, you can pretty much play any of them at any time with each other, provided you have enough rebounding and provided you have a point guard on the floor.”

Woodbury, a 7-foot sophomore, was given some lofty expectations by the fans coming into his freshman season last year. He ended up averaging just 5 points and 5 rebounds per game.

McCaffery though said the best player on the floor through the early-season practices has been the center from Sioux City East High School.

“Woodbury has been our most impressive player since the first day of practice,” McCaffery said. “He’s hungry. He’s in phenomenal shape. He has been incredibly consistent, and I’m just thrilled with his development. He and (Olaseni) have been going at each other in practice. That is definitely a position of strength for us.”

The two additions to the roster are Uthoff and Jok.

Uthoff was Mr. Iowa Basketball during his senior year at Cedar Rapids Jefferson. He sat out last year after transferring in from Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

Jok was voted Mr. Iowa Basketball last year after averaging 23.6 points per game for West Des Moines Valley.

Both have won over their teammates in the preseason and will provide the Hawkeyes with even more depth than they had a season ago.

The best way to describe Uthoff, according to his teammates, is versatile.

“He will have a lot of mismatches at the 3 and the 4,” Marble said. “He will go around the big guys and post up the shorter guys. Those are some mismatches we will look to exploit, and I think you’ll see that as the season goes on.”

Jok will provide the squad with a much-needed presence behind the 3-point line. The Hawkeyes shot just 30 percent from long range as a team last season. Jok was a 42 percent shooter from the 3-point line for the Tigers and also made 92 percent of his free throws.

“Peter Jok is one of the better shooters I’ve ever coached,” said McCaffery. “We know he can shoot the ball in the hole. He is as good as I said at doing that and when we went overseas, he was our second leading scorer. While we’re coaching him and criticizing him sometimes, at some point in time, I don’t ever stop making sure he knows and understands that we think he’s got a chance to be really special.”

The Hawkeyes will likely begin the season ranked in the Associated Press top 25. They are No. 17 in Lindy’s Sports, No. 23 by the Sporting News and No. 24 by Blue Ribbon. The last time an Iowa basketball team was ranked was when it was 23rd in the final USA Today/Coaches poll in 2006.

“We got the experience, but we won’t take anything for granted,” said Gesell. “The preseason rankings mean nothing. It basically means that we gained some respect last year and gained some excitement around the program, but if we don’t get the job done on the court it doesn’t mean anything.”

Iowa opens the season against UNC-Wilmington at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Nov. 8. The first games away from Iowa City will be in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas at the end of November. The Hawkeyes also take on instate rival Drake in the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena on Dec. 7 and travel to instate rival Iowa State on Dec. 13. The Big Ten season begins Dec. 31 at home against Nebraska.

“I don’t pay too much attention to those expectations,” Marble said. “We’re getting more credit than we have in the past, which means we are doing something right. But at the same time, they can’t play for us. All they can do is write. It is up to us to give them something to write about.”