2020-21 Iowa basketball preview: Can the Hawkeyes make a Final Four run?
Anchored by exceptional center Luka Garza, Iowa basketball enters the season with plenty of hype as not just the favorites to win the B1G but to also be a legit national title contender.
Iowa finished last season ranked 25th in the AP poll. The Hawkeyes went 20-11 overall and 11-9 in conference play.
Unfortunately, Iowa didn’t get to realize their potential, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the B1G Tournament and NCAA Tournament to be cancelled.
Iowa was primed to be a solid team regardless. But when Garza, a unanimous 1st-team All-American, elected to return for his senior season, they solidified their status as one of the most promising teams in the nation.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is doing his best to keep his team focused as the adoration piles on.
“I still think the players are aware of expectation. I don’t think that will change. I think when you look at expectations from the outside, I look at it more like, ‘Okay, what does our team expect of themselves? What do they expect from themselves individually and collectively?’” McCaffery said via Inside the Hall. “That won’t change, regardless of what the media would say or a particular magazine would say or a sports commentator might say.”
In total, Iowa will return 6 of their 8 top scorers from last season, including junior guard Joe Wieskamp and senior guard Jordan Bohannon. The only main losses for Iowa are bench players Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn.
Here’s everything you need to know about Iowa this season:
Best player: Garza
Garza is being touted as a preseason national player of the year by many in the national media, and with good reason.
The dynamic 6-foot-11 big man took a major leap last season, as he averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 35.8 percent on 3-pointers.
Garza isn’t blessed with supreme athleticism, but he’s tremendous in the post with his blend of finesse and power. The 3-point range makes Garza virtually unguardable.
Garza doesn’t care about replicating last season’s outstanding numbers or even exceeding them. Garza is focused on doing whatever it takes to give Iowa the best chance at a national title.
While there aren’t many holes in Garza’s game, he can be even more impactful if he can improve his free-throw shooting and defense.
“My main focus going into the season is winning,” Garza said to The Gazette. “I just want to win a lot, as much as I can. I feel like as an individual player, I’ve done a lot. It doesn’t matter what happens this year individually for me as long as our team succeeds. That’s why I came back.”
Best newcomer: Ahron Ulis
Ulis is the brother of former Kentucky star Tyler Ulis. The 6-foot-2 freshman point guard out of Chicago was a 3-star prospect and rated as the No. 29 point guard in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite.
Ulis averaged 20.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game during his senior year at Marian Catholic en route to earning AP All-State Class 4A First Team honors. Ulis ended his high school career as the school’s 2nd all-time scorer, behind only his brother.
Iowa is already loaded with guards, but Ulis could crack the rotation because of his ability to play on and off the ball. The athletic Ulis can provide a spark on the defensive end as well.
“With Ahron Ulis, I think he’s a good, solid player. I really like his pull-up jumper going left. It’s a real weapon, and from what I remember, his brother Tyler used to do a lot of that,”247Sports director of basketball scouting Jerry Meyer said. “He’s a strong, sturdy type of point guard who plays with a little physicality. He’s not overly quick, but I would think he’d be able to help Iowa out fairly quickly.”
Biggest strength: offensive versatility
The Iowa offense can be one of the most potent in the country because of its ability to play both inside and out.
Iowa’s explosive offense is ranked 2nd in the nation by KenPom.
The Hawkeyes are blessed with an imposing center in Garza and another NBA prospect in the 6-foot-11 Jack Nunge.
Garza had games last season of 44, 38, 34 and 33 points.
Nunge tore his ACL last season, but he’s healthy and ready to make an impact. Nunge has averaged 14.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, according to 247Sports.
Iowa’s guard play is extremely strong as well. Iowa moves the ball excellently, have plenty of outside shooters and are a major threat in the fast break.
Wieskamp averaged 14 points and 6.1 rebounds to land a 3rd-team all-Big Ten selection last season. Bohannon is Iowa’s all-time leading 3-point shooter. Redshirt sophomore CJ Fredrick led the B1G in 3-point shooting percentage last season to earn a spot on the Big Ten all-freshman team.
Steady junior guard Connor McCaffery led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio and added 1.1 steals last season. Sophomore guard Joe Toussaint is another viable ball-handler. Toussaint made 20 starts after Bohannon’s season ended due to a hip injury and averaged 6.5 points and 2.9 assists.
Iowa has plenty of capable offensive threats, but the key to their success will be their unselfishness and willingness to play as a team. Iowa was ranked 5th nationally in assists per game last season.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to score,” Wieskamp said to The Gazette. “But it’s making the right basketball play. If you have an open shot, you’re going to take it. If not, we’re going to look for driving kicks because we have shooters all over the floor. Obviously, we can feed Luka and he can score at will.”
Biggest weakness: defense
Simply put: Iowa has been lopsided for the past 4 years. While Iowa has been solid offensively, they’ve struggled defensively.
Last season, the Iowa defense finished 260th nationally in points per game.
Iowa’s zone defense, which they utilized on 42 percent of possessions according to Synergy, was suspect. The Hawkeyes also had their significant share of woes with fastbreak defense and guarding the roll man in pick-and-rolls.
Iowa allowed at least 75 points in every loss and gave up 104 points to Purdue.
If the Hawkeyes are going to make a deep run this season, they’ll have to shore up their defensive deficiencies. The entire team is going to have to buy in for Iowa to make strides. Garza and Bohannon will need to lead by example with effort and intensity.
Season outlook: 20-3 overall, B1G champions, Final Four
The B1G is loaded, with 7 teams in the preseason AP Top 25. Iowa is the best of that bunch and should capture the regular-season title for the 1st time since 1979, and the conference tournament title as well.
Led by Garza and a deep group of talented guards, Iowa will make a run to the Final Four for the 1st time since 1980 as long as their defense transforms into a respectable unit.
McCaffery has Iowa believing this will be one of the most special seasons in program history.
“(McCaffery) turned (us) from a 14-19 team to one that was an overtime away from the Sweet 16 (against Tennessee, in 2019),” Garza said via Hawk Central. “So, I think when you look at that, you can you can tell that he is the coach for this team to make a run. All the guys trust him, and he trusts us.”