Better late than never, it's time for the award-winning Big Ten basketball previews! Rather than alphabetical order like last year, these will instead be in order of projected finish in conference play, from worst to first. That way, the entire internet will be on the edge of their seat for weeks waiting for all the dramatic reveals, and I can win another award.
11th place: Iowa Hawkeyes
What did they do last year? They were bad: 11-20 overall, 4-14 in the Big Ten. The highlight of the season was probably an upset of Purdue in the regular season finale, or maybe a 20 point blowout of Michigan State. Other than that, it was pretty ugly.
Who'd they lose from last year? Jarryd Cole was the only senior on last year's team, he's gone. Cole was an effective rebounder but played like a bull in a china shop on defense and didn't have much in the way of an offensive repertoire, not a big loss. The only other defection of note was point guard Cully Payne, who sat out most of last season with an injury after starting as a freshman. Payne didn't quite have Big Ten talent (he's transferred to Loyola-Chicago), but he would have found a place as a backup point guard on this year's team; backup point guard was a problem for Iowa last year and likely will be again this year.
Who's their best player? It's pretty clearly sophomore big man Melsahn Basabe, who's being talked about as a dark horse candidate for All-Big Ten honors. Basabe is a fantastic athlete as seen by his 11.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per 40 minutes, and he also showed good touch around the rim averaging 18 points per 40 minutes on 57% shooting. If he puts everything together he could certainly be among the best big men in the conference and a potential NBA player.
There are two problems for Basabe right now: foul trouble has kept him on the bench at times, and he needs to learn how to pass the ball out of the post, especially since he'll be seeing more double teams this season. Last season, Basabe posted a 1 to 7 assist to turnover ratio (seriously, he had 9 assists and 65 turnovers for the year,) so he's got nowhere to go but up.
So Matt Gatens isn't their best player anymore? No. Gatens had an excellent freshman season but he hasn't really developed since then. In fact, he's yet to replicate the eFG% he posted as a freshman, but that's largely because he was in a supporting role that year and since then he's had to be their alpha dog, and when God made Matt Gatens he did not make an alpha dog. If he can focus on being a spot up three point shooter this year and not have to worry about creating his own shot, he should have a solid year.
Ok, who else on this team can score? And herein lies the problem: Iowa doesn't have many guys who are good at scoring. Last season, Iowa finished last in the Big Ten by a wide margin in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, which is not a good combination.
Part of their problem comes at point guard, where the only option is senior Bryce Cartwright. He averaged nearly six assists per game last year, which is good, but he turned the ball 3.3 times per game, which is bad, and he shot 42% from two and 27% from three, which is also bad. Watching Cartwright play, he's a chronic (pun intended as Cartwright hails from the city of Compton) over-dribbler who makes sure the entire offense runs through him, as he led Iowa in possession usage despite all the assists. Unless his shot has improved dramatically in the off-season, he needs to shoot less.
The rest of the potential scorers are all wings between 6'5" and 6'8": Fran McCaffrey is stockpiling these guys the way Northwestern stockpiles goofy looking white wings, except the Northwestern guys can actually score the ball. Eric May, Zach McCabe and Roy Devyn Marble and their sub par offensive ratings all return, and they're joined by freshmen Josh Oglesby and Aaron White. I thought May would have a huge year after a promising freshman campaign in 2009-10, but he struggled last season and didn't seem to have much confidence in himself. McCabe and Marble had eerily similar shooting lines as freshman (41% on two, 27% on threes), both of them need to improve in that category or they'll lose playing time to Oglesby and White, both three star recruits.
Backing up Basabe in the post, Iowa has a few uninspiring options: senior foul machine Andrew Brommer, little-used senior Devon Archie of the frequent air-balled free throws, and freshman Gabriel Olaseni from the basketball hotbed of London, England. Olaseni was a three star recruit but averaged just 10 points and 8 rebound in high school last year so he's probably a bit of a project.
So what's the bottom line? The future of the Iowa program is bright under McCaffery's leadership, as he's rejuvenated the Iowa fan base after the depressing Steve Alford era and disastrous Todd Lickliter era. He's also doing work in recruiting, as he's already gotten commits from two four star players for 2012, out-recruiting Roy Williams for one of those kids (big man Adam Woodbury). Unfortunately, I think Iowa fans will have to wait until next year for their team to make a move out of the Big Ten basement. This is still largely the same team that went 11-20 (4-14) a year ago, and most of last year's issues (point guard, perimeter shooting, depth in the post) haven't been addressed. It will take some spectacular player development for Iowa to improve enough to even make the NIT this year.
When does Northwestern play them? In Evanston on February 9th, and in Iowa City March 3rd to close out the regular season. Northwestern should be able to handle this team at home, but if NU comes into that last game with Iowa at, say, 8-9 in the conference, I will be terrified regardless of Iowa's record.
It's also worth noting that Northwestern has a chance to sweep Iowa for the second straight year, and Northwestern hasn't swept a Big Ten team in consecutive years since 1958 and 1959 against Michigan. History could be made!
Overall record prediction? The non-conference schedule is straight out of the Bill Carmody playbook. Every game is in the state of Iowa, and there are home games against recent Northwestern victims Chicago State, North Carolina A&T, Northern Illinois, Central Arkansas and Brown. There are a few tough games though, at Iowa State, at perennial Valley power Northern Iowa, Creighton on a neutral court, and Clemson at home in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. I'd say 8 to 10 wins here, 9-4 sounds reasonable. In conference play, they'll pull a couple upsets at home but struggle on the road as usual, as they're 4-36 away from home against Big Ten teams the last four years. 5 conference wins sounds about right, for a record of 14-17 (5-13).