Oct. 2, 2013
IOWA CITY, Iowa --The University of Iowa men's basketball team has visions of continuing its ascent after advancing to the 2013 National Invitation Tournament championship. The Hawkeyes are loaded with talent, returning 12 letterwinners, including four starters, and three newcomers.
Fran McCaffery, who enters his fourth season as Iowa's head coach, is excited about his 2013-14 squad.
"We have tremendous chemistry and that's not always an easy thing to accomplish as a group," McCaffery said. "My team goals are always the same: do better than we did last year, and continue the improvement both collectively and individually. If we do that, it stands to reason our group is going to be that much better. We want to continue to compete, and play together the ways we have because that's going to be critical for this team. We have so many weapons."
This is the deepest team McCaffery has ever coached. That depth, along with experience, will hopefully translate into increased scoring and allow fewer points than last season.
"Having fresh bodies to stop people, and play at the pace we want to play, is a luxury not every team has," said McCaffery. "When it's all said and done, a lot of coaches talk about going to their bench, but they really don't have as much confidence going to the bench when the game is in the balance. I don't hesitate, because I have complete confidence in 12 guys. Anybody on any given day can go for 15 or 20 points, and that makes us difficult to prepare for."
Expectations are high heading into the season as three publications have the Hawkeyes ranked in their preseason poll: Lindy's (17), The Sporting News (23) and Blue Ribbon (24).
The team was able to get a jumpstart on preparation for the upcoming season in August when the Hawkeyes traveled to England and France for a 10-day tour. While in Europe, Iowa played six exhibition contests, winning five of the six, against professional teams.
"The trip was beneficial in so many ways," McCaffery said. "The competition was good; we had to fight and compete, and came together as a group. "Each player was good on our trip. They all fulfilled the role I defined for them."
Leading the Hawkeyes this winter is a trio of senior captains: Melshan Basabe, Roy Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe. Marble was third-team All-Big Ten and NIT All-Tournament team selections as a junior, averaging a team-best 15 points with 112 assists. Basabe averaged 6.8 points and 5.1 rebounds, while McCabe averaged 5.7 points and 3.7 boards a year ago.
After beginning last season at the off-guard position, Marble finished the year as the team's point guard. McCaffery believes Marble's scoring ability and versatility will make him one of the top returning players in the league.
"We're counting on him to ultimately be an all-conference player," McCaffery said. "I think Devyn's most comfortable when he has the ball. I'm not afraid to put him off the ball, I'm not afraid to use him in different ways to get him opportunities where he can score."
Basabe is one of the program's all-time best shot blockers, entering his final season ranking fifth in career blocks (122); McCabe is one of the team's most physical and smartest players. McCaffery feels the best is yet to come for both.
"Melsahn has been playing with an incredible energy level and is playing like a senior who knows what he has to do at this level to be successful," said McCaffery. "Zach's tough and smart, has savvy, and is not afraid of a situation, whether it's who he's guarding, or it being the end of the game. He is not afraid to make a play."
The Hawkeyes return their top five scorers from a year ago. In addition to Marble, Basabe and McCabe, junior forward Aaron White and sophomore guard Mike Gesell return. White ranked second on the squad in scoring (12.8 ppg) and first in rebounding (6.2 rpg) a year ago. Gesell had a sensational rookie campaign, becoming the first Hawkeye to amass 295-plus points, 85-plus rebounds and 85-plus assists in a season.
"He's going to figure out a way to be effective every time he takes the floor -- sometimes it's in transition, sometimes it's around the basket, sometimes it's from the perimeter, sometimes it's with his defense, but he plays the game with incredible feel," said McCaffery. "He's a special player."
Gesell missed time toward the end of last season because of a foot injury, but has recovered and is excited to return to the court for his sophomore campaign.
"We'll probably play Mike at the two, although he will see time at point as well," said McCaffery. "We'll set him up a little more this year and try to increase his points-per-game from nine to 15."
"Both worked hard in the offseason and impressed me on our foreign trip," said McCaffery. "Those two guys fit perfectly into our style because they can run, move their feet, guard ball screens, fight the post and they can play the transition game. It gives us two great low-post defenders, so we're not going to get hurt by a good low-post offensive player because we have size that can affect the game."
The Hawkeyes shot 30.5 percent from 3-point range last season, a number McCaffery believes will improve this season. Junior Josh Oglesby, sophomore Anthony Clemmons and freshmen Peter Jok will bolster the Hawkeye backcourt and perimeter shooting.
"Josh is in the best shape of his life and he's coming off a great foreign trip where he shot the ball extremely well, consistently," said McCaffery. "He has a tremendous shooting stroke, has unbelievable range, he's been through it, and I think he's going to have a huge year for us."
"Anthony has a new confidence level and his perimeter shot has really improved," McCaffery said. "The overseas trip was beneficial for Anthony because he saw extended minutes against quality competition."
Playing six exhibition games in Europe this past August was a bonus for Jok and Jarrod Uthoff, who played with their new teammates in game competition for the first time. Uthoff will be a sophomore after redshirting as a freshman and sitting out last year because of NCAA transfer rules.
"Peter handled himself amazingly well in Europe," said McCaffery. "He scored consistently and shot the ball well. "When Jarrod's playing with confidence, he has an incredible skill set -- he can score around the basket, can put it on the deck and make a play for somebody, can shoot the 3, rebound, and block shots. He has a great pull-up game, and most importantly, he's a scorer. He could have a major impact on our team this year."
Iowa opens its season with five straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where it won a school-record 18 times a year ago. Iowa plays 17 home games and has a number of games on national television in primetime. McCaffery said the schedule is fan-friendly.
"It's an incredibly exciting time for Iowa basketball because we know what we're capable of," said McCaffery. "The bottom line is, we can't just talk about it, we have to go out and make it happen. We have to defend our home court and have the mental toughness to go on the road and win in this league. Our fans love the Hawkeyes and it's our responsibility to make sure we keep playing the game the right way so they can appreciate our kids. They recognize the character on our team and those are the kids they want to follow."