Eyeing the Future: Iowa Basketball

The 2008-2009 Iowa Men's basketball season is in the books, coming to an unceremonious ending last week in the Big Ten tournament, as the Hawkeyes were hardly competitive against Michigan. In the span of five days, Iowa fans were taken on a roller coaster ride of emotion. HN.com Publisher Jon Miller takes a look ahead to the 2009-2010 season.

The 2008-2009 Iowa Men's basketball season is in the books, coming to an unceremonious ending last week in the Big Ten tournament, as the Hawkeyes were hardly competitive against Michigan.

In the span of five days, the sentiment on Iowa Hawkeye message boards and in coffee shops all across the Hawkeye state turned from a tone of optimism for the future back to uncertainty in the minds of many.  Or perhaps, it's just a vocal miniority.  Even if that is the case, this item will be read by optimists & pessimists, with each side claiming they are the realists. 

Here is some food for thought to chew on as the Hawkeyes enter their seven month off season.

STRENGTH:  We heard Todd Lickliter comment on strength numerous times this year.  He felt like the Hawkeyes didn't have enough of it, and that they would focus on this area once the season was finished.  The season is over, and it wouldn't surprise me if Coach Lick handed out strength and conditioning schedules the minute the team got off the bus.

A lack of strength is not the only reason Iowa struggled this year, but it was one of them.  With the exception of Jarryd Cole and Matt Gatens, most of the Iowa players look like they have high school bodies, and that has never boded well for playing in the Big Ten, that is as rough and tumble as it has ever been.

Anthony Tucker has had a head start in the weight room, being that he has been ineligible since the start of the second semester.  From all accounts, he has been lifting hard four days a week, and he will now be joined by his teammates.

Jake Kelly, Aaron Fuller, Devan Balwinkel and Andrew Brommer need to get real familiar with protein shakes, extra calorie diets and simple American steel.

KEY LOSSES:  Cyrus Tate and J.R. Angle are Iowa's two seniors who will not be back.  Tate got off to a slow start this year and then suffered an injury to his ankle against Minnesota on January 8th, Iowa's third league game of the year.  He never returned to full strength, although he gutted things out in Iowa's overtime win against Penn State. 

When Tate was 100 percent, he was one of the more formidable defensive bodies in the league, taking up space and using his feet well, putting his 250 pound frame between himself and the goal.  He was also close to dominant at times offensively, as we saw over the final third of his junior year and this season against Indiana in Iowa's second conference game.  The Hawkeyes do not have anyone on the team or anyone coming in that can duplicate what Tate brought to the table.  Cole could come close next year, but it might take another year of seasoning for that.  David Palmer isn't as physical as Tate and doesn't set screens or play defense in the same vein.  Incoming freshman Brennan Cougill is going to need a few years of work in the weight room before his defense can get up to a solid Big Ten level.

Angle was a solid teammate and gave his all in practice day in and day out, realizing that he wasn't likely going to see the court.  With 13 scholarship players, not everyone can play and each team will have players like Angle.  It's not a given that they will contribute hard each day and be a benefit to a program the way that Angle was with his commitment in practice.

WHAT IOWA RETURNS:  Being that Tate was on the shelf for much of this season, his ‘points per game' and ‘rebounds per game' numbers are a bit misleading, as are Tucker's.

In looking at the total season, total points scored and total rebounds, here is what Iowa returns as a percentage of their entire numbers:

SCORING:  The Hawkeyes return 92.5% of the points they scored this year

REBOUNDING:  The Hawkeyes return 85.7% of their rebounding totals from this year.

Iowa scored 1927 points this year.  Take away Tate and Angle's totals leaves you with 92.5%.  That amounts to just shy of 56 points per game.  I used the same formulas for the rebounding, and that amounts to just shy of 25 rebounds per game. 

Iowa was the second lowest scoring team in the league this past year and they were 7th in rebounding margin, so there is certainly room for improvement on both ends.  And while Iowa will certainly be an improved team next year, so will the majority of the teams in the league. 

However, I am of the opinion that outside of Indiana, no other team in the league has as much ‘upside potential' as does Iowa with regards to wins in the conference.  Indiana had just one, so they could win five more games and that would be exponential improvement.  Iowa won five games, and I believe they have three to five more wins in them for next year.  One could argue they could have won another three games this year had Tucker been available, what with all of the close league losses they had.  Then again, you could also point out that three of Iowa's five wins came in overtime, and those games could have gone the other way, too. 

Projecting how players will improve from a statistical point of view is challenging to do, but we can take a look at a few conservative numbers here to see what might be in store for a few Iowa players in the 2009-2010 season.

Jake Kelly:  He came on strong, averaging right at 20 points per game over his final eight games of the season.  Kelly is going to be Iowa's point guard next year, as there is no way that genie can go back into the bottle.  A bigger question will be just what kind of offensive sets Iowa will go with, as to get the most out of the skill set each player brings to the court.  Iowa definitely loosened things up with Kelly at the point, after Jeff Peterson went down, and Kelly flourished.  On the year, Kelly wound up averaging 11.6 points per game.  Say he averages 14 per game next year.

Matt Gatens:  Gatens averaged 10.8 points per game for Iowa this year, and was a steady contributor throughout the season.  Gatens may not have the ‘upside potential' that several of his teammates have, but that isn't at put down; he arrived on campus ready to play at the Big Ten level.  That being said, there are refinements to his game that can be made that will impact his ability to put the ball in the basket.  One of those will be working on how to finish at the rim, either by putting the ball in the hole or at least getting it to the rim without being blocked, or by getting to the free throw line more often.  That is all about body control, and not drifting parallel to the lane, which gives an opponent the advantage and takes the whistle out of the mouth of an official.  Gatens needs to attack the rim in a more perpendicular fashion, to draw contact and get to the line where he is lethal.  I could see him averaging 13 points per game next year.

Jeff Peterson:  His minutes are likely to go down, and his scoring average of 10.6 points per game will probably back off as well.  But Coach Lickliter said a few weeks back that he ideally would like to have three ‘point guards' on the floor at the same time, so there is definitely going to be a home for Peterson in a six or seven man rotation.  I still believe that his best basketball is ahead of him, as he hasn't been healthy for his two-year career.  Let's go with 8 points per game.

Anthony Tucker:  Tucker burst onto the scene knocking down treys and putting some big numbers on the board in his first 10 games or so.  But a bout of mononucleosis slowed him down, and then a lack of focus in the classroom was the kill shot for his freshman year.  In the 14 games he played in, he made 38 three pointers, or 2.7 per game. Four or five of those games were played when he was sick, so he was not being used much.  He scored 145 points in those 14 games, which is more than Jermain Davis, Jarryd Cole and Aaron Fuller scored for the entire season.  That's also just 10 fewer points than Balwinkel scored for the year, and his 38 trey's were just eight fewer than Jake Kelly made this season. 

One has to think that he is going to be a much more focused individual after this experience.  He realizes more than anyone else just how much he let his teammates down, yet they have been very supportive of him all winter long.  He is still very much a part of the team and his work in the weight room should pay dividends.  Let's give him 10 points per game in looking ahead to next year.

In those four backcourt players, we are at 45 points per game.

Jarryd Cole:  Cole finally returned to his pre-ACL form by the end of the year, and he should start the 2009-2010 season at full strength, physically and mentally.  He has a Big Ten body, and some more work on some moves in the paint will be a big help for him this offseason.  Remember, he was unable to do much of anything between January and September last year, which is a crucial time for player development.  The old golf saying goes that you cannot improve your game on the course, it has to be done on the driving range.  Basically, Cole was not allowed on the driving range for one full year.  That will have a big impact.  I see no reason why he can't be a 7 point per game scorer. 

Devan Balwinkel:  Balwinkel wound up playing a ton of minutes down the stretch.  If Todd Lickliter would speak to this, he would probably say that he never imagined Devan playing that many minutes per game.  Next year, he won't have to and he can be a spot up role player off the bench, getting about 18 minutes per game or so, and scoring 5 points per contest.     

Aaron Fuller:  I am real eager to see what a year in the weight room can do for Fuller, because he showed flashes of amazing upside potential this year.  He has some decent ball handling skills and the beginnings of a solid outside shooting game to build upon.  Plus, he is one of the more athletically gifted players on the team.  He is a real wildcard and therefore it's hard to project what he can do.  I can see him being a 5ppg scorer, all the way up to an 8 or 9.  Let's go the conservative route with 5 points per game, which is just one more than he averaged this year.  He will score more than that, but I don't want to go overboard on some of these numbers.

David Palmer:  Palmer showed that he can put the ball in the basket, getting 40 points over two games against Purdue and Wisconsin.  After that, he pretty much disappeared back into the Hawkeye bench.  He has a lot of work to do on the physical side of the game, plus he is not the best screener in the world, a must under Todd Lickliter.  But he showed us some flash, and he is also hard to project for next year.  Say he gets 4 points per game, but we know it could be more. 

If I stop here, I am at 66 points per game.  Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota and Penn State averaged between 69.6ppg and 66.0ppg game this past season.  Iowa averaged 60.2. 

If you think these projections are unrealistic to the high side, then this wasn't much for you to read.  If you think these projections were on the low side, then perhaps you may be more optimistic when thinking about the future.

This team will need to continue to work on decreasing the number of turnovers it commits; the Hawks averaged 12.5, and I think they can get that number down to 11 for next year.  Then again, if the offense is less rigid, perhaps there will be the same number of turnovers but more point production.  Iowa's 12.5 turnovers per game was 7th in the league, and just a tenth of a turnover per game more than Illinois.  Three team's were in the 11's and two were in the 10's, with Wisconsin #1 at 10.1 turnovers per game.

This program is not going to be a rebounding force under Todd Lickliter.  They commit guards to drop back on the offensive side of things as to not give up easy baskets in transition, but they do commit all five to the defensive glass.  Iowa was 3rd in the Big Ten in fewest opponents rebounds allowed this year, a fact that might surprise you as it did me. 

As I said earlier, and as has been discussed on the message boards, the Big Ten is not going to be any easier next year.  Seven teams were invited to the NCAA tournament with Penn State getting its bubble burst on Selection Sunday.  The league will be tougher next season, in all likelihood. 

This year, Michigan State was the lone team from the league to get a top four seed in the big dance.  Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State will all be capable of making that jump next year.  Early entries to the NBA could affect a few teams, namely Ohio State.  Penn State loses Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle, so their star will not shine so brightly.  But 26 of the top 29 scorers in the league are non-seniors. 

Taking that into account, I still believe Iowa has a chance to make big strides next year in the win column, big enough strides to at least be in the NCAA bubble discussion, but certainly a team that gets an NIT bid. 

If they get an NIT bid, I think that is progress in year three for Todd Lickliter.  Anything less than that, and there will be some red flags. 

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