When it all came to an end at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, Fran McCaffery couldn’t bring himself to feel completely awful about Iowa’s worst basketball season in seven years.
“I wouldn’t describe it in a negative way,’’ the Hawkeyes’ head coach told reporters, “although I think we have to admit we didn’t win as many games as we thought we would. We have to readily admit that.’’
A team generally picked to finish anywhere from fourth to ninth in the Big Ten ended up tied for 11th and with the No. 12 seed in the conference tournament. It tied a school record for most conference losses in a season (14).
It went 1-10 on the road and had a four-game losing streak early in the season, a three-game skid in the middle of the season and a six-game slide late in the season.
It ranked 250th in the country in defensive efficiency and allowed the second most points per game in Big Ten play of any team in the past couple of decades.
Other than perhaps Minnesota, which battled injuries and one very big suspension, no Big Ten team underachieved more radically than the Hawkeyes.
Yeah, there was plenty of negative.
But McCaffery said he has a hard time going into next season not feeling positive.
“The season did not go as we hoped, no question,’’ he said. “The thing for me that I look at is: Are they grinding every day? Are they connected to one another? Do they care about each other? Are they accepting coaching?’’
McCaffery felt his young team did all of the above.
He loved the fact that the players never quit and actually did something most of his good Iowa teams did not, winning a game in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes almost won two, taking an NCAA tournament-bound Michigan team into overtime on Thursday.
“A lot of guys developed, a lot of guys got better,’’ McCaffery added. “They just came to work every day and we just kept grinding as best we could. I’m really optimistic moving forward with the character we have in that locker room.’’
It’s easy to see why he’s optimistic. Barring unforeseen roster changes, the Hawkeyes will return 99.6 of their scoring for next season. The only two seniors on the team combined to score 11 points.
The sophomore class accounted for 66.8 percent of the points and the freshmen got 22.7 percent.
Then you add in Muscatine’s Joe Wieskamp, the most ballyhooed high school recruit of the McCaffery era, and another solid backcourt recruit, C.J. Fredrick, and Connor McCaffery, who played in only four games while battling assorted injuries and illnesses in a lost freshman season.
Many of us expect Wieskamp to step right in and start at the small forward position, which was sort of a revolving door of under-performance this season. Connor McCaffery should be a more-than-adequate backup point guard.
It adds up to what appears, on paper, to be a very deep and skilled basketball team.
Then again, this season’s team looked very good on paper, too. Analysts and commentators constantly marveled at the fact that this team didn’t win more games than it did. There was a clear disconnect between the talent and the results.
It might just have been that this team lacked experience and senior leadership.
That excuse won’t be available next season. All those sophomores will be juniors and there should be at least a couple of contributing seniors on the roster.
Of course, there’s always the chance that not everyone from this team will be back.
There have been rumors all season that leading scorer Tyler Cook might choose to enter the NBA draft or transfer to Missouri, where several of his buddies play.
Cook swatted down one of those ideas Friday on Twitter, stating: “I have no desire to transfer to Missouri. I have nothing but love and respect for that program and the people there, but going to Mizzou was never the plan.’’
But when asked following Thursday’s loss to Michigan if he would be back at Iowa next season, he was more evasive.
“Only God knows,’’ he said.
If you believe the rumor mill, there is another Iowa player who could depart as a graduate transfer and another who might contemplate switching to football.
McCaffery admitted that in the uncertain world of college basketball, roster turnover is inevitable.
He also indicated he might consider taking a graduate transfer from another school to add some experience to his roster although at the moment he doesn’t have a vacant scholarship.
“It’s hard to talk about hypotheticals,’’ he said.
He was similarly non-committal when asked about possible changes in his coaching staff, which has remained intact for his entire tenure at Iowa.
“I hope one of them gets a head coaching job,’’ McCaffery said. “If that’s the case, then they’ll be gone.’’
If one does leave, maybe he should follow the football model and hire a defensive coordinator.
That’s the biggest thing that stood between this season’s team being 14-19 and possibly contending for an NCAA tournament berth.
If the Hawkeyes can just make marked improvements in that area, there really is cause for optimism.
WHAT WENT WRONG WITH HAWKEYES THIS SEASON
• When opponents got rolling, the Hawkeyes often seemed powerless to do anything about it. There were 20 instances during the season in which they allowed opponents to reel off 10 or more consecutive points. Sixteen of those sprees came when the Hawkeyes were ahead, tied or behind by three points or less. Not surprisingly, 16 of them also came in losses.
• Too often, they dug themselves big holes in games, especially on the road. They had 14 games in which they trailed by 17 or more points — including every Big Ten road game — and there were nine games in which they trailed by 20 or more.
• They turned the ball over a lot. They finished 313th in the country in turnover margin (minus 2.3) and seemed to hand the ball over to the opposition in bunches at times. They had 10 games in which they committed 17 turnovers although they got better in that area as the season progressed. Only two of those 17-plus games occurred in the final 13 games of the season and they actually won one of those games.
• Their defense generally was pretty awful. They ranked 318th in the country in scoring defense, 286th in field goal percentage defense and are 250th in the defensive efficiency rankings assembled by analytics expert Ken Pomeroy.
• The 3-point defense was especially bad and it seemed to get worse as the season progressed, perhaps because they began playing more zone defense. In each of the last two home games, an opposing player tied the Carver-Hawkeye Arena record for 3-pointers in a game (9) and earlier in the season Purdue set a Big Ten record by making 20 3s against the Hawkeyes.
WHAT WENT RIGHT WITH HAWKEYES THIS SEASON
• Sophomore Jordan Bohannon continued to be very productive offensively, becoming the first NCAA Division I player in 25 years to have 80-plus 3-point field goals and 150-plus assists in each of his first two seasons. Bohannon’s 96 3s were the second most in Iowa history, he shot 90.4 percent at the foul line and the only free throw he missed in the last two months was one he clanked on purpose to avoid breaking Chris Street’s consecutive free throw record.
• Sophomore Tyler Cook emerged as a top-level Big Ten player, averaging 15.3 points per game and showing improvement in almost every aspect of the game. He had more than twice as many assists as in his freshman season, nearly twice as many blocked shots and shot higher percentages from both the field and the foul line.
• The Hawkeyes did a great job of sharing the basketball offensively, finishing fourth in the nation in assists per game and tying the school record of 602 assists they set last season. They registered assists on 63.6 percent of their made field goals.
• They showed a penchant for playing very well in the second half of games, often after digging a big hole early. They scored 50 or more points in the second half eight times although they went only 4-4 in those games. They scored 63 points in the last 20 minutes of their second meeting with Minnesota and 61 in the second half Wednesday against Illinois.
• Freshman center Luka Garza evolved into a major force, averaging 12.1 points and 6.4 assists despite not starting in seven games. He scored in double figures in each of the last six games of the season, averaging 17.7 points per game over that stretch. His 211 rebounds are an Iowa record for a freshman and his 400 points are the fourth best ever.