IOWA CITY – It’s been a long time since expectations were this high.
But a Big 10 title?
The basketball season is still a month away, but Carver-Hawkeye Arena was full of smiles, laughter, hope and optimism Wednesday as coach Fran McCaffery and the Iowa players took to the court to take photos, answer questions, sign autographs and generally spread cheer about the upcoming season as part of Iowa men’s basketball media day.
McCaffery wasted no time in confirming to the dozens of media members that he expected his team to improve upon last year’s team that won 25 games and advanced to the finals of the National Invitational Tournament. That team also went 9-9 in the Big 10 and returns all of its key players, including 6-6 guard Devyn Marble, a preseason candidate for Big 10 Player of the Year. But the elephant in the room that went ignored by the horde of reporters quizzing McCaffery about lineups, leadership, shooting percentage and defense was can the 2013-14 Iowa Hawkeyes improve enough to win a Big 10 title for the first time since 1979.
I repeat, a Big 10 title?
“Obviously, we’d like to win a Big 10 championship,” McCaffery said when I finally cornered him. “Are we capable of doing it? Absolutely. There are a number of teams that feel the same way. It’s not like you look and say, ‘We can’t beat those teams.’ But we didn’t beat MichiganState last year, we lost to them twice by three. They were ranked No. 1. But we didn’t lose to them twice by 30. So it’s a reasonable goal.”
What’s reasonable to assume is the Hawkeyes will be improved on the court but maybe not in the standings. A tougher non-conference schedule and two games each with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State will make a 20-win season difficult but not impossible. McCaffery said the upgrade in quality opponents was by design and necessary if the program is continue to advance toward national prominence.
“When you look at our double plays this year I don’t know if it matters who we play in the non-conference,” McCaffery said about the home-and-homes with Michigan, MSU and OSU. “There’s your opportunities to beat some people. We are playing a lot of teams in the Top 10 twice.”
Another assumption that almost has to come true is that Iowa’s poor shooting will improve. The Hawkeyes were near the bottom of the country in field-goal percentage last season. Crossing your fingers and hoping that shooters like Marble, Josh Oglesby and Zach McCabe suddenly find their range can be problematic. So Iowa went out and signed freshman Peter Jok from Des Moines by way of the Sudan. Jok grew up playing soccer in Africa, and rumor has it he’s such a good shooter he can make 3-pointers with his feet. McCaffery said Jok and fellow newcomer Jarrod Uthoff will be counted on heavily to give the Hawkeyes instant offense on a team known for lockdown defense.
“Peter Jok is one of the better shooters I’ve ever coached,” McCaffery said. “Jarrod Uthoff is somebody else who can really shoot the ball. So that’s two players in addition to what we had that can really shoot the ball.”