Basketball has always held more magic for me. The spontaneity, creativity, and flow of the sport have always appealed to me aesthetically more-so than football. College basketball and the NBA are my favorite domestic sports leagues, with the NFL and college football off in the distance. As much as I love being a Hawkeye, however, college basketball has been ruined in Iowa City for me as of late.
More than anything else, I often wonder where the basketball program would be right now if not for those Lickliter teams. Alford had the program heading in a decent direction, but it was clear he had worn out his welcome in town. The Sweet Shootin’ Hoosier was never really a Hawkeye, he simply coached
them. When Lickliter came to town, it’s as if the program imploded. Player transfers, internal disputes, poor recruiting, player transfers, decreased attendance, lack of enthusiasm, PLAYER TRANSFERS; all these things combined to lead to an awful product on the court.
Much in the same way as Alford, Lickliter was never truly a favorite of our beloved Hawkeye faithful. He was a necessary stopover in the arc of Iowa Basketball; a switch from the jerk holier-than-thou image Alford brought to Iowa. He knew his place in that basketball was a second-fiddle to the football team; however, try as he might (and sometimes, it legitimately looked like he was not trying on the sideline), he never really found his groove with the team. Players left, losses mounted, the team looked listless and, frankly, seemed to take the coach’s lead in not caring about results. The “wear-down-the-shot-clock-before-jacking-up-a-long-contested-3” offense that Lickliter espoused, somehow, always seemed destined to fail in the Big Ten.
Enter McCaffery. His style of coaching (we’re going to run you up and down the floor and pressure you every chance we get) seems to be getting results. Left with talent that many would consider on par with the Purdue or Michigan State JV squad (which might even be pushing it), McCaffery has the Hawks at 5-4 and with their first winning streak in far too long. More than that, the team has looked competitive against squads the Lickliter teams would have rolled over and died against. White Magic, as he was known in his playing days, seems to have instilled some of his competitive fire into his players.
The new players under McCaffery have shown that they could become strong Big Ten performers in the future. Melsahn Basabe is a beast of a freshman on the boards; in conjunction with Jarryd Cole they form a strong, formidable (if short) starting frontcourt. You get the sense that while they will be undersized in many games, they will give up few easy buckets and will compete night in and night out. Cartwright brings the kind of fire and fight you want from a starting point guard at any level. In the game against Wake Forest, which Iowa would go on to lose, he grabbed the team by the scruff of the neck in the middle of the second half and forced them to put up a fight that with a Wake Forest team that had woken itself up at home and was mounting a tremendous comeback. While Iowa would eventually lose, Cartwright has shown the type of on-court leadership and initiative the team has frankly lacked in recent years. While I personally am not sold on Zach McCabe, I see the value he could bring to this team in the future with his ability to space the floor and rebound. At 6’7, he could make for a very valuable wing player in the future.
The returning players are reaping the benefits of the new system and intensity as well. Eric May looks as if he could become a flat-out stud player in the next two years. Baseball has what is known as a ‘Five-Tool Player’ (a player with good speed, defense, a good arm, and the ability to hit for power and hit for contact). That sort of analysis can be applied to basketball as well. This idea of a basketball five-tool player is championed by fantake.com, who state that a Five-tool Player in this sense is one who is capable of “attacking off of the dribble, knocking down jump shots, defending a position on the floor, passing, and rebounding”. Eric May has all five of these tools and he is capable of using them all with nearly equal efficiency. As a 6’5” guard, he rebounds rather well. He has developed a handle since coming to Iowa and has shown the ability to guard his man and knock down jump shots when called upon. Matt Gatens has these tools as well, but he is recovering from both a wrist injury to his non-shooting hand and the mental funk that comes with being a survivor of the Lickliter Days.
Even Andrew Brommer, he who was once regarded as the worst player on the floor regardless of the opposition has experienced a renaissance in the new McCaffery system. Sporting a spiffy new shooting sleeve that doesn’t look awkward at all, he has shown the ability to run the floor and finish at the rim. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he and Devon Archie bring some much needed height and reach to the 5 position. While the rest of the roster is a bunch of walk-ons, they’ve shown the ability to play at least a little bit when called upon.
While this is still a team that is likely to languish in the Big Ten basement, they’ve shown the kind of competitive spirit and heart that has become the calling card of Fran McCaffery’s Siena teams. He has the program headed in the right direction already, and that alone is enough to have me excited about the future of Iowa basketball. It’s time to get mad again, Iowa.