A national ranking, more awards — and it’s just fine for McCaffery and Hawkeyes

By John Bohnenkamp

Luka Garza was named the Big Ten’s men’s basketball preseason player of the year Monday morning. No surprise.

A few hours later, Iowa was No. 5 when the Associated Press preseason poll was released. No surprise.

At some point, there is going to be a college basketball season — the Hawkeyes and every other Division I team can open on November 25, although no schedule has been released yet.

When the season arrives, there will be high expectations on Garza and Iowa.

Fine, coach Fran McCaffery said on Monday during his press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. His players know what’s coming, and hey, that’s what this is all about.

“I think you have to embrace it,” McCaffery said. “You have to enjoy it. I think they do. But they also understand it and respect it. You see some of the great teams — what did we have, seven (Big Ten teams) in the top 25? So I think there’s a tremendous respect on behalf of our players for the rest of the conference, but then also there’s other teams on that list that we’re going to be playing that aren’t in our conference.

“We know what’s before us, but I think that’s the fun of it essentially.”

In a world where there is still a pandemic, getting a full season and an NCAA Tournament in is going to be quite an accomplishment. There is going to be nothing normal about what is ahead.

The Hawkeyes are set for a 27-game schedule. No. 1 Gonzaga is going to be on it. So is No. 16 North Carolina. Iowa State should be there. A full 20-game Big Ten schedule.

How it all looks is yet to be determined, so right now all there is are expectations.

Iowa went 20-11 last season, 11-9 in the Big Ten. Garza was the national player of the year by six national news outlets, breaking the program’s single-season scoring record with 740 points.

The Hawkeyes have seven players back with starting experience. The five who finished last season as starters — Garza, CJ Fredrick, Joe Toussaint, Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp — are back. Jordan Bohannon, a fifth-year senior, and Jack Nunge, in his fourth season in the program, also return.

In all, the eight returning Hawkeyes — Patrick McCaffery missed most of last season with health issues — have combined for more than 11,000 minutes, making this one of the more experienced rosters in the nation.

That’s going to be important in a season that looks like it will have so many changes of direction.

“I really think it’s important that when you have older guys that have proven that they can be successful at this level, and we have one, the challenge is, ‘Can we win more?'” Fran McCaffery said. “Can we win more against a tougher schedule?That’s what competition is. 

“I just think it’s foolish to kind of create any kind of guise that we’re going to … we’re not going to be as good, I got this guy hurt, I got that guy hurt, there’s not going to be any crowd, it’s going it be a weird year, the game might get canceled at the last minute. You know what, we’re going to show up and play, and we’re going to be ready to play whoever shows up to play against us, and if the game against canceled then we’ll prepare to play the next game. It’s going to be a goofy year. It is. But we have a good basketball team. We have really good players. We have character on this team.”

McCaffery detailed the challenges his team has faced since the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. The team got back on campus in the summer, only to have several players fall ill with the COVID-19 virus. The Hawkeyes have dealt with the quarantines and the tests and the uncertainties.

“I think we’ve got sort of a singular focus on what’s in front of us, and I think our guys have for the most part made good decisions off the floor, and that’s absolutely critical,” McCaffery said. “But you would expect that from a mature group, especially guys that have character.”

The expectations and challenges are coming.

“At the end of the day, that’s what they signed up for,” McCaffery said. “You come to the Big Ten, you want to take on the big boys. We’re scheduling the No. 1 ranked team in the country preseason, and we’re going to play them on CBS. That’s why you come to Iowa, because you want that competition and you want that challenge. 

“I think, like I said earlier, you embrace it and you enjoy it. You don’t run from it.”

Photo: Luka Garza (left) and Joe Wieskamp were the Iowa players named to the preseason All-Big Ten team. (Hawkeyesports.com)

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