By John Bohnenkamp
INDIANAPOLIS — Someone referred to it as “Life Without Luka.”
Actually, it’s more like “Life Without Luka And Joe,” and it’s why Iowa isn’t ranked high in the various Big Ten preseason polls.
But, from the conversations with the Hawkeyes at Thursday’s Big Ten media day, it’s more like, “That’s Life.”
One ranking, from members of the conference media, had the Hawkeyes ninth in the 14-team league. That seems consistent with the other rankings in various publications.
It’s easy to understand. Iowa lost center Luka Garza, the program’s all-time leading scorer who was the consensus national player of the year after averaging 24.1 points and 8.7 rebounds last season. Garza and forward Joe Wieskamp, who averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 rebounds, were selected in the NBA draft.
That’s a lot of production to rebuild, but there’s also the loss of star power, the energy that made the Hawkeyes one of the must-see teams in a must-see-every-night Big Ten last season.
That you can’t make up, guard Connor McCaffery said. The first part, he said, has to be a collective effort.
“Obviously, losing them, we would like to have them back, but we weren’t really counting on them being here,” he said. “We knew we were going to be in a year when guys were going to have to step up. It’s not like you’re going to replace the national player of the year. Nobody is. So what you have to do is have other guys come together to make it up as a whole.”
This season will be an equation for the Hawkeyes. Coach Fran McCaffery, Connor’s dad, reiterated on Thursday that he knows he has a deep roster, it’s a question of who fits where, and who is going to give the Hawkeyes what.
“This is going to be a really new experience for all of us,” McCaffery said. “When you graduate the national player of the year, have two guys going to the NBA, and a team of really talented young players, all of whom are now going to be in a new role,I think that’s an exciting challenge for any coach.
“We all knew the last couple years what we were going to try to accomplish, who was playing, who was going to get the bulk of the minutes, who was going to take most of the shots. Now we have a different team. It’s a little bit smaller, but we do have length and athleticism. I think we have great depth.”
The low expectations, after a season of one big, bright spotlight, is something that can be motivation, Connor said.
“I don’t think it matters very much where you were picked. It’s where you finish up,” he said. “I think we’ll be good. We lose Luka and Weezy. But obviously we’re not worried about that.
“I think it adds another level of competitiveness every day in practice. You’re always going to get up for games, you’re always going to get up for the big days. But every day, it’s like, ‘Oh, they were picked however low. We lose two big players, what does it mean for us?’ Well, it means nothing to us. We’re still grinding every day. It’s not like anything changes. That motivational factor, though, it adds a little extra drive.”
The Hawkeyes were in a rare spot last season. This is going to be different season, a different feel.
How it ends will depend on how all of this fits.
“We’ve never been a program that’s going to have one-and-done guys, or anything like that,” Connor said. “So I think it’s always been, ‘What are you going to build on? Who is going to be experienced and replace those guys who leave?’ It’s always been that way. Obviously, you’re not replacing the national player of the year. But can you replace the production? We’ve got a lot of good players who can step in and fill roles that both of them took on. That’s how our kind of program goes.”
“We have some good young talent,” Fran McCaffery said. “Now is the time for them to step up. This league gives you that platform, gives you that opportunity. But it’s also very difficult. Every team is really good. OK, we’re eighth or ninth. I can tell you this — 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, they’re pretty good too.”
Photo: Iowa’s Connor McCaffery does a behind-the-back pass in last season’s game at Illinois. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)