THE MONDAY TIPOFF: Welcome Back To A Normal College Basketball Season

By John Bohnenkamp

When Iowa tips off against Longwood in Tuesday’s 9 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, it will have been 611 days since the last time the Hawkeyes played a regular-season game in front of a crowd larger than the select family members who got to see them during last season’s pandemic-altered schedule.

It’s been too long.

College basketball needed its voice back. The piped-in crowd noise just didn’t cut it last season.

I was lucky enough to get to cover games last season, and it’s a feeling I won’t forget.

There were bizarre moments — like pulling up to Western Illinois’ arena for a late January men’s basketball game and seeing the lights on at nearby Hanson Field, because the Leatherneck football team was practicing for the spring FCS season.

When you watched games, it was still basketball. And then during a stoppage of play, your vision would expand, and you realized there were so few people watching.

Some thoughts on the upcoming season:

The story lines I want to see

• It will be interesting to see how Iowa adjusts with Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp gone.

The Hawkeyes are a deep team, but Garza and Wieskamp had the star power along with the ability to score from anywhere.

Keegan Murray looks ready to play the part after a strong freshman season, but how the other parts fit is something coach Fran McCaffery will have to navigate, especially in November and December.

• Drake and Northern Iowa are poised to battle for the Missouri Valley Conference title. The amount of experience and talent returning for both is staggering.

• Western Illinois has all of the key pieces back from Rob Jeter’s first season as head coach.

Here’s why the Leathernecks will be a lot better — they’ve had a full spring and summer to work on things as a team. That’s something they didn’t get in 2020 because of COVID-19 protocols.

• Caitlin Clark was a star on the national stage for Iowa’s women’s team last season. Now she gets to do it in front of fans.

Under-the radar players

• Iowa’s Patrick McCaffery showed during Friday’s exhibition game that he’s gotten better at getting to the basket, and he’s gotten stronger. He’ll need the stamina with the minutes he’s going to get this season.

• Western Illinois’ Will Carius has played at every NCAA level of basketball in his career. Last season was about getting used to Division I play. This season is about being one of the best players in the Summit League/

• Also watch WIU guard Trenton Massner, a transfer from Northwestern State. He is a versatile player who can be a big part of the Leathernecks’ outside shooting.

• It’s hard to think that Iowa center Monika Czinano is under the radar, given that she has been an All-Big Ten pick the last two seasons. She’s either led or finish second in the nation in field-goal percentage, and is fun to watch when she gets the ball near the basket.

Games I want to see

Iowa vs. Iowa State women, Dec. 8, in Ames. Both teams could be in the top-10 in the national rankings. They also don’t like each other.

Iowa vs. Iowa State men, Dec. 9, in Ames. Jordan Bohannon’s last game at Hilton Coliseum. This one will be feisty.

Drake vs. UNI, Jan. 22 and Dec. 5. The home-and-home regular-season portion of the schedule. And you figure the two will probably meet at some point in the Valley tournament.

The last weekend of the regular season. Let’s see, I could go to the Valley men’s basketball tournament, the Summit League tournament, the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, or Iowa at Illinois in Champaign, or some combination of 2-3 of those events.

What I won’t miss from last season

Zoom calls. I want to see people face-to-face, and have actual conversations.

Artificial crowd noise. I equated it to the haunting voices of tortured souls.

COVID-19 postponements. They still could happen, but the likelihood is a lot different now.

The things I actually will miss

Quirky start times. A women’s basketball game on a weekday afternoon was fun.

• Two-game series. The Summit League and Valley experimented with two-game back-to-back series last season. It was kind of interesting seeing teams play on consecutive days.

Bold predictions

• Iowa’s men’s team makes it to the NCAA tournament.

• Iowa’s women’s team reaches the Final Four. Iowa State comes close.

• Western Illinois’ men’s and women’s teams finish in the upper half of the Summit League standings.

• Drake and UNI make the NCAA men’s tournament.

Photo: Iowa’s Joe Toussaint drives to the basket in last Friday’s exhibition game against Slippery Rock. (Shivansh Ahuja/hawkeyesports.com)

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