Fran McCaffery said before his Iowa basketball team departed for Europe earlier this month that he wasn’t sure what kind of opponents the Hawkeyes were going to face as they made their way through Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
He thought since these were billed as “all-star teams,’’ that they might be pretty good.
“But, truthfully, I won't know until we get there the quality opponents that we're playing,’’ he admitted. “We're just going to try to really, truthfully, focus on what do we have to do to get better.’’
By all appearances, these teams were comprised of stars in name only.
The Hawkeyes won their four games overseas by an average margin of 46 points. They won one of them by 69.
The game they played in Switzerland last Thursday was in a gym with wooden backboards and seating for about 100. In the group photo following that game, there is a Swiss player standing between the Hawkeyes’ two smallest players, Jordan Bohannon and Austin Ash, who appears to be no more than 5-foot-5.
They clearly weren’t playing Duke and Kansas over there.
But that doesn’t mean the voyage won’t pay dividends for the Hawkeyes once they begin playing meaningful games in November.
The level of competition doesn’t really matter. The point of these overseas trips, which college teams are allowed to take every four years, is to build camaraderie and team chemistry. You get 10 extra practices, four extra games. You get to integrate new players into your system and provide a platform for them to bond with the returning players.
“We accomplished what we wanted to in a lot of different ways,'' McCaffery said Monday after the last game. "Everybody played, we played different combinations, we had phenomenal practice sessions, and we got opportunities for our incoming freshmen to contribute in a big way.''
The Hawkeyes really achieved that last one.
In between touring Heidelberg Castle, cruising around Lake Como, seeing the Swiss Alps and eating the best lasagna ever in Bellagio, they got a vivid snapshot of what Luka Garza can do.
Garza, a 6-foot-10 freshman, was a fairly highly regarded recruit coming out of Washington D.C. But his first few games in an Iowa uniform, regardless of the level of competition, give the impression that he could be a dominating big man in the Big Ten right away.
Garza was the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer in all four games in Europe. In 75 minutes of action, he collected 90 points and 41 rebounds. (That translates to 48 points and 22 rebounds per 40 minutes.) He shot 70.8 percent from the field and 80.7 percent at the foul line.
All three of the team’s incoming recruits had some nice moments in Europe. Jack Nunge didn’t score as many points as Garza, but he had some nice moments and led the team in blocked shots. Connor McCaffery led the team in assists.
Some returning players who are question marks coming into the season, stepped up, too.
Isaiah Moss, who needs to take on a larger load offensively with Peter Jok gone, averaged 12.5 points per game and made 75 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts (12 of 16) on the trip. Even if you’re just standing alone in a gym, that’s an impressive percentage.
There’s no question that teams taking overseas trips often experience an elevated level of play in the following season.
After the Hawkeyes went to England in August 2013, they responded by landing their first NCAA tournament berth of the Fran McCaffery era in 2014.
“My experience in the past has been the teams that have had this opportunity have always gelled and played well the following year,’’ McCaffery said prior to this trip. “They just come together … That's probably as important a component of this opportunity as anything, maybe more important.’’
Bear in mind that the 2014 team that made the NCAA tournament also wore down late in the regular season, losing seven of its last eight games, and there was speculation at the time that it might have been because the players had been grinding away since August.
You can bet that if that was true, McCaffery and his staff are aware of it and will take steps to guard against it this time.
It helps that this has a chance to be the deepest team in Iowa history.
Garza, Nunge and Connor McCaffery join a roster that lost only one major contributor (Jok) from what was already a very deep team a year ago. Coach McCaffery has so many quality players that he sat out three or four of them in each game on the trip to make it easier to spread playing time around.
That’s going to make for some interesting battles once regular practice gets under way.