IOWA CITY — The preseason prognostications for the Big Ten basketball season are beginning to trickle out and most of them aren’t very flattering for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
For example, one of the first polls, from Athlon Magazine, has Iowa picked to finish ninth in the 14-team Big Ten. It’s pretty much what you would expect for a team that lost four senior starters who started nearly 400 games in their combined careers and which has only three juniors and seniors on the roster, one of whom has played only 78 minutes in his Division I career and is coming off a knee surgery.
Those are the external expectations. But the Hawkeyes players who stepped onto the court for their preseason media day Wednesday have their sights set much higher than ninth place.
“Everybody sleeps on us every year and we always surprise them so it’s not any different this year,’’ senior guard Peter Jok said. “I expect us to be better than last year and go deeper than we did last year.’’
Bear in mind, the Hawkeyes have won 22 games each of the past two seasons and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament each time.
The 6-foot-6 Jok, who last season became the first Iowa non-senior in 20 years to average more than 16 points per game, is the only regular back from those teams. That means returning reserves such as Dom Uhl, Nicholas Baer, Ahmad Wagner and Christian Williams need to take a major step up and a seven-player freshman class led by 6-9, 253-pound Tyler Cook needs to make immediate contributions.
Head coach Fran McCaffery thinks it will happen. He loves the freshmen and said all of his returning players have improved “noticeably.’’
“But what you have to do now is you've got to do it in the games,’’ he added. “You've got to do it when the TV lights come on. You've got to do it when the TV lights come on on the road. Then you've got to do it consistently, and that's the hardest thing. That's the journey and I think that's the fun of it, but it's the challenge, as well, and there could be bumps in the road.’’
The Hawkeyes just began practicing over the weekend and McCaffery said he already can see that one of his big problems might be narrowing his 13 scholarship players down to a 10 or 11-man rotation.
“A lot of times you get to this point and you look and say ‘OK, well, these three guys are definitely not playing,’’’ McCaffery said. “I don't have that with this team. Everybody is doing good things, scoring the ball and playing smart. I don't have a mistake-maker. I don't have a guy who's confused every day. I don't have a guy who's out of shape.
“So we've got stiff competition for what minutes are available, and there's a lot of minutes available. They're going after them.’’
McCaffery said there won’t be major changes in what the Hawkeyes do on the court even with a fairly drastic turnover in talent.
He no longer has a 7-footer — Cook, Uhl and freshman Ryan Kriener are the tallest players on the roster at 6-9 — but he said this team is actually longer and better equipped to defend the post than his past teams.
And he said the array of versatility and athleticism on this team may make for an even more up-tempo pace. Gone are the days of a player grabbing a defensive rebound and automatically funneling the ball to a point guard.
“This year when we get rebounds we’re just gone,’’ Wagner said. “All of us can dribble, all of us can handle the ball. When we get rebounds, everybody is just taking off.
“It’s what coach wants to do,’’ he added. “He always stresses that we’re a running team and we want to get up and down. This year we’re extremely athletic and extremely fast so you’re going to see a lot of showtime stuff this year. Especially with guys like Tyler. He can jump out of the gym so you’re going to see a show.’’
Cook, a top-100 recruit out of St. Louis’ Chaminade Prep, became an immediate fan favorite for the spectacular plays he made in the Prime Time League during the summer and already is drawing rave reviews from others in the program.
Jok said the youngster has the quickest first step he has ever seen. McCaffery said he has the highest “ceiling’’ of any player he has recruited.
“We expect nothing but greatness from ourselves,’’ Cook said when asked about his own expectations for the team. “We’ve got a lot of tools, a lot of versatility, a lot of athletes, a lot of shooters. We see the potential in ourselves, but we’ve got to make it happen. Seeing what we have on the team has just kind of set the bar for itself.’’