IOWA CITY — Fran McCaffery finds himself in a position not many Iowa basketball coaches have encountered in recent times.
He and his predecessors often have had to sit in front of reporters at preseason media day and try to whip up enthusiasm for the team they were going to put on the court that season. McCaffery now finds himself trying — at least a little — to temper the enthusiasm that surrounds the Hawkeyes.
He’s not very good at it. The truth seeps through. McCaffery, like almost everyone else, thinks he has a pretty good basketball team.
“I don't think there's any doubt that we are excited that people think enough of our team to rank us in the top 25 and project us to be in the NCAA Tournament,’’ McCaffery said Wednesday at the Hawkeyes’ media day. “That's exciting. It's an accomplishment for some of the guys who have been here and haven't had that before. But the reality is now we have to go out and do it.’’
McCaffery talked about not believing what all the experts are saying and having the maturity to cope with higher expectations.
“I just want to get better,’’ he added later while chatting with a few reporters. “Obviously, we’d like to win a Big Ten championship. Are we capable of doing it? Absolutely. A number of other teams feel the same way … But it’s a reasonable goal.’’
So much for tempering enthusiasm.
There are reasons the expectations are high. The Hawkeyes won 25 games last season — including a school-record 18 wins at home — and narrowly missed making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. They then launched an impressive run that carried them all the way to the championship game of the NIT.
That closing rush — combined with the return of all but one player, the addition of sharpshooting freshman Peter Jok and versatile transfer Jarrod Uthoff, and the added benefit of a European trip in August — has projections for this season rising.
No one is picking the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten title, but almost everyone has them penciled into the NCAA Tournament. That includes the players themselves.
“I wouldn’t say it’s NCAA Tournament or bust,’’ junior center Gabe Olaseni said. “But once you set making the NCAA Tournament as a goal, it’s kind of a letdown if you don’t get there. I wouldn’t say it would be a bust. But I feel we’re so focused on making the NCAA Tournament that we’re going to do it.’’
McCaffery believes he has more depth and firepower than on any other team he’s ever coached. He has at least 11 players he is comfortable throwing into any game at almost any time.
Senior Devyn Marble, who he said will definitely start at point guard this season, is being talked about as a Big Ten player of the year candidate. McCaffery said junior Aaron White has “superstar’’ capabilities. He said sophomore center Adam Woodbury has been “the most impressive player on the team since the start of practice.’’ He referred to Jok as “one of the best shooters I’ve ever been around,’’ and he had similar superlatives for Uthoff, Olaseni, Mike Gesell, Zach McCabe and others.
“It’s nice that people expect a lot from us, but we kind of have expectations of our own,’’ Woodbury said.
Marble said he and his teammates should embrace the expectations as they gear up for their Nov. 8 season opener with UNC-Wilmington.
“That’s all you can do is embrace it,’’ he said. “Embrace it and then just play with confidence. Don’t worry about what other people are saying and what they’re talking about. Just do what you do. As a team, I think we’ve done that very well.’’
Sophomore Anthony Clemmons also likes the heightened expectations.
“To be in that situation is just unbelievable,’’ he said. “We’re just fighting every day in practice to get better and better. We want to look in the mirror every day and say we got better. That’s how we’re going to roll this year.’’