The say corn is king in Iowa. Well, for this year's Iowa Hawkeyes, experience is king.
The Hawkeyes are the most experienced team in the Big Ten, returning four players who started 30 or more games last season and a total of 12 players from a team that won 25 games a year ago. And nine of those returning are upperclassmen. Breaking in newcomers, getting the team to gel. These are not problems Fran McCaffery has.
"Obviously we're very optimistic about this year's team," the Iowa head coach said at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween, "recognize the position we're in and welcome the challenge. I've not had a team in my entire career that is this deep."
The wealth of returning players for the Hawkeyes is one reason many are picking them to finish near the top of the conference. That and a strong finish a year ago, one that saw them win seven of their last 10 conference games and then barnstorm through the NIT, finishing runners up to Baylor.
The team's five top scorers are all back, led by senior guard Roy Devyn Marble and junior forward Aaron White, who combined to average 27.8 points last season. White was also the team's leading rebounder, hauling in an average of 6.2 boards per game, though 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury could challenge that mark.
McCaffery is one of many expecting bigger things for the Hawkeyes in 2013-14. He says everyone has improved, and he expects a more "well-rounded" offensive team to go along with the strong defense Iowa showed last year.
"You know, it's interesting. You look at our team last year, and clearly you look at the defensive numbers and you see that's why we won 25 games. The offensive numbers would not equate to that number," McCaffery said.
"I think what you'll see is a much more well-rounded offensive team, and I think we'll shoot the ball just fine."
The leader will be Deyn Marble, who with his play could be the difference in the Hawkeyes becoming one of the Big Ten's better teams.
"I think it's critical for our team that he do exactly what you just said: Take another step forward," McCaffery said. "The thing about him is he will put the time in to make that happen. Incredibly hard worker. And that's how he worked his way out of the slump he was in midway through last season. He got back in the gym. He came early. He got extra shots up. Really studied film, and he's a student of the game. And I think at this point he's feeling really good about himself. ... He's been practicing extremely well. He's been very consistent. And that's what we need from him this year."
Iowa finished 22-12 last season with a 9-9 record in Big Ten play. McCaffery and many others are expecting those numbers to go up this season. Last year, the Hawkeyes finished a strong 11-2 in non-conference play, but they were tripped up right out of the gate thanks to a Big Ten gauntlet, losing three straight games to ranked Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State teams. Iowa made it to the NIT for the second year in a row and made it all the way to the championship game, falling to Baylor.
At the helm
It's the fourth year under Fran McCaffery in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes have been making steady and quick improvement. McCaffery's three records with Iowa: 11-20 (4-14), 18-17 (8-10), 25-13 (9-9). It's the same type of improvement he showed at Siena, where he spent the five years prior to joining the Hawkeyes. He took Siena to three consecutive conference championships and three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
Departed and returned
The tremendous amount of returning players means Iowa didn't lose much. In fact only one of the now ex-Hawkeyes, Eric May, averaged more than one point per game. It's the returners that have expectations for this team. Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury all started 30 games or more last season, and then there's plenty of depth past them, including two more who started 13 or more games.
Here's McCaffery on White:
"He's our second-leading returning scorer. You would not have looked at him as a defensive presence as a freshman. More of a steals guy who could rebound. But now you're seeing somebody who really understands the game and can impact the game defensively and offensively. Truly understands how to win."
Newcomers include freshman guard Peter Jok and transfer Jarrod Uthoff, who joins the Hawkeyes from conference rival Wisconsin.
The Hawkeyes are playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, with other participating teams including Xavier and Tennessee. They'll get Notre Dame (ranked to open the season) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and then see in-state rivals Drake and Iowa State before the end of non-conference play.
McCaffery has things looking up in Iowa City. The trajectory he's had his team on is almost sure to land it in the Big Dance this season, and his stocked arsenal of returning players certainly helps, too. If his roster loaded with upper classmen can learn and improve from that experience, Iowa can make some noise in the Big Ten.
McCaffery's squad already has one win, topping UNC-Wilmington, 82-39, in the season opener. Next up is Nebraska-Omaha on Sunday.
This is the seventh in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.