WASHINGTON, D.C. — It would be a fool’s errand to ask a college basketball coach in October where his team stacks up and expect an answer that’s fully formed — teams are a little busy with themselves right now.
But what the coaches at Big Ten men’s basketball media day could do was use history as a barometer for what it will take to compete.
The coaches know who is back, they know who they’re coaching against and they know their schedule. They’ve got to know themselves best, though, to know if they’ll have a chance to compete for a Big Ten championship.
“I already know how good this league is top to bottom, and at this day, every year, every coach says that. But it is really good, top bottom,” McCaffery said. “I think what we have right now is a very confident group for being so young. The critical thing is going to be as you go through the journey — and we all know it’s a difficult journey — can we sustain that when we have bumps in the road? And that’s where the leadership comes in.”
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said during his news conference at media day Thursday that Wisconsin is likely the prohibitive favorite, thanks in large part to the Badgers losing the least from a team that went 22-13 and made it to a third straight Sweet 16. But he also pointed out teams like Illinois and Michigan theoretically won’t be dealing with the same number of injuries as a season ago.
McCaffery echoed that thinking, but added that each year there are a few unknowns who pop up and make some noise come Big Ten time. Northwestern, McCaffery said, was a team that went 20-12 last year and returns a ton, yet isn't in the conversation.
Iowa hasn’t really been either this year, especially after losing Jarrod Uthoff, but McCaffery said the Hawkeyes weren’t much of a topic of conversation a year ago, either.
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“It’s funny, they didn’t talk a lot about us last year, because we had so many question marks after the four seniors,” McCaffery said. “I’m not as concerned about it. The focus is on putting it together.”
With the top half of the Big Ten each — on paper, with returners and new additions — looking solid to either stay very good or improve, the margin for error, then, is “no different for any team,” McCaffery said.
All the standard requirements apply as usual: effective execution, shooting consistently, controlling the boards. Where the Hawkeyes play in the margins will be combining all those things, while also playing at a faster pace and with a larger rotation. McCaffery said having enough “pop” offensively is always a question with a young team, and what remains to be seen is “who else will hit multiple 3s in a game; who else will be a post presence.”
Iowa has those pieces, and McCaffery said he likes their chances of finding guys to do that. Senior Dale Jones, who with Peter Jok were the player representatives for Iowa at media day, said everyone finding their role within what McCaffery laid out will determine the size of the margins the Hawkeyes get to play in.
“It’s knowing our roles. We’ve got a lot of guys who want to do great things for the team, and it’s all for a good cause, but we have to figure out what our role is and put that together to be a great team,” Jones said. “We have a lot of guys who will have to step in and fill (departed) roles and take care of all those actions.”
Offense gets most of the buzz because defense isn’t as flashy, but McCaffery gave a knowing nod when asked about replacing Adam Woodbury and Anthony Clemmons defensively. The subtle differences in each team that those two could read now have to be read by guys who haven’t had that role in the past.
Jok improved his steal numbers dramatically from his sophomore to junior year, but he still took his cues from Clemmons and Woodbury. Now it’s up to him to add that to his leadership holster.
Because if Iowa hopes to keep or improve their Big Ten station this season, it can’t all be done on one end.
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“On offense, we’ve got guys that can score, so as long as we focus on defense and get better there, we’ll be fine,” Jok said. “I have to take it. I just can’t be an offense player. For us to be successful, I have to be both. I don’t see it as pressure, I see it as motivation and a goal to work toward.”
Iowa lacks experience, yes. The Hawkeyes don’t yet know their starters or their definite rotation, no. But McCaffery is absolutely certain he has guys who will know what they’re doing, no matter who’s on the floor.
Predicting the Big Ten isn’t something they care to do, but McCaffery knows if the inexact recipe of confidence plus knowledge plus execution is right, the Hawkeyes will be heard from.
“You have to have a certain confidence about you, but you need to understand the game in a way that you can handle all the different things that come at you,” McCaffery said. “Whether it’s traveling on the road, seeing changing defenses (or) seeing a real fast team versus a real strong, physical team, and then ultimately doing it in a close game.
“As long as you have some experience out there and guys who understand the game (you’re fine). We have that.”
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