There’s a well-known concept in finance (but it applies elsewhere) known as the recency bias. Like the name suggests, it’s an inclination to value more recent events over otherwise similar older events when making predictions about the future. As far as I can tell, that’s the only reason why everyone is expecting so little out of Iowa.
Iowa finished the season on a 1-6 note, then had to endure the ignominy of participating in a “First Four” game against Tennessee. The Volunteers, of course, went to the Sweet 16 where they lost by 2 to Michigan. On the season, they finished 7th by Pomeroy ratings. All of this is to say that in 2014, there’s still plenty to gripe about when it comes to the NCAA seeding process.
Would a more ambitious non-conference slate helped the Hawkeyes avoid that kind of draw? Probably—Fran McCaffrey has not impressed with his non-conference foes. But resume-building notwithstanding, prior to the end of the year slide, Iowa was 19-6, with wins over Ohio State (in Columbus) and Michigan. On the season, Iowa netted a +0.06 efficiency margin in the Big Ten, a better figure than that boasted by Ohio State, and not far behind preseason darling Wisconsin (+0.09).
Iowa also does not lose all that much in terms of minutes from last season, despite losing some big names in Roy Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe, and Melsahn Basabe. Everyone else is back, and the team adds JUCO point guard Trey Dickerson, who averaged 20 points a game last season. The downside with this team is that there aren’t a lot of angles for big jumps. Dickerson might immediately contribute, though I suspect he’ll need a year. The only returning sophomore on the team is Peter Jok, who performed well in limited action last year. He could break out—although he did not see a ton of minutes, the fact that he was able to see more than mop duty time despite Iowa’s deep rotation is a positive (Also, he’s 6-6, shot 80 percent from the free throw line, and has quite a bit of confidence in his outside shot. Don’t sleep on him.). Still, there are other teams with more breakout candidates than Iowa.
Even so, the lack of a breakout star should not doom the Hawkeyes to a bottom half finish. After all, Maryland and Minnesota have very little in terms of returning sophomores, lose a lot more (in Maryland’s case) or about the same number of (in Minnesota’s case) minutes, and they were both decidedly inferior to Iowa last season. So why are we seeing these teams ahead of Iowa in previews?
Again, it has to be recency bias at play. Iowa struggled down the stretch—particularly on defense—so surely they will roll those struggles over into the new season. Well, let’s take a look at those six Big Ten losses to finish the season:
Now this isn’t the entirety of if—the fouls were also a little higher than you’d like, and the rebounding was poor for a Big Ten team (but not out of hand), but those were more than offset by a pretty stellar defensive turnover rate in those games. So really, it comes down to the shooting.
And the last two columns are luck. Opponent free throw shooting needs no explanation, and Pomeroy’s work on three point defense is well-documented. Thus, the argument distills to Iowa stinks because they got unlucky in a cluster of games that happened to come near the end of the season? Well, not totally—that two-point defense is bad, bad, bad, but you can’t tell me that Minnesota keeps its 6-point win if they make 6 of 19 three-pointers, rather than 11 (and if you’re not convinced on that, perhaps the Gophers shoot 70 percent at the line rather than 83 percent). Or that Northwestern would have won that game shooting 8-23 on 3s, rather than 11-23.
Just flip those two games, Iowa gets a comfortable 4 or 5-seed, wins a couple games against legitimately inferior opponents, and I suspect they’d be picked between 2 and 4 in this year’s Big Ten. What’s the alternative—that McCaffrey was practicing some defensive wizardry that opponents figured out in mid-February? This isn’t to say that Iowa was a good defensive team last year. But it also was not the yackety sax operation you witnessed at the end of the season.
As for the strengths, I expect the team to once again be offense-first. The loss of Marble means the offense will flow through Aaron White, an exceptional shot-maker. Over his career, White has converted 58 percent of his two-pointers, a percentage that spiked to 63 percent last year. White does this by attempting 60 percent of his shots at the rim, where he converts 75 percent of them. White has also attempted 562 free throws, which ranks 16th all-time in the Big Ten (that’s probably not accurate, as I could only find records dating to 1997-98. If anyone can find earlier numbers, please send them along.). He’s got an outside shot at Alando Tucker’s "record" for attempts of 817 (if he attempts the same number he did as a sophomore, he’ll beat it by 3. Of course, White had an incredible foul rate that year, and more importantly, Iowa played 38 games en route to the NIT championship game.). But he’s almost a shoe-in to break the all-time free throws made of 520.
What will be interesting is Iowa’s lineup. The five best players on last year’s team that remain are probably White, Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni, and Mike Gesell. By my count, that’s one guard, two power forwards, and two centers. So if McCaffrey puts his five best on the floor at once, that might technically make the 6-9 White a shooting guard.
I don’t see that happening all that much, which underscores the point that Iowa is not without question marks entering the season. But these things are relative, and I prefer Iowa’s questions to those held by most of the rest of the conference. There’s no reason Iowa can’t finish in the top 3 of the Big Ten.