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Iowa Basketball: McCaffery’s Hawkeyes unveil new look
Iowa Basketball: McCaffery’s Hawkeyes unveil new look

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Iowa Hawkeyes are about to begin a basketball season with only the head coach bearing the last name McCaffery. In today’s world of transfer portal madness and zero funding, the Hawkeyes lost three players to the portal after last year’s 19-15 finish, including coach McCaffery’s middle son Patrick. In addition to Pat (Butler), PG Dasonte Bowen (St. Bonaventure) and Tony Perkins (Mizzou) also left the team.

With three departures, Fran McCaffery did as most other top coaches did this season and went out himself. Iowa acquired PG Drew Thelwell from Moorehead State (one year to play one) and forward Seydou Traore from Manhattan (four years to play three). Those two join freshmen forwards Cooper Koch and Chris Tadjo as new additions this season.

The bottom line is that there are four new faces for the Hawkeyes and four departures with the graduation of Ben Krikke. This means that things in Iowa City will look very different in 2024-2025 than they did in 2023-2024.

On Monday, the team opened the doors for the first time since the changes and gave the media a glimpse of what we can expect from this new group. It’s just one practice and we’re in the middle of July, so you have to take this with a grain of salt, but there are some observations we can make pretty easily right now.

Iowa increased its athleticism

It’s no secret that Iowa lost some athletes with the departures of McCaffery, Bowen and Perkins. We also knew that incoming freshman Chris Tadjo brought elite athleticism. But from the few video clips circulating from early practice, it’s safe to say that all four new faces are supremely athletic.

Tadjo (No. 11 above, No. 34 on the updated roster) and transfer Seydou Traore (No. 0 above, No. 7 on the roster) are over the basket players who should be an immediate upgrade over what Iowa lost at the forward position in terms of lateral quickness and shot blocking. Both are also plus rebounders. Adding those two to the mix at the forward position should free up Owen Freeman to be an absolute threat at the center position on both ends of the court.

Perhaps more surprising than the athleticism of these two, however, is how good Cooper Koch (also No. 11 in the videos, No. 8 on the list) looks. The son of former Hawkeye JR Koch, Cooper was a highly touted prospect who was considered a sort of replacement for Payton Sandfort. He was known as an excellent shooter with good length, but it was thought he might need a year to mature physically and was expected to lack athleticism. That seems to be incorrect, as his body looks both Big Ten-ready and very quick and jumpy in the early going.

New point guard Drew Thelwell (No. 1 in videos, No. 3 on roster) isn’t necessarily the guy who’s over the basket like the outgoing Perkins, but he seems to have adequate lateral quickness and should provide very solid, reliable ball-handling and passing with better defensive skills in tandem with Brock Harding.

Concerns about shooting diminish

Again, caution is advised, but early reports from the media in attendance seem to confirm what we’ve been hearing all summer. This team will be no worse at shooting than it was a year ago.

Payton Sandfort and his brother Pryce are back for a second year, laying the foundation for solid shooting. Josh Dix gives Iowa a third player who can score from beyond the three-point line. With the aforementioned Koch, Iowa has another player with size who can stretch a defense the way we saw Ladji Dembele do a year ago.

However, what could make the real difference in the 2024-2025 season is the continued development of Iowa’s two Moline players. In interviews, Owen Freeman has talked about the efforts he has made to increase his range to keep defenders off balance. That would certainly create space.

More importantly, however, is the improvement reported in Brock Harding’s shooting. The second-year point guard hit 37.5% of his shots from beyond the arc as a freshman, but his lack of size prevented him from getting many opportunities. That was made worse by a low release point. The first rumors this summer were that Harding was working on increasing the release point and improving his shot. This week’s video seems to indicate that’s taking shape.

Harding himself stated that he has been working with coach Matt Gatens on increasing his pockets. Although he says he didn’t like it at first, he now sees the improvement and it has helped him improve his game.

Everyone says the D-word

Although the Hawkeyes have had considerable success under current head coach Fran McCaffery, winning at least 19 games every year since 2017-2018 and appearing in the NCAA Tournament four times in the last five seasons, it’s no secret that fans are collectively wringing their hands over the lack of success in the NCAA Tournament. Fans attribute this largely to Iowa’s lack of emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.

Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked 335th nationally with 79.4 points allowed per game, up more than four points from the year before, when Iowa ranked 280th with 74.7 points allowed per game.

In this week’s media report, virtually every player mentioned an emphasis on defense or a desire to bring more intensity to the defense.

When asked by Chad Leistikow of the Des Moines Register how he would describe his game, new PG Drew Thelwell said, “…I play defense. You don’t hear a lot of guys talk about defense much anymore, but I take pride in my defense. I’ve also been at a school for the last four years that prided itself on defense.”

When Tom Kakert of the Hawkeye Report pressed him about playing with and against sophomore PG Brock Harding, Thelwell again pointed to defense.

“I think that’s another big reason they brought me here, to put pressure on the ball, because at my last school we played against each other a lot and you could see that we were a defensive-minded team. So I think bringing those principles here helps this team a lot.”

Harding repeatedly emphasized in his interviews that it is about defense.

“We want to change our strategy as a team this year. We want to be able to defend people, catch them off guard and make them pass the ball.”

And when asked which new additions stood out, virtually every Hawkeye named one of the transfers or rookies who looked particularly good on defense. Josh Dix talked about some of them.

“Honestly, everyone had their moments, but I would say Seydou was really good, you know, just on the boards, on defense… I mean, Chris is super athletic and he was really good on defense as well.”

There definitely seems to be more thought put into that side of the ball, and Iowa has the tools to make improvements in 2024-2025.

This, combined with consistent or better shooting and an increase in athleticism could means the Hawkeyes’ absence from March Madness is just a one-year blip. There are no guarantees in college basketball, but you can bet Iowa won’t make the Sweet Sixteen if they miss the dance altogether.

By Liam