Iowa as a national championship contender

The 2019-20 season is still a loose thread for all of us college hoop-heads, and therefore it needs closure, something we will (hopefully) get next April when months of waiting result in a champion being crowned. This extended story, the one that started last October, needs a protagonist, and we may have gotten ours when Luka Garza announced his return to Iowa on Sunday.

As you may recall, Garza was Superman dressed as a Hawkeye last season and was a Naismith Player of the Year finalist. Since 2005, fans have had a say in the voting process, so let’s use that as our universe for this study. With Garza back in the mix, the 2020-21 season will be the fifth time over that stretch that a Power 5 player returned to school after being a Naismith finalist (Duke’s JJ Redick, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough twice and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger). Team success has followed the returning star in the previous four examples, which yielded:

  • Three NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds (2012 Ohio State was the exception, and was a 2-seed)
  • Three Final Four appearances
  • 2009 National Champion (North Carolina)

It’s obviously not a massive sample size, but if you’re a Hawkeyes fan, that’s pretty encouraging. A big question becomes whether Iowa, like the superstar-retaining teams mentioned above, will look to push the offensive pace.

It’s interesting to note that as Duke and Ohio State realized what they had in Redick and Sullinger, they ramped things up in the return season (Duke jumped from 81st in pace to 29th and Ohio State from 250th to 88th). Iowa ranked a very respectable 77th last season, but that was up only seven spots from 2019, something that indicates they weren’t willing to go all-in on a Garza led offense. It’s fair to wonder whether that could change in 2021.

Arguably the best team during Fran McCaffery’s time at Carver-Hawkeye was the 2015-16 squad that peaked at No. 3 in the AP poll. That team was 30th in offensive efficiency the season prior and kept that level of potency (25th) while averaging 4.6 more possessions per game. McCaffery knew he had an effective offense and made it his goal to maximize his edge. Could we see a massive jump up in possession count for an Iowa team that is coming off of a season in which they ranked fifth in points per possession? That’s a scary thought when you consider that their projected starting five this season contributed 80.9% of their field goal attempts last season, and that four of the past five NCAA champions were top-5 in adjusted offensive efficiency (the top three offenses in 2020 were among the AP’s top 7 when the season was shut down, so this trend appears to be here to stay).

The Hawkeyes are one of five programs to boast a top-20 offense in each of the past three seasons and the defense is closer to respectable than the consensus may believe. Iowa allowed 9.8 fewer points per 100 possessions last season than when Garza first walked on campus, and if it continues that trend (it improved by 2.7% in 2020 from 2019, we aren’t talking anything drastic) on top of increasing the possession count, we could be in for something special.

If you’re still skeptical of an Iowa team that has never won a title and hasn’t been ranked in a preseason poll since the 2005-06 season (a streak that’s about to end), consider that the last time the Big Ten returned its leading scorer that didn’t enter the conference by way of transfer, it was Ohio State’s Evan Turner in 2010. Let’s line them up:

Evan Turner vs. Luka Garza

  • Breakout Season: 2008-09 / 2019-2020
  • Team Big Ten finish: T-4 (11-team league) / T-5 (14-team league)
  • Team postseason finish: 8-seed, 3-point first round favorite / 6-seed, 1.5-point first round favorite*
  • Scoring growth, breakout season: + 6.5 points per 40 minutes / + 7.7 points per 40 minutes
  • Breakout season combined off./def. efficiency rank: 95 / 102
  • Returning starters, following season: 4 (5th was a former starter) / 4 (5th was a former starter)
  • Following season combined off./def. efficiency rank: 34 / ??

*Joe Lunardi’s final projection

Now, it is worth noting that those 2009-10 Buckeyes were upset in the Sweet 16 by Tennessee. What history fails to remember is just how close that OSU team was to appearing in the title game. In that upset loss to the Vols, Turner put his Buckeyes up by a point with 44 seconds remaining. True coin flip result. (In the Elite Eight, Tennessee was tied with 12 seconds to play against Michigan State. True coin flip result. In the Final Four, Michigan State had the ball, down by a point, with under a minute left. True coin flip result. That’s almost no separation between a disappointing Ohio State season and a shot at its first title since 1960.)

The point is that both 2008-09 Ohio State and 2019-20 Iowa were fine in the first season of their star’s breakout, and OSU was able to thrive the following year once they realized they were going to have the best player on the court most (if not all) nights. Why can’t Iowa do that? Heck, right down to the medical redshirt making his triumph return into the starting lineup (David Lighty for the ’10 Buckeyes and sharp shooting Jordan Bohannon for the ’21 Hawkeyes) after requiring surgery December surgery, these two teams are mirror images of one another.

“The love of his coach, that’s marrow deep. The love of his mates,” Garza’s father said in an interview this offseason. “The love to make it to a Final Four and win it all. That’s why we came to Iowa, to be quite candid.”

Iowa has advanced to just three Final Fours in the history of the program (1955, 1956, 1980) with zero titles to show for it. Is 2020-21 the season? You won’t find me betting against it now that “Garzilla” is back in black (and yes, I’m going to make “Garzilla” happen).

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