Opinion | Season in review: Final thoughts on the 2021-22 Iowa men’s basketball season

From Big Ten Tournament Champions to losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a four-day span? Oof.

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Gabby Drees

Iowa forward Keegan Murray shoots the ball during the first round of the NCAA Men’s Championship between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Richmond Spiders at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday, March 17, 2022. Murray earned 21 points. The Richmond Spiders beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 67-63.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor


BUFFALO, N.Y. — The headline for my men’s basketball season in review column from last year reads, “Was Iowa’s season successful despite the tournament loss?”

Well, here we go again.

This year’s Iowa men’s basketball team suffered another early exit from March Madness. After winning 12 of its last 14 games heading into the NCAA Tournament, including four wins in a four-day span in Indianapolis to clinch the program’s first Big Ten Tournament title since 2006, this seemed like the year Iowa was finally playing at its best at the best time. Instead, Iowa didn’t win a single game in “The Big Dance” for the first time in its last five appearances.

Oh, and the Hawkeyes still haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1999.

“Couldn’t be feeling worse,” guard Connor McCaffery said after No. 5 seed Iowa’s 67-63 loss to No. 12 Richmond in the first round. “There’s only one team that’s going to end on a win, but leaving this game is probably the worst game we played all year. And I don’t think it’s close, so it’s definitely not a good feeling in our stomachs right now.”

Iowa’s loss at the KeyBank Center may be the lasting memory of a season that, even disappointed Hawkeye fans have to admit, was a lot more fun and noteworthy than most people expected. Or is it still too soon to say that?

The loss to the Spiders may still be fresh for Hawkeye fans, but here are my three final thoughts to wrap up this year’s Iowa men’s basketball season.

March disappointments keep on happening

Last season, with the National Player of the Year Luka Garza leading the way, Iowa lost in the second round of the tournament despite being the No. 2 seed. This year, with first-team All-American Keegan Murray as the top option, Iowa lost a round earlier.

With two of the program’s best players ever being the top options in back-to-back-to-back seasons (though the tournament wasn’t played after the 2019-20 season), you’d expect a trip to the second weekend of the tournament at least once. Nope.

This year’s Hawkeye team was perhaps the hottest team in the country entering NCAA Tournament play. That was especially true when Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament title. The Hawkeyes were, believe it or not, expected to win games on the national stage. Iowa forward Kris Murray even said the Hawkeyes liked their tournament draw. More than 10 percent of all entries in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge picked the Hawkeyes to make the Final Four. Fifteen members of ESPN’s college basketball panel picked Iowa to do that, too.

With great expectations, apparently, come greater disappointments.

RELATED: ‘This is probably the worst game we played all year:’ Iowa bounced in first round of NCAA Tournament

I don’t know why Iowa hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since the last day of the Tom Davis era. I also don’t know why Fran McCaffery hasn’t advanced to the second weekend of the tournament in any of his 26 seasons as a head coach, despite taking four different programs to March Madness (and yes, Fran McCaffery is a good coach, more on that later).

Fran McCaffery’s lack of tournament wins was spread around Twitter after Iowa’s latest early departure from March. That’s going to continue to be the case, even in seasons Iowa wins the Big Ten, until its exits from March aren’t quite as sudden.

“It’s not about me,” Fran McCaffery said. “It’s not about what I want. I want what they want. I want them to experience it. That’s where I’m coming from. I’m just disappointed for them. Because they came a long way. Twenty-six wins — that’s hard to do in this league.”

Eventually, this will be a season to look back at fondly

I know, I know. The wounds are still fresh. But this season had more ups than downs.

The Hawkeyes entered this season having lost Garza, Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, and Jack Nunge. ESPN picked the Hawkeyes to finish ninth in the Big Ten before the season. Most preseason projections weren’t exactly optimistic when referring to Iowa’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

Yet, Iowa won 26 games — second-most in program history. Keegan Murray broke Garza’s single-season scoring record and is going to be a lottery pick. It’s not every season that a team has a first-team All-American — Iowa didn’t have one since 1952 before Garza and Murray.

Appreciate greatness when you see it up close. Jordan Bohannon came back and broke the Big Ten’s 3-point record and banked-in a game-winning 3-pointer that sent the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game. I saw some mentions on Twitter after that win over Indiana that Bohannon’s shot had a Tate-to-Holloway feeling to it. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Fran McCaffery did perhaps the best coaching job of his career by turning this team that seemed to be borderline tournament level into what it became. Moving Bohannon to point guard, inserting Tony Perkins into the starting lineup, and transitioning Joe Toussaint into an up-tempo bench option was a critical decision at a critical time.

And once again, there was the first Big Ten Tournament title in more than a decade.

The 2021-22 season provided more positives than perhaps any other of the McCaffery era. At some point, that will be recognized — even when acknowledging what it all led up to.

“I’m sure when we look back,” Connor McCaffery said before pausing to collect his thoughts after the loss to Richmond. “I mean, nobody thought we were even going to make the tournament. Right now, it feels pretty terrible, but probably in a couple of months, probably feel a little bit better.”

“We put our stamp on this program, I feel like, positively, so just going into the offseason and work,” Keegan Murray said.

A look ahead at next season’s Hawkeyes

One season ends, the next one begins. Let’s take a quick look at the 2022-23 Hawkeyes.

Seniors Bohannon and fan-favorite Austin Ash are the only players who definitely won’t return.

Keegan Murray hasn’t said he will enter the NBA Draft, but seeing as he’s projected to be a lottery pick, that’s the expectation. Connor McCaffery went through Senior Night ceremonies, though he has a year of eligibility remaining and will ponder coming back for one more season. Forward Filip Rebraca has a year of eligibility left, and seems likely to use it, but he could move on. Don’t be surprised if Kris Murray declares for the draft, much like Wieskamp did after his freshman season, only to return for another season after going through the draft process.

So, what could a starting lineup for next season look like?

I’d say a starting five of Toussaint, Perkins, Patrick McCaffery, Kris Murray, and Rebraca is most likely. Promising young wing Payton Sandfort could work his way in somehow, and expect more playing time from Ahron Ulis, too. And maybe the Hawkeyes look to the transfer portal to bring in a player (another post player?).

There’s still a whole offseason to talk about what the new lineup will look like. Maybe eventually, these talks won’t have to happen so early in March.

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