The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Column | Iowa men’s basketball’s season not a failure, but still far from top

The Hawkeyes will need to add in the portal and drastically improve their defense.
Ethan McLaughlin
Iowa and Illinois players warm up before a men’s basketball game between Iowa and Illinois in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, March 10, 2024. Illinois beat Iowa 73-61.

When I found out I would be covering Iowa men’s basketball this year, I knew I received the short end of the stick. While the squad’s female counterparts were Final Four favorites and both wrestling teams are nationally ranked, head coach Fran McCaffery’s squad was set for a down year.

The trio of Connor McCaffery, Kris Murray, and Filip Rebraca, each of whom played over 960 minutes last season, had departed. Left in their absence were Tony Perkins, Payton Sandfort, and Patrick McCaffery, who alongside graduate transfer Ben Krikke, guided a young and inexperienced squad to 19 wins amidst plenty of struggle.

Yes, the Hawkeyes missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, but this season should in no way be considered a failure. Improvement abounded, but there’s lots of room to grow.

Sandfort’s star shined brightest this season, as the Waukee, Iowa, kid, delivered a career year, averaging 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 37.9 percent from downtown. The forward set single-game career highs in almost every statistical category this season, from assists to blocks.

After proving at points last season that he could take over a game, Sandfort has become perhaps the most well-rounded player on the team. At 6–foot-7, his performance on the glass is spectacular, and of course, I would be remiss not to mention his triple-double against Penn State on Feb. 27 — the first in program history.

Some may critique his outspokenness on the floor, but every team needs someone not afraid to speak up and hold people accountable. That’s the similarity between him and Caitlin Clark. Both have matured, becoming players who can still impact the game regardless of how their shot is falling.

Trialing closely behind Sandfort is first-year big man Owen Freeman, who lived up to the hype and then some. Becoming the program’s first Big Ten Freshman of the Year since 1994 is no small feat. Freeman was a natural underneath the basket, averaging nearly two blocks per game and shooting over 60 percent from the field.

For a three-game stretch from Feb. 24 to March 2, second-year Josh Dix looked like one of the best guards in the conference, piling up 64 total points, all on an average shooting mark of 69.7 percent.

But this individual improvement, or any of Iowa’s triumphs this season, didn’t come without obstacles. Sandfort, Freeman, and Perkins all dealt with the loss of their grandmother. Freeman learned the news the day of Iowa’s game against Purdue, bit still played in the contest.

I’ll never forget the press conference following the Hawkeyes’ home loss to Maryland on Jan. 24. Sandfort had a rough game, scoring six points, and had learned the news of his grandma’s passing. But Perkins was at his teammates’ side the whole time, arm wrapped around him. That was the perfect snapshot of how a team handles adversity.

But while the Hawkeyes navigated struggles smoothly this season, they will have a lack of veteran leadership in 2024-25. With Perkins and Patrick McCaffery in the portal and Krikke graduating, Sandfort will be the oldest person on the roster who plays regularly.

But also don’t be surprised to see guard Brock Harding on the court a lot more next year, where his natural leadership abilities will crop up immediately. McCaffery was complimentary of the first-year’s intangibles this season, and media members like myself remember him getting shots up after home games, win or loss. His growth, particularly with shooting, will be key to Iowa’s success next season, but he’s not the only Hawkeye with goals to meet.

Freeman needs to develop an outside shot, even if it’s only from 15 feet out. Working out with former Iowa standout Luka Garza should aid in that process and mold the 6–foot-11 Freeman into a potential conference player of the year. Forward Ladji Dembele should see more playing time next season, and his all-around game will keep improving with more minutes.

Yet no matter how much individual improvement occurs for the Hawkeyes, this squad won’t go anywhere in March if it doesn’t step up on the defensive end. Just look at Kentucky. When the threes aren’t falling, Iowa has to be comfortable in the ugly games that persist in the college scene.

Don’t completely flip the switch and become Virginia (please), but at the very least pick up experienced, quality defenders in the portal. If Iowa allows less than 70 points per game to their opponents next season, expect to find the Hawkeyes dancing.

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About the Contributor
Matt McGowan
Matt McGowan, Pregame Editor
he/him/his Matt McGowan is The Daily Iowan's Pregame Editor. He is a sophomore double majoring in journalism and mass communications and American studies with a minor in sport studies.  This is his second year with the DI