IOWA CITY, Iowa -- After years of mediocrity, Iowa re-energized its weary fan base last season with 18 wins and a spot in the NIT.
The optimistic Hawkeyes are hoping that this will be the year they return to the NCAA tournament and become nationally relevant again. This is the most anticipated season in years at Iowa, which hasn't won 20 games or reached the NCAA tournament since a first-round exit in 2006.
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The Hawkeyes have a promising core of emerging players like Devyn Marble and Aaron White that will be augmented by a standout freshman class, including a pair of likely starters in center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell.
Iowa (18-17, 8-10 Big Ten in 2011-12) opens its season on Nov. 9 against Texas Pan-American.
`I am very excited about our team and our potential, and I think we have to be cautiously optimistic because we're still a very young team," said third-year coach Fran McCaffery, who signed a new seven-year deal in the offseason. "I think we're the biggest we've been in a long time and the deepest we've been in a long time, and I think we have a chance to be very good."
Iowa lost its leading scorer in Matt Gatens. Nearly everyone else is back and they're all expected to be better.
The task of replacing Gatens as Iowa's go-to-guy will fall to Marble, a junior who averaged 11.5 points a game last season.
"Marble is incredibly cerebral. He knows where to line up in the one, two and three spot in anything we do. He knows how to engineer victory," McCaffery said.
White, a sophomore forward, was one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises of 2011-12, scoring 11.1 points in just under 24 minutes a game. If White keeps improving at the rate he did a year ago, he'll be one of the best players in the league by February.
White will have help in the post with the arrival of Woodbury, who at 7-foot-1 is one of the more intriguing young big men in the country. Woodbury "is focused, he's diligent, his work ethic is incredibly consistent and that's how Aaron White was last year. You looked at him, he was a skinny freshman, but he was mentally mature in his approach," McCaffery said.
Iowa doesn't necessarily have anyone that could be classified as a star player just yet. For a change, the Hawkeyes do have depth.
Gesell was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska and is expected to seize the starting job at point guard, though fellow freshman Anthony Clemmons could push him.
Newcomer Patrick Ingram and sophomore Josh Ogelsby will compete for minutes at shooting guard. In the frontcourt, the Hawkeyes return raw but talented sophomore Gabe Olaseni, juniors Zach McCabe and the enigmatic Melsahn Basabe -- who took a step back after a solid freshman season -- and oft-injured senior Eric May.
May should give the Hawkeyes a boost on defense if he can stay healthy.
Iowa's depth should also allow it to shore up its defense by simply having more bodies to throw at opponents.
"I can go big, I can go small, I think we can pressure more because we have more depth," McCaffery said. "The key is defensively. We didn't defend last year. We didn't defend consistently."
The Hawkeyes have the look and feel of a potential dark horse in a league that could be the best in the country. McCaffery has embraced the heightened expectations of his program, which is in the best shape it's been in in nearly a decade.
It's been a long time since an NCAA tournament bid was a reasonable expectation for the Hawkeyes, and McCaffery isn't shy about letting his players know that he thinks they have what it takes to make it back there next March.
"A lot of coaches try to temper any level of enthusiasm to take the pressure off themselves. I prefer to challenge our team and our players," McCaffery said.