NEW YORK, NY -- Losing the NIT championship dampened the ending for the Iowa men's basketball team, but it didn't cheapen the season or the program's growth.
The strides were difficult to reconcile in the moments following a 74-54 defeat to Baylor on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. But the Hawkeyes took a significant step forward under third-year coach Fran McCaffery, winning 25 games and earning four NIT victories. The 25 wins tied the second most in school history.
"Coach McCaffery put it best: it's hard because of the pain of tonight's loss to but we can't let it overshadow what a great season, what a great run, what just great progress this year over last year," Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. "We're just thrilled and happy for these guys."
Iowa graduates just one senior from this year's club. The team will miss Eric May for his intangibles such as toughness and leadership along with his 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But May averaged just 5.1 points a game, and the team returns more than 92 percent of its scoring next year.
Junior guard Devyn Marble and sophomore forward Aaron White each garnered all-conference honors this year, and both expect to elevate the program on and off the court. Marble averaged 15.0 points a game and became the offensive catalyst late with a move to point guard. He averaged 24.3 points and nearly four assists a game in Iowa's four NIT wins.
Marble replaced freshman Mike Gesell, who suffered a right foot stress reaction in mid February. Gesell missed the final four regular-season games, but returned to play in the Big Ten Tournament and the NIT. The injury was a clear impediment on the court, but he still led the Hawkeyes in scoring against Baylor.
The team ran more efficiently with Marble at the point and Gesell sliding to the off-guard role. It's too early to predict whether that change will stick for next year.
"I think that will manifest itself throughout the summer and on our overseas trip," McCaffery said. "But I wouldn't rule it out."
Freshman point guard Anthony Clemmons earned 13 starts, averaged 4.3 points and was second to Marble in assists. He had freshman inconsistencies but also showed promise. Sophomore shooting guard Josh Oglesby started two games and was second in 3-pointers but hit only 27 percent. Incoming freshman Peter Jok will join the back court this fall and immediately compete for minutes.
Iowa's front court returns loads of experience. Both White (12.8 points, team-high 6.2 rebounds) and freshman center Adam Woodbury started a school-record 38 games this year. Junior forwards Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe have combined for 109 career starts and combined for nearly 13 points a game this year. Sophomore center Gabe Olaseni was second in blocked shots and perhaps made the greatest strides. Freshman Kyle Meyer red-shirted last year and will compete for playing time.
Incoming sophomore Jarrod Uthoff will impact the squad immediately at forward, McCaffery said. Uthoff sat out last season after transferring from Wisconsin but stands nearly 6-foot-10. He has refined inside game with a solid perimeter shot.
Iowa's schedule will get an upgrade in the Big Ten and likely across the board. Top conference schools Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois will rotate back on as double plays. The Hawkeyes will travel to Iowa State, and compete in the Great Alaska Shootout. Team officials said they'll beef up some of the non-conference games after a porous RPI impacted their NCAA tournament hopes.
Iowa also lost multiple road games with late-game collapses. But the team got past its road blocks by beating Virginia at Charlottesville in an NIT quarterfinal and send the Hawkeyes to Madison Square Garden.
"Obviously the season as a whole, you look back on it and that's probably the toughest part of the season was those games we had and kind of let slip away," White said. "Eventually you've got to change your mindset and say you don't want that to happen anymore. That's what we did and I think we took the necessary steps to get the win."
Iowa will enter next year with something the program hasn't enjoyed in nearly a decade: high expectations. It's likely Marble will be considered a preseason all-Big Ten candidate, and the Hawkeyes could start the season ranked in the top 25. McCaffery and the players seem ready to deal with that.
"I think what we'll do is enter the season next year with a tremendous focus and concentration knowing what we're capable of, but also knowing some of the things that we didn't do that we now have to go out and do," McCaffery said.
In three years, Iowa has bounced from a program-worst 10-22 record to 25-13. After an all-time attendance low of 9,550 in 2010, Iowa posted its best numbers since 2002, averaging 13,625 with six sellouts. The program now has rebounded into a contender once again, and the excitement is apparent.
"The future is fantastic," Barta said.