There's more excitement surrounding the Iowa basketball program than there has been in quite a while, and that excitement is justified.
The 2012-13 season was notable for many reasons. Iowa's 28 wins were its second most in school history. The Hawkeyes also won a school-record 18 home games and were playing well enough at the end of the season to receive votes in the coaches poll.
With those accomplishments will come according expectations for next season. There's little doubt that fans' expectations include Iowa reaching its first NCAA Tournament since 2006, not to mention staking a claim as a contender in the Big Ten.
But just because most of the team's key parts return - the only graduating scholarship senior is Eric May - doesn't mean that a ticket to the Big Dance will be a given or easily earned. Though Iowa was on the brink of so many big wins this past season, there were reasons the Hawkeyes couldn't quite break through. But before I look at what has to improve for the program to take the proverbial next step, let's look at what helped make the Hawkeyes successful.
Some might say close losses were the story of Iowa's season, but coming from someone who covered the Hawkeyes closely last year, the team's marked improvement on defense was pretty impressive. In 2011-12, Iowa was a squad that quite simply couldn't get stops - when it absolutely needed them or otherwise.
But this season, defense was Iowa's primary strength. The Hawkeyes limited opponents to 39.2 percent field-goal shooting, which was third in the Big Ten behind only Michigan State and Indiana, whom opponents shot 39.0 percent against. Iowa also defended the 3-point shot exceptionally well with teams hitting only 29.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
The Hawkeyes finished 22nd in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com - colossal progress from the team's 175th finish in that stat last year.
For how often Iowa sputtered on offense throughout the season, the team made a living at the free-throw line. The Hawkeyes' 896 attempts from the charity stripe were the third most in Division I, and their 655 makes were also the second most in the country. Among Big Ten teams, only Indiana's 904 attempts were more, and the Hoosiers were slightly more efficient, knocking down 74.3 percent of their free throws as opposed to the Hawkeyes' 73.1 percent. As bad as Iowa was at times on offense, when you consider all of Indiana's weapons on offense - likely two lottery picks in the NBA draft - and the fact that they reached the line at a similar frequency, it's pretty impressive.
There were two huge catalysts behind Iowa's penchant for shooting free throws - Aaron White and Devyn Marble. White averaged 6.8 free-throw attempts per game - which ranked 34th nationally and second in the Big Ten (Cody Zeller attempted 7.2 per game) while Marble finished fifth in the conference, averaging 5.1 shots from the foul line per contest. Marble was extremely good at cashing in on his opportunities, knocking down 81.0 percent of those shots, while White could become even more dangerous if he polishes his 74.8 percent free-throw shooting.
As good as Iowa was defensively and at getting to the free-throw line, the Hawkeyes weren't without issues that plagued them all season.
Iowa didn't necessarily struggle to score - at least by definition of the word. After all, the Hawkeyes' 70.1 points per game was good enough for fourth in the Big Ten. Indiana paced the league by averaging 78.6. But the attack wasn't always operating at peak efficiency, or even close to it.
While the team improved defensively, Iowa actually saw a slight dip in offensive efficiency, dropping from 34th last year to 44th this year according to KenPom. Few would have been shocked with a slight dip, perhaps, because of the departures of Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright - two key cogs in the offensive machine last season. But the way Iowa simply struggled to get good looks and had a knack for falling victim to prolonged shooting slumps likely caught a lot of people by surprise.
The Hawkeyes shot 41.9 percent from the field - only eighth in the Big Ten. The top five teams in that category - Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Michigan - all hit at least 44.3 percent of their shots, with Michigan leading the pack at 48.4. Iowa was much closer to the bottom (Penn State shot 39.5 percent) than the top, which is pretty impressive considering the Hawkeyes still managed relatively solid scoring average.
But above all, there was one primary culprit for Iowa's occasional offensive sputtering.
Simply put, this has to improve next season. It doesn't take a basketball expert to know or see that Iowa was a bad 3-point shooting team, but I didn't realize exactly how bad until I looked at some of the numbers. Not only did the Hawkeyes finish 11th in the Big Ten by knocking down only 30.7 percent of their 3-pointers, they finished 303rd in the country. That's almost 10 percent worse than the upper-echelon Big Ten teams, with Indiana and Michigan leading the conference at 40.3 and 38.5 percent, respectively.
Statistically, Iowa didn't have a single reliable 3-point shooter all year. The best by percentage were Eric May and Anthony Clemmons at 39.5 and 36.2 percent, respectively. But those two combined to attempt only 85 3-pointers - only about one a game for each. Their impact was minimal.
Josh Oglesby's struggles all season were well documented, but they really hurt the offense at times. He attempted 156 3-pointers, but hit only 42 - an abysmal 26.9 percent clip. We saw a much more consistent Oglesby last year as he hit 37.2 percent, making three more 3-pointers as a freshman (45) despite taking 35 less 3s than he did this year.
Marble had his flashes of brilliance from the perimeter with four games in which he made three or more trifectas. But in the end he hit 32.7 percent of his tries - actually lower than the 39.3 percent 3-point shooting from a season before. Marble may have simply settled for too many 3-pointers as he shot almost 100 more this year (150 compared to 56) despite averaging only an extra minute per game.
Besides the obvious impact of the loss of Gatens on the team's shooting, Zach McCabe's percentage dip was also a contributing factor. McCabe hit 32.0 percent of his looks from long distance, down significantly from the 44.9 percent he hit last year. Again, this may be a matter of shot selection, as he only took 49 last year but increased that number to 97 this past season despite playing fewer minutes.
Incoming freshman Peter Jok should help Iowa's 3-point shooting after averaging 23.6 points per game and knocking down 42 percent of his shots from deep as a senior. Obviously the level of competition is not nearly the same, but there's little doubt that Jok will be able to shoot the basketball at the Division-I level. Jarrod Uthoff will also be eligible for the Hawkeyes, giving them another weapon from 3-poin range.
But most of the factors for 3-point improvement will have to come internally: Oglesby returning to form as well as better shot selection from most of the team - perhaps sprinkling in more shot fakes and drives to the basket could help as well.
Big improvements from 2012 to 2013 brought Iowa to the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. The pieces are in place for more improvements - enough to give Iowa a good chance to dance in 2014.
You can follow Jordan Garretson on Twitter here.