Hawkeyes expect big things from F Melsahn Basabe
For the first time since Steve Alford was roaming the sidelines, Iowa can boast experience and depth.
The Hawkeyes will also be counting on a talented sophomore.
Forward Melsahn Basabe, a 6-foot-7 forward from Glen Cove, N.Y., followed coach Fran McCaffery from Siena to Iowa. He might be the one player on Iowa's roster with true star potential.
Basabe averaged 11 points and led the Hawkeyes in rebounding, blocks and free throws last season, giving them hope that the 11-20 record they posted a year ago won't be repeated in 2011-12.
''He established himself last year, I think, as one of the premier players in our league. He needs to take that next step,'' McCaffery said Thursday during the team's annual media day.
Basabe's early emergence as a player to watch in the Big Ten was surprising to nearly everyone but McCaffery and Basabe.
Though he showed promise in high school, Basabe certainly wasn't considered the kind of five-star recruit who could anchor a major program by his sophomore year.
Basabe developed a strong relationship with McCaffery while he was leading the Saints to three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Basabe committed to McCaffery and Siena, and when McCaffery took the vacant Iowa job in March 2010, Basabe followed him to the Midwest.
McCaffery convinced Basabe he could play in the Big Ten - and he was right.
''Last year he predicted I'd be one of the top freshmen in the Big Ten and the country - and a lot of people wasn't sure because I originally committed to a lower-level school,'' Basabe said. ''He gauged my talent, he saw what I could do and made the right call.''
McCaffery put Basabe in the starting lineup right away. But the freshman felt his way around until his first career double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds in a loss to Iowa State - an encouraging effort given the heated nature of the Hawkeyes-Cyclones rivalry.
Basabe's breakout night came a month later. Facing off against the nation's top freshman post player, Ohio State star Jared Sullinger, Basabe exploded for 22 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
''Before the game I said, `I've been playing against elite people all my life in AAU and high school, so it's just a big game.' And usually when the competition is high, that's when I step up,'' Basabe said.
Basabe only got better. He scored at least 20 points in five league games, became the first freshman in school history with 200 rebounds and 40 blocks in a single season, and was one of just four freshman nationally to have at least four 20-point, 10-rebound games.
But Basabe's breakout year ended feebly. Early foul trouble rendered him a non-factor in Iowa's loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.
''We saw how great he can be and how dominant down in the low block. When you have a presence like that it's huge, especially in the Big Ten,'' senior guard Matt Gatens. ''As I've told him, just be more consistent. Don't have one game with 20 (points) and 15 (rebounds) and come back with foul trouble and have five and three.''
Basabe was invited to training camp for the U.S. Under-19 World Championships team this summer. He didn't make the team, but McCaffery said the camp taught Basabe the value of knowing his role as a power forward and doing it well.
''He saw that he needed to be the kind of consistent player that they were looking for,'' McCaffery said. ''The other thing was, he figured out, `I can't be more than what I am.'''
The Hawkeyes haven't had a winning season since Alford left for New Mexico in 2008. But for the first time in a while, they've got a host of veterans coming back.
Senior point guard Bryce Cartwright led the league in assists in Big Ten games and showed some scoring punch with 10.9 points per game.
Senior guard Matt Gatens led Iowa in scoring and, provided he stays healthy, should also give the Hawkeyes versatility and leadership. Sophomores Zach McCabe and Devyn Marble should only be better with a year of experience. Athletic but inconsistent junior forward Eric May certainly has a chance - his final one, perhaps - to fulfill his promise.
But for the Hawkeyes to go from decent to dangerous, they'll need Basabe - who gained a solid 20 pounds in the offseason and now weighs 234 - to blossom into one of the Big Ten's most dominant post players.
McCaffery sees no reason why that couldn't happen.
''He's a player that's capable of averaging a double-double,'' McCaffery said.