IOWA CITY, Iowa - The Iowa basketball team is showing a lot of signs of improvement. If you consider recruiting in the Class of 2014, however, it's obvious that more growth is needed.
Fran McCaffery and his staff have filled just one (Brady Ellingson) of the four available scholarships available to them in this cycle with signing day about a month away. For the most part, the prospects they've missed out on have taken their talents to more established programs.
"There's a clear improvement, but I think we kind of have to keep moving the needle to the point where we really get the full effect of it in recruiting," McCaffery said at Wednesday's media day.
Steve Alford began the decline of basketball at Iowa during his seven seasons at the helm. He was replaced by Todd Lickliter, who further drove the program into the ground, fueling apathy and slumping attendance.
McCaffery was brought in three seasons ago to restore respect to a once-proud program. The Hawkeyes have increased their win total in each of those campaigns, culminating in 25 wins and a trip to the NIT Championship game in March.
While the progress has energized the fan base and inspired national analysts to dub it as a program on the rise, the improvements haven't trickled down to the recruits outside of the state and its near boarders. Convincing Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Peter Jok to become Hawkeyes proved important but the local waters run only so deep. It's been illustrated in McCaffery casting a wide web in recruiting from coast to coast.
Iowa is competing against schools regularly in the NCAA Tournament. Those schools often play nationally televised games and reside in the consciousness of top prospects.
Iowa followers notice the strides made by McCaffery. That's more difficult for the top prospects to recognize. When they look at it, they see a school that last made the NCAA Tournament in 2005-06, when they were finishing up elementary school. The Hawkeyes next win in the sport's top event will be its first since '01.
Tyler Ulis served as the extreme example of Iowa's need to continue climbing the mountain in order to secure higher-level talent. The Chicago-area point guard chose Kentucky instead of the Hawkeyes despite McCaffery applying full-court pressure since early in the recruiting process.
In the end, Ulis said he probably would have ended up at Iowa had the Wildcats not offered him a scholarship late in the summer. That still may have been the case even if Iowa made the Big Dance a year ago. The Hawkeyes haven't won a lot of recruiting battles with college basketball's Blue Bloods throughout the years nor have most schools.
Iowa should, and needs to, win out with programs to which it compares favorably in terms of facilities and exposure. Returning to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis makes that happen.
Consider some of the '14 players offered scholarships by the Hawkeyes but picked other institutions: Lourawls Nairn (Michigan State), Riley LaChance (Vanderbilt), Malek Harris (Marquette), Larry Austin (Tennessee), Sandy Cohen (Marquette) and Jordan Barnett (Texas). All of those schools have enjoyed more success in the last 13 years (three NCAA bids) than has Iowa, who reached the Big Dance 16 times in 21 seasons from 1979-1999.
"Any time you can continue to make progress, and that obviously would be indicated by an NCAA bid, more TV games, more ESPN games, more CBS games, one thing leads to another, and that's what affects recruiting," McCaffery said. "It's the reality of the situation. That's what people are talking about, and when prospects watch TV, that's what they hear. If we are one of the teams that's in, that will really help us.
"Then, of course, the next step is, and hopefully it will happen right away, is not only do you get in but you make some noise when you get in. That even makes it more beneficial in recruiting."
McCaffery refuses to feel sorry for himself or his program with what has transpired in the 2014 class. He's a glass-half-full guy who meets adversity with positivity.
"I never get disappointed," McCaffery said. "Recruiting is an interesting arena. It's a different animal every year.
"You go after some guys. Sometimes you get them. Sometimes you don't. There are enough good players out there that can come in and help us win."
Really, that's what McCaffery believes because he's shown the ability to find contributors off of the radar. He's building without the benefit of four and five star recruits, for the most part, because he's had to.
Aaron White, who chose the Hawkeyes ahead of Duquense, is coming off a summer playing for USA Basketball with a lot of much more highly-recruited talent. As we've seen with the Iowa football program, continuing to find the diamonds in the rough to maintain a high level of success is a difficult chore.
Past battles lost in recruiting could partly be chalked up to lagging facilities. That's changed with the Carver-Hawkeye Arena renovations and a brand spanking new practice gym. LaChance called them "second to none" after his official visit here last month and then chose Vandy.
Iowa targets also aren't heading elsewhere because they see a stacked roster and fear they won't get playing time. Roy Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe leaving after this winter opens up a lot of minutes. The following year, White, Josh Oglesby and Gabe Olaseni will be seniors during the first season this current recruiting class is on a college campus.
No, it boils down to winning. As the saying goes, it's not the only thing. But it's the most important thing in recruiting.
With these key performers' eligibility closer to expiring, it's a critical time for recruiting at Iowa. It puts that much more pressure on this upcoming season needing to be a very successful one.
Three main '14 targets still are deciding. Dominique Uhl is planning a Friday announcement. Tory Miller and Jackson Forbes have official visits remaining. Analysts feel like Iowa sits on the outside looking in with Uhl and Miller while Forbes is playing his recruitment pretty close to the vest.
A big winter won't impact that trio as they're expected to sign LOIs next month. The way things sit right now, Ellingson could be the Hawkeyes' lone signee during the early period (Nov. 13-20). That would leave three scholarships open for the late period (April 16-May 21).
Perhaps Iowa would be best served waiting until the spring rather than reaching in this early period. A strong season will open doors with late bloomers and other players available in April. It also gives McCaffery a better idea of his needs after watching his current squad's campaign play out.
McCaffery did the right thing aiming high and mixing it up with the tough competition for prospects. They're what he required to take the program to where he wants. It's just not there yet.