Iowa’s Most Improved Teams


Posted On: 02/1/18 4:54 PM

Each year, there are teams that take major steps forward from where they were a year ago. These improvements can happen for a variety of reasons, and we’ve pinpointed ten schools from around the state who have showed marked improvement on the court this winter.


Cedar Rapids Washington (4-18 last year, 7-9 this year)

The Warriors went through a lot of turmoil early last season with the departure of point guard Hunter Strait, who moved to Ankeny. And, as a result, they were rarely competitive, losing by an average score of 68.6-53.5, with only five of their losses coming by single digits. They’ve already eclipsed last year’s win total, including a pair of impressive wins over Linn-Mar and Mount Pleasant. So what has been the impetus behind this improvement? Well first, they brought back eight key players from last year’s group, so some improvement with continuity should have been expected. But the most important aspect has been the improvement on the defensive end. The Warriors gave up 68.6 points a game last season, and they trimmed nearly 11 points off that total this year, allowing 57.9 points a night. They’ve improved their offensive output by nearly five points from 53.5 to 58.1, but trimming nearly 11 points off the defensive average will always account for more wins. They have a balanced group, with nine players averaging between 2.8 and 10.5 points a game. Coach Decker isn’t afraid to play a lot of guys, and they routinely apply pressure on the defensive end. Things are trending up for the Washington program.


VJ Wilmington

Davenport North (7-15 last year, 11-5 this year)

The Wildcats have always had a fair amount of talent, but it has been a bit of a struggle in previous years to get them to play well together. There were a lot of egos and selfish players in previous iterations of North, while that has subsided this season. The ‘Cats were just 1-7 in games decided by 10 points or less last season, and they’ve improved to 6-2 in those types of games this year. They returned five of their top six scorers from last season, and despite becoming a less efficient offensive team (51.1 FG% last year, 45.5% this year), they’re scoring nearly seven more points a game, playing with a little more pace and freedom. They’ve improved a bit from the free throw line (adding nearly three percentage points), and they’ve become a much more assertive offensive team, getting to the free throw line at a much higher rate, as they’re averaging over five FTA more than they did last season. VJ Wilmington, Max Taylor, Keenan Hollingshed, TJ Vesey, Jared Beck and Lacey Watson provide the ‘Cats with one of the most talented top six rotations in the state, and the improvement in the “W” column backs that up.


Brett Erwin

Davenport West (5-18 last year, 11-5 this year)

The Falcons are an interesting case, because they weren’t competitive for most of last season. Only three of their losses came by single digits last year, and if you take out the pair of blowout wins over Burlington, the average margin in their games was a -11.3. They returned all five starters from that group (Kenny Clay, Trey Sampson, Bailey Garnica, Aaron Gilliland and Brett Erwin), but even with that type of experience returning, an improvement like this shouldn’t have been expected. So what gives? Look no further than the defensive end of the floor, where this group has always had some ability, and they’ve put it together now. Last year they allowed 63.3 points a game, which ranked 300th overall in the state (out of 356 teams). This season that number is 49.1, which is 59th in the state. They’ve trimmed 14 points a game allowed from last year’s total, and that is going to turn an awful lot of losses into wins. They’ve also become much more efficient offensively, cutting their turnovers per game by two (from 10.5 to 8.5), and shooting five percentage points higher from the floor (43.8 to 48.8). This is a group that was a bit like North – they had the talent, but they weren’t putting it together. They’ve put it together this year, and had one of their best seasons in the 2000s.


Graettinger-Terril/Ruthven-Ayrshire (8-14 last year, 12-6 this year)

The Titans have a chance to double their win total from last season, and, as is a trend with these improved teams, the defense is a big reason why. They allowed 61.6 points a game last year, and they’ve cut that number down to 49.7 this season. They brought back a pair of 15 point a game scorers in Tom Geelan and Jacob Conlon and have done a much better job taking care of the ball. Last year they had a .88-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while this year it’s 1.31-to-1. They’ve become a better 3-point shooting team (27.6 to 34.8%), and the development of junior wing Tyson Kruse has been a major story as well. He averaged 2.6 points a game last year as a sophomore, and that number has ballooned up to 10.9 points a game this year, giving the Titans a much needed third scoring option alongside Geelan and Conlon.


Evan Gauger

Indianola (3-19 last year, 10-6 this year)

The Indians have really improved their offensive efficiency, and have done so by improving their decision making. They averaged 15.8 turnovers a game last season, and have trimmed that down to just 10 turnovers a game this year. Those added possessions, along with a substantial increase from 37.3% to 44.2% from the floor this year, has led to the Indians averaging six more points a game. (They’ve also trimmed eight points from their defensive average, for a 14-point differential from where they were last year.) The top four players from last season returned, headlined by Evan Gauger (18.6) and Quinn Vesey (12.6). They’ve also taken advantage of a Little Hawkeye Conference that is a bit down, with teams like Pella Christian, Pella, Grinnell and Newton suffering some major roster losses from last year. They showed some signs of life late last season with a win against Dallas Center-Grimes, who qualified for the 3A State Tournament, and they’ve carried that success into this year.


Luke Appel

Marshalltown (3-19 last year, 5-11 this year)

You’ll notice that the Bobcats are one of only two teams on this list that isn’t above .500, and frankly they aren’t even close. But they’ve become a much, much more competitive team than they were last season. Last year they lost by an average of 69.3-43.0. This year that number is down to 59.4-53.3. The biggest improvement has come from their star forward, Luke Appel, who has improved his numbers across the board. Last year he averaged 15.6 points on 41.0% shooting, while this year it’s up to 21.1 points on 59.4% shooting. The big reason for the uptick in his efficiency? He’s turned himself into more of a slasher or low-post threat. He attempted 132 3s last year and shot just 21.2% on those shots. While he’s actually shooting a worse percentage this year (15.4), he’s attempting far fewer from the arc (52 attempts). He’s taking better shots and as a result, the team is shooting 10.7% better from the floor. They’ve also improved their assist-to-turnover ratio substantially. Last year they had nearly twice as many turnovers as assists, and this year it’s nearly 1-to-1.


Meskwaki Settlement (8-14 last year, 10-6 this year)

The top seven players from last year returned for the Warriors, and they’ve trimmed 11 points a game off their defensive average, dropping from 59.7 to 48.1 points a game. On the offensive end, they still turn the ball over more than they should, but they’ve become much more efficient, as their assist-to-turnover ratio has moved from .63-to-1 to .96-to-1 this year, and their field goal percentage has moved up nearly four points. The Bear brothers, Jarius (19.0) and Tate (17.8) have been really good for Meskwaki, and they’ve gotten much more balanced help from the rest of the roster as well, with five other players averaging between 4.2 and 7.8 points a game.



MOC-Floyd Valley (6-16 last year, 9-8 this year)

The Dutchmen have trimmed six points a game off their defensive average, and improved the offense by four points, resulting in a 10-point differential. Three of the top four players from last year’s team returned, and they’ve become a more efficient offensive team by playing more to their strengths. They shot 44.8% from the floor last season, and that number has improved to 48.4% this year, and they’ve made that improvement by becoming much less reliant on the 3-point shot. A year ago, 41.4% of their shot attempts came from behind the arc, and this season that number has dropped down to 32.8%. It’s a shot that this roster isn’t particularly good at (30.3%), so taking fewer of them makes them a better offense.


Sibley-Ocheyedan (2-20 last year, 7-10 this year)

This is perhaps the most perplexing team on the list, as the Generals have actually gotten worse across the board on the offensive end, with the exception of one big area. Last season they shot just 52.9% from the free throw line. This year they’ve improved to 64.6%. Why is that a big deal? They were just 1-8 in games decided by single digits last season. If they had been a better free throw shooting team, perhaps they could’ve won another three or four of those games. They brought everybody back from that team, and they’ve improved defensively, knocking nine points a game off of their defensive average. They allowed 73.9 points a game last season, which was third worst in the state, regardless of class. They’ve trimmed that to 64.4 a game this year.


Easton Darling

Winterset (6-16 last year, 11-4 this year)

The Huskies are pretty easy to explain. Last season they were absolutely dreadful defensively, allowing 68.9 points a game (344th out of 356). This season they’re allowing 54.3 points a game. Trimming 14.6 points off a defensive average is going to result in major improvement, and it has, as Winterset surpassed last year’s win total right after the holiday break. The Huskies were a very young team last year, with their top two players being a sophomore (Casey Kleemeier) and a freshman (Easton Darling). With an added year of experience for both of them, they’ve become a more efficient offensive team, shooting 46.3% from the floor this season as opposed to just 41% last year. Every single player returned from last year’s roster, so they grew, learned how to play with each other, and most importantly, bought in to the defensive end of the floor. And now, they’re a dark horse to make a state tournament run in a relatively open 3A substate.