Iowa hoops: Not enough guard depth, not enough consistency, not enough commitment
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands — If you were wondering how long it would take before Christian Williams’ decision to transfer hurt the Iowa men’s basketball team, the answer is: three games.
The Hawkeyes have struggled in many areas while losing their first two games in the Cayman Islands Classic this week, but a lack of depth at guard has been particularly glaring.
It showed up Tuesday at both ends of the court in an 80-72 loss to South Dakota State at John Gray Gymnasium. Starting guards Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss played 32 minutes each. No other guard recorded a point or assist.
Junior Brady Ellingson was the first to check in, and he was active early, with a rebound and a pass that should have resulted in a Cordell Pemsl basket. But he did nothing else in his nine minutes.
Maishe Dailey played five minutes, missed both of his shots and was sent to the bench.
Senior Dom Uhl, normally a forward, even got two minutes at shooting guard in the second half — the first time he’d played in three games — as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery tried to find someone who could positively affect the game while his starting guards got some rest.
Williams would have been Bohannon’s primary backup this season, but he announced he was transferring the day before Iowa’s first exhibition game. He will continue his career at Indiana State. His absence is felt primarily on the defensive end, where the Jackrabbits made the Hawkeyes pay by sinking 10 of 20 3-pointers.
Freshman Connor McCaffery will eventually be Bohannon’s backup, but he is out for another two weeks with mononucleosis.
In the meantime, the Hawkeyes have two proven options in the backcourt, and not much else. That was enough to beat three poor teams at home to start the season. It hasn’t been enough against tougher opponents Louisiana and South Dakota State here this week.
Hawkeyes out of sync
It’s also been notable this week how rare it is for the Hawkeyes to get five players performing well simultaneously. Moss has been consistently energetic and eager to shoot, scoring 42 points. Freshman Jack Nunge has provided a nice lift off the bench, with 24 points.
Everyone else has been either effective in spurts, or quiet altogether.
“Our second unit’s really been good. I’ve been so impressed with them. But (Tuesday) they weren’t, and that’s unfortunate,” McCaffery said. “But they’ll be back.”
Iowa’s problems typically show up foremost on the defensive side. That’s what reserve forward Cordell Pemsl has noticed, too.
“It’s not all the defense. It’s more the communication and playing together as one,” Pemsl said after scoring two points in 12 minutes Tuesday. “We’ve been struggling with locating guys on the floor, understanding personnel in-game and realizing when to help and when not to help.”
Louisiana and South Dakota State have made the Hawkeyes pay, with each team scoring 80 points. Pemsl suggested that part of the problem has been that Iowa wasn’t ready for a step up in competition.
“These are the first two games we’ve played where we knew going in that we needed to play at our best level. I think that sometimes we can overlook people and overlook teams. It’s just a reality check,” Pemsl said. “We show spurts of great defense and we show spurts of nobody knows what’s going on and ‘why is this happening?’”
Those latter spurts are the ones that need to end quickly if the Hawkeyes are going to be a factor in the Big Ten Conference race.
Iowa’s best second-half stretch came after McCaffery used a three-quarters-court press and got the Jackrabbits out of rhythm. There was a steal and a layup by Wagner and a pair of shot-clock violations in that stretch as the Hawkeyes closed to within 63-62.
But there were longer stretches when Iowa’s zone was riddled by South Dakota State.
“We made a decision to try to take away as many 3s as we could, which made us susceptible to straight-line drives,” McCaffery said. “A good number of times we played it perfectly, but a couple of times they got away from us, especially in zone. The zone wasn’t good for us (Tuesday).”
Added Iowa forward Ahmad Wagner: “We knew they had a lot of 3-point shooters. We wanted to limit their 3-point makes. And we didn’t do that. … That’s just not acceptable, especially when it’s a key to the game.”
Locking down on Daum
Iowa did a good job frustrating South Dakota State star Mike Daum, holding him to 10 points and forcing him to commit four turnovers. Daum, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, averages 19 points.
Iowa’s Tyler Cook got the primary assignment on Daum.
“That’s a tough dude to guard. He’s so versatile. He can put it on the floor. He can definitely shoot it from anywhere in the gym, really. He’s a smart player, too, He’s a veteran guy,” Cook said.
“I think we did a decent job of staying in front of him, trying to limit his touches and trying to play him physical.”
The problem was that paying so much attention to Daum opened shooting opportunities for guards such as David Jenkins Jr. and Tevin King. They combined for 39 points.
“Some guys, including myself, we would help and then not get back fast enough to close out,” Moss said, adding the next step for Iowa is:
“Just 40 minutes of straight defense, hard, intensity. We can’t have too many mental breakdowns like we had today.”
Where are the leaders?
Peter Jok was the guy who would gather the Hawkeyes together during rough patches last season and get them to re-focus. He was the lone senior on that squad and also its leading scorer.
This year Iowa’s lone senior is Uhl, who rarely plays.
Who is going to fill that void? So far, nobody, although when the Hawkeyes get junior forward Nicholas Baer back from his broken finger (possibly as soon as next Tuesday at Virginia Tech) that will certainly help.
“Leadership comes from a lot of different entities. It’s not just your point guard or your veterans or your captain,” McCaffery said. “Baer would probably help if he was playing, no question. … We just need all our veteran guys, even if they’re young, to lead.”
Wagner, who has been serving as a co-captain along with Uhl during Baer’s injury, put the burden on himself.
“We fall asleep sometimes defensively. We fall asleep offensively as well, don’t cut as hard. … You just can’t have those mental lapses if you want to be a great team and beat great teams as well,” Wagner said.
“We trust each other, trust our coaches and we can bounce back from this. … Sometimes we don’t show it on the court, and that’s a fault of mine. I take responsibility for that. I’ve got to be a leader on the court.”