Iowa wants to run a freewheeling offense; does it finally have the players to do so?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tyler Cook may have the most clearly defined position on the Iowa men’s basketball team.

At 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, the sophomore is the embodiment of a power forward.

So what in the world was Cook doing dribbling the ball upcourt in Tuesday’s game against Virginia Tech, stopping 25 feet from the basket and delivering an entry pass to the post?

Jordan Bohannon is known for his 3-point shooting. But Iowa's sophomore point guard also has the green light to attack the basket, as he did here against Alabama State last month. It's part of the freedom coach Fran McCaffery wants to give his Hawkeyes in his eighth year as coach. "It's available for everybody," McCaffery says of his offense.

It’s the approach eighth-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wants to employ — the so-called “positionless offense” best manifested by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. And there are signs that he may be building a roster to pull it off.

“We’ve got our big guys handling the ball. We’ve got our big guys shooting 3s. Our smaller guys posting. And that’s kind of how the offense is designed. It’s available for everybody,” said McCaffery, whose Hawkeyes (4-3) open Big Ten Conference play with a 4 p.m. home game Saturday against Penn State (6-2) on BTN.

“I’ve had the most success in my coaching career coaching this style. And of course, sometimes it takes a while. When you first take over, you inherit what you have and that takes a little bit of time. But it’s a fun way to play and so the kids typically buy in quickly. Because I give them freedom. I want them to be players and I want them to make plays, and I think any time an athlete feels that the coach has that kind of confidence in them, then they want to produce.”

It hasn’t always been pretty in the opening games this season. Tuesday’s 79-55 loss at Virginia Tech was the most jarring example. The Hawkeyes were sharing the ball with ease in the first half, shooting 51.7 percent, with eight players making field goals. The score was 38-all.

The second half brought a stark turnaround. The Hawkeyes missed 25 of their first 28 attempts and got blown out.

The motion offense Iowa wants to run bogged down, as it did in the first half of a loss to Louisiana on Nov. 20. And the weakness of the positionless concept was exposed. When the shots aren’t falling, and the other team can exploit defensive mismatches, things can go south in a hurry.

“We’re going to play a lot of possessions. When you’re playing fast, you factor in fatigue,” McCaffery said.

This is the challenge that will come into focus for Iowa during its Big Ten season. Can the Hawkeyes run a freewheeling and unpredictable offense well enough to offset their defensive limitations?

If they do, wins will follow and fans will find it an exhilarating brand of basketball to watch. If not …

“We’re a running team, and I don’t think we’ve really established that,” sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon said after the Hawkeyes lost two of three games last week in the Cayman Islands. “And you saw that on the scoreboard. We still have defensive breakdowns. It’s a long process, but we’re taking it step by step.”

McCaffery’s final team at Siena, in 2009-10, finished 43rd in the nation in adjusted tempo, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Last year’s Hawkeyes were 44th en route to a 19-15 season. This year, things have been rocky in the first seven games and the team is a middling 159th in tempo, not nearly where it wants to be.

“Coach really just lets us play free. We’re just out there hooping. We’re finding whoever’s hot,” Cook said of the Hawkeye offensive ideal.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that do a lot of different things. If I get on a break, Coach gives me free rein just to push it, go score, go find passes.”

Cook and Bohannon lead Iowa at 14.1 points per game. They were among the top freshmen in the Big Ten a year ago and will be the cornerstones of whatever happens this season.

But they are surrounded by players who embrace the positionless mantra. Junior Nicholas Baer, at 6-7, can play either wing spot or the power forward. Freshman Jack Nunge, who is 6-11, is in the same mold.

Bohannon is the team’s only point guard, but that isn’t a rigid designation. The team’s best 3-point shooter (22-of-45 this season) occasionally plays off the ball to get more freedom of movement and hunt shots.

Freshman Luka Garza, at 6-11, is the closest thing to a true center Iowa has. But he too will space the floor on offense and even has the green light to attempt 3s.

“There’s a lot of freedom of movement in our offense, which I think all the players appreciate,” Baer said. “When we do have five players who can all make plays off the dribble and make plays in the post, that’s something that’s really going to benefit us.”

Iowa isn’t there yet. But it’s getting closer, thanks to the additions of Garza and Nunge, and the maturation of both Bohannon and Cook.

“We don’t want to be too predictable. So I think we’re hard to scout,” McCaffery said of his offense, adding it only works if players are unselfish.

“I’m looking to see, if we execute a play, does a guy break it off? Now you have the option to break it off, but if you’re going off on your own, you better not miss somebody who’s open.”