Leistikow: Challenging, fun Hawkeye hoops season is here
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Lower expectations, higher intrigue and perhaps a new identity welcome the Iowa basketball team at the 2016-17 arrival gate.
It’s a combination that presents Fran McCaffery with one of his biggest coaching challenges in seven years here — while potentially being his most enjoyable.
“It’s a fun group to be around,” Kirk Speraw, McCaffery’s top assistant, says. “Some of these young guys are further along than maybe what you have anticipated.”
How, and how quickly, McCaffery fits 10 freshmen and sophomores around star shooting guard Peter Jok over the next four months is the biggest story of the season.
It officially begins with the Nov. 11 opener against Kennesaw State, and then escalates quickly, with four non-conference games against top-30 teams (Seton Hall, Virginia, Notre Dame and Iowa State) in the first month.
McCaffery thinks Hawkeye hoops fans are a “sophisticated” group that understands the journey that lies ahead.
“I don't wake up and say, 'Well, they’re going to give up on us if we're 1-3',” McCaffery says. “I don't have that feeling. I think they'll analyze our personnel and say, 'OK, do we think Tyler Cook is going to be as good as Fran said he's going to be?'
“ 'Let's see how Jordan Bohannon comes along with Christian (Williams); can we get the point guard situation where we want it to be?'
“ 'Which one of these other guys steps up?' ”
The key for McCaffery
For the past four seasons, McCaffery — for better and sometimes worse — rode the highs and lows that came with Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons and Jarrod Uthoff.
They were trusted veterans but also a crutch of inflexibility.
Now, that quartet's combined average of 116.3 minutes per game from last season’s 22-11 NCAA Tournament team are gone, opening a new canvas of opportunity.
If McCaffery is going to get this most out of this team, he and his staff need to play the matchups, ride the hot hands … and sit the cold ones.
It seems like they understand that.
“There might be this group of three guys really playing well this week,” Speraw says. “And next week, it might be these four guys over here that are playing really well.”
Maybe a guy like forward Dom Uhl plays 30 minutes on Wednesday and eight on Saturday.
Maybe guard Brady Ellingson hits three 3-pointers in 12 minutes in one game, gets hooked quickly the next.
The key for each Hawkeye is to understand that it’s OK if their number isn’t called every night.
It’s a philosophy of developing versatility that Joe Maddon utilized in leading the Chicago Cubs to a 103-win baseball season and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.
Javy Baez wasn’t an everyday second baseman during the regular season. But he rode a postseason hot streak to earn National League Championship Series co-MVP.
“You've got to do it when the TV lights come on,” McCaffery says. “Then you've got to do it consistently, and that's the hardest thing. That's the journey, and I think that's the fun of it, but it's the challenge, as well. And there could be bumps in the road.”
About that versatility
Is this a team that can go shock some heavyweights? Or will there be some humbling 20- to 30-point losses that McCaffery has mostly avoided for four years? Something in between?
If nothing else, the Hawkeyes will have a different look.
Cook, probably the most talented recruit to join Iowa during the McCaffery era, could transition in-game from dunking and rebounding to dribbling the ball up the court and shooting 3-pointers.
Sophomore Ahmad Wagner, exclusively an inside banger last year, has been developing a 3-point shot, too.
Iowa's starting lineup could be a blend of five rangy guys between 6-foot-5 and 6-9.
“We’ve got play-makers. We’ve got shooters," Jok says. "We’ve got bigs that can run and play different positions. We don’t have a true point guard or a true center."
And they like it that way.
“We’re just putting good players out there," Speraw says, "and we’re letting good players play."
In the front court alone, McCaffery has muscular aggressors in Wagner (6-7, 235) and Cook (6-9, 253); a scrappy do-it-all in Nicholas Baer (6-7, 205); an outside-shooting marksman who can rebound in Dale Jones (6-7, 227); an inside-outside option in Dom Uhl (6-9, 217); and freshmen that range from crafty left-hander Cordell Pemsl (6-8, 249) to rebound-hawking Ryan Kriener (6-9, 247).
“We all do different things in different ways," Pemsl says. "And it’s not something that every team can guard."
What can we expect?
Those bumps McCaffery mentioned? Expect several.
The key will be learning from them.
“They don’t understand what’s coming their way,” Speraw says as he casts a glance his eyes across the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor, where the Hawkeyes bring a mix of laughs and intensity to practice. “They think they understand. But they don’t know what it’s going to be like on the road in the Big Ten.”
The good news is, there’s one proven senior to lead them.
Jok is a preseason all-Big Ten, smooth scoring threat who has a good chance to become the first Hawkeye since Adam Haluska in 2007 to average 20 points a game.
“It’s always helpful when you have a senior leader who is also a scorer,” McCaffery says. “It gives you a go-to guy. … With all the youth that we have, there’s going to be some level of inconsistency.
“Early on is where you need veterans to step up.”
USA TODAY Sports predicts Iowa to finish ninth in the Big Ten. If the Hawkeyes can exceed that by 2-3 notches, they'll have a shot at reaching a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament. That's something that hasn't happened at Iowa since Tom Davis took the baton from George Raveling in the 1980s.
Players, coaches and fans are ready to see what happens.
"The young guys have adjusted to the fact that we have to step up and play not like freshmen," Cook says. "We need guys to come in and be killers right away.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.