The Iowa coach likes his entire five-player freshman class. Chad Leistikow
IOWA CITY, Ia. — One basketball player first got noticed while Iowa’s coaches evaluated a more established prospect; the other, thanks to a tip from the women’s team radio analyst.
Thus began the chain of events for the Hawkeye men’s program to land two under-the-radar recruits whose contributions as college freshmen have been much greater than most outsiders expected.
Heck, even to the men who for four or five years have liked what they've seen from Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl are a little surprised at what the in-state pair has two accomplished months into their college playing careers.
“These guys were more ready to compete right away than what maybe we thought,” assistant coach Kirk Speraw said. “That’s a credit to them.”
Right now, their games are unpolished. At times, they’ll make mistakes that remind us they’re just 19-year-olds.
At others, they’ve shown uncanny maturity and clutch play in difficult circumstances.
In Iowa’s 3-4 Big Ten Conference start, Bohannon is the team leader in minutes played (32.6 a game). That’s quite a stat, considering he began the season as Iowa's backup point guard and the roster includes one of the nation's top offensive players (senior Peter Jok).
Bohannon also has 98 assists, his 4.9 average ranking fifth in the Big Ten before Saturday and on pace to easily break Jeff Horner’s Iowa freshman record of 140.
Pemsl has started all seven Big Ten games, too. He averages 9.3 points (third on the team), 5.1 rebounds and, entering Saturday, leads the conference in field-goal percentage (.626).
The duo, AAU teammates starting in ninth grade, have clicked since they were inserted as starters for the first time Nov. 29 at Notre Dame, as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“When he’s high-ball screening for me, I know he’s running to the ball, where he’s at," Bohannon said. "I don’t even have to look.”
Bohannon poured in seven 3-pointers and finished with 23 points and seven assists in that 92-78 loss in South Bend, Ind. Pemsl hit 8 of 9 shot attempts, scoring 18 points in just 23 minutes.
They exploded onto the scene and haven't departed.
It’s a pairing they've discussed for years.
Pemsl was the first to accept the Hawkeyes’ scholarship offer as a high school sophomore in April 2014; Bohannon had to be more patient. His Iowa offer wouldn’t come for another 16 months.
“He hadn’t had a Power Five offer, and he was getting kind of down about it,” Pemsl said. “And I kept telling him, 'You know you can play at this level. As long as you know that, you’ll do it.'”
Head coach Fran McCaffery extended the offer in late August of 2015, and Bohannon — the son of Iowa 1982 Rose Bowl quarterback Gordy Bohannon — accepted the next day.
“We played pretty well together on the AAU circuit,” Bohannon said of Pemsl, “so that just made me want to come here even more.”
How did each player hover under the recruiting radar? Each has his own story.
Pemsl, the low flyer
Before Pemsl would lead Dubuque Wahlert to two state titles and set the school's scoring record, he was mostly an unknown to the Hawkeye staff — until assistant Sherman Dillard received a heads-up from Shelley Till.
Till, who formerly did color commentary for Iowa women’s radio broadcasts, is the mother of Riley Till — a Hawkeye walk-on and then-freshman classmate of Pemsl’s. She recommended Dillard check out Pemsl, who had received his first Division I offer from Creighton.
Dillard drove up to a Wahlert practice and saw a big body with an unconventional style.
“He impressed me with his finesse, with his ability to put the ball in the hole, with the counter moves he had, with the touch he had,” Dillard said. “So from that point on, we turned the heat up, and we started to recruit him earnestly.”
There are two things that probably tamped down Pemsl's recruiting profile. Pemsl was rated as a three-star prospect and No. 232 nationally in the Class of 2016, according to 247Sports' Composite.
No. 1: He lacked to-the-rim explosion that generates buzz and four- or five-star ratings. But as he has shown at Iowa in his 6-foot-8, 249-pound frame, he makes up for it with a knack for finding scoring angles via the backboard.
The Iowa freshman from Dubuque is the Big Ten's field-goal percentage leader. He discusses playing at Iowa and with AAU teammate Jordan Bohannon. Chad Leistikow
Pemsl’s game around the rim is reminiscent of Georges Niang — the former all-Big 12 Conference star at Iowa State who could wheel and deal for buckets despite a height and athleticism disadvantage.
“In recruiting, you (can) overlook some of the things that are so critical and pivotal to a kid having success as a player,” Dillard said. “Everybody wants the high-flyer.”
In that way, Pemsl is a productive low-flyer.
No. 2: Two meniscus tears in his knee caused concern about his long-term health. Doctors recommended an intentional breaking of his femur to realign the balky knee. So that’s what happened after his junior year.
Pemsl returned as a senior to guide Wahlert to a Class 3A runner-up finish. Had he stayed healthy throughout high school, though, he might’ve exploded onto the national recruiting scene. (Not that he was going to go anywhere else.)
“I think it did adversely impact his recruiting, no doubt,” Dillard said. “I think that’s an advantage to us.”
Credit to Iowa for standing behind its early offer to Pemsl — much like McCaffery approached Jok after he experienced knee problems that had recruiters backing off.
And, as it turned out, the injury actually had a way of benefiting this year’s Hawkeye team.
“It made me really think about how I’m going to play at the next level,” Pemsl said, “and how I’m going to be effective.”
Bohannon, the bulldog
Speraw remembers visiting Linn-Mar High School when Marcus Paige, who would eventually become an all-American at North Carolina, was a senior.
He also remembers the little guy at a far-away basket draining 3-pointer after 3-pointer. It was Bohannon, then an eighth-grader, who four years later would be Iowa's Mr. Basketball and the state's leading scorer.
“I was always shooting 3s in the corner whenever someone else was getting recruited,” Bohannon laughed, “trying to get noticed somehow.”
It’s almost staggering how little recruiting interest Bohannon received over the years. His three older brothers had proven themselves at the Division I level (Zach and Jason at Wisconsin, Matt at Northern Iowa), and Jordan was billed as the best Bohannon yet.
Speraw thinks Bohannon's height (6-0) and foot speed probably kept a lot of schools at arm’s length.
But what he saw from Bohannon on the AAU circuit had Iowa’s coaches quietly confident they had uncovered a gem.
“When his team was behind or getting down seven, eight, 10, 12 points, all of a sudden he’s stepping up and making plays and knocking down shots,” Speraw said. “The more you watched him, the more you appreciated his toughness and grittiness and confidence.
“He’s a gamer. He’s not afraid of those moments when you have to step up and make a tough play.”
That’s already translated to the Division I level. Bohannon’s fearless shooting has helped rally the Hawkeyes from large second-half deficits this season, including in all four Big Ten home games (three of which resulted in wins).
There was a feeling on the outside that Bohannon was Iowa's fallback option at point guard, the first high schooler at that position McCaffery had signed since Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons in the Class of 2012.
McCaffery had tossed out a lot of point-guard offers, including a well-documented pursuit of ESPN Top-100 player Charlie Moore of Chicago (now starring at California), but Bohannon ultimately became the Hawkeyes' guy.
“He’s not a fallback in our minds. … We always knew he had a great feel for the game,” Speraw said, “and he was one of the better shooters in the country.”
Getting Division I-ready so quickly might be Bohannon's most impressive accomplishment.
He’s grown in multiple ways.
He bulked up from 155 after his high school season to his listed weight of 182 by pounding weights and food as part of Iowa strength coach Bill Maxwell’s offseason plan. Bohannon thinks the added strength has helped him stand up to the Big Ten's physicality.
But what helped him the most was game experience. After Iowa's first six games, he had beaten out Christian Williams for the starting point-guard spot. In Thursday's loss to Maryland, Bohannon played 38 minutes to Williams' two.
“The tempo of the game, that really got to me the first couple games,” Bohannon said. “Once things slowed down, I started reading some things and realizing the game’s a lot slower once you stop overthinking.”
The Iowa freshman took a different path than his older brothers, and learned a lot from Marcus Paige to prepare for Division I. Chad Leistikow
A promising future
Speraw pointed out one other piece to the recruiting puzzle with eastern Iowans Bohannon and Pemsl that shouldn’t be overlooked.
“They love being Hawkeyes and take a lot of pride in being Hawkeyes,” Speraw said. “It means a lot to them to be on this team.”
Add 6-9 forward Ryan Kriener to the list of in-state finds, too. The freshman from Spirit Lake has emerged recently as a bench contributor, having averaged 8.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in Iowa’s last three games.
What makes their emergence seem a little more surprising is that Tyler Cook, the team’s second-leading scorer, was by far the most-hyped freshman in this five-player Class of 2016. On media day, even McCaffery touted the top-100 recruit as an impact player “on our team, in our league, and on a national level. I think he's that good.”
But it could certainly be argued that Bohannon has had the biggest impact among Iowa’s four starting freshmen.
He probably delivered the biggest shot in Iowa’s stirring home win against rival Iowa State, and he came up with five key overtime points in a 17-point, six-assist, no-turnover performance in the Jan. 1 home win vs. Michigan.
After the game, Wolverines coach John Beilein said of Bohannon: “That kid is playing as well as any freshman point guard in the country.”
Hardly a comment reserved for a fallback.
Bohannon continues to work on his quick-release shot from the outside, something he learned from Paige when he came back to Linn-Mar. Though he’s hitting 3-pointers at a 36-percent clip (40 of 112), he knows that can go up.
Pemsl knows he can shoot better from the free-throw line and from the outside. He said he's a good shot from 17 feet, but has been “timid” 20 games into his college career.
It’s easy to get frustrated with the losses and inconsistency. Iowa is 11-9, having lost two in a row, entering Wednesday’s road game at Illinois.
But even the freshmen understand the big picture, that — as Pemsl said — they're building "something special" together.
Certainly Bohannon and Pemsl are doing their part to set the foundation.
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.