Leistikow: The case for Fran McCaffery to tighten his rotation

Chad Leistikow

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Does Fran McCaffery’s rotation need slimming?

It’s a question I thought about this past week while watching the Iowa basketball coach try myriad lineup combinations in back-to-back road losses.

It’s something McCaffery is mulling, too, as the inconsistent Hawkeyes enter their final five-game stretch of the regular season.

“I think that’s a legitimate question,” McCaffery said following Saturday’s 77-66 loss at Michigan State. “It’s a struggle for me. It’s a struggle for our staff.”

Of McCaffery’s 13 scholarship players, all but Maishe Dailey and Dale Jones have seen regular action.

In my opinion — at this point of the season and under the current circumstances — 11 is too many.

With a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery (left, alongside Tyler Cook) has found it to be a challenge to juggle playing time fairly and effectively.

The poster child for this argument is Cordell Pemsl.

In the past two games, the freshman forward has come off the bench and provided instant production. Yet both times, he vanished for long stretches afterward.

Against Minnesota, he scored four points in seven minutes. But then he went close to an hour of real time — from the 9-minute, 14-second mark of the first half until 12:00 of the second — without playing.

Against Michigan State, he registered five points in five minutes, then languished on the bench for the final 8:55 of the first half.

In both games, Pemsl still got key action down the stretch. He ended up with 10 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes versus the Spartans. But it’s been an adjustment for a guy that started 14 games earlier this season.

“It’s obviously different, because I went from almost two months starting to being moved to the bench,” Pemsl said. “It’s just something you have to accept and understand it’s for the better of the team.”

But is it?

It’s a difficult position for McCaffery, who likes to reward his players for good practice and preparation with playing time. He’s got a hungry group and, in turn, a lot of deserving mouths to feed.

He wants to get Pemsl more minutes. He wants to get Dom Uhl more minutes (he played five in both halves Saturday). He wants to get Ryan Kriener, who came up big when called upon in wins against Purdue and Ohio State, more minutes.

McCaffery wound up with some unusual lineup combinations in the first half at Minnesota as he searched for a spark. You can’t blame him for trying.

But they can’t all get more minutes. And the time for experimentation is running out.

“I’m trying to be fair and I’m trying to get guys going,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes maybe I’ll have to scale it back and just play some guys more and see how that works.”

In analyzing this a little deeper, I came to an interesting discovery.

During Iowa’s two longest winning streaks of the season, a key player was sidelined with an injury.

The Hawkeyes won five in a row in December while Tyler Cook was out with a broken finger.

When they won three in a row before this week’s slide, two of the victories came while leading scorer Peter Jok was out with a back injury.

It’s not that Iowa is a better team without Jok or Cook, its top-two scorers. But in those wins, the lineup was naturally tightened. Cook's injury allowed Pemsl to get into a better flow. Jok's injury enabled Brady Ellingson to emerge in extended minutes.

In one of Iowa’s signature victories, 78-64 vs. Iowa State minus Cook, McCaffery used just nine Hawkeyes — the only time he’s done that in 26 games.

Against Ohio State minus Jok, nine guys played at least 15 minutes, none more than 29. The resulting energy and flow (32 baskets, 21 assists, nine turnovers) was apparent. Things clicked.

With a now-healthy roster, can McCaffery get his rotation down from 11 to nine? I think he should. I think he has to.

The evidence shows it can work.

So if McCaffery makes a change, who stays and who goes? That’s where it gets tricky.

Where I’d start: The obvious musts. That’d be Jok, Cook, Pemsl, point guard Jordan Bohannon and forward Nicholas Baer. They’ve been Iowa’s most reliable five contributors.

From there, I’d keep guards Isaiah Moss and Ellingson in the mix. Moss is Iowa’s best player in transition and can defend, while Ellingson adds a steady hand who can play some point while also leading the Big Ten in 3-point percentage.

Then it gets tough. McCaffery should pick two big men out of Ahmad Wagner, Dom Uhl and Ryan Kriener and roll with the decision. If pressed, I’d sit Uhl, who has scored in double figures just once this season.

McCaffery can still go big or go small without going deeper than nine regulars.

And he can keep Christian Williams in spot-duty standby as the 10th man if Bohannon gets into foul trouble (as he did Saturday) or as a defensive stopper.

So far, no perfect mix has been found.

As Pemsl said Saturday, “It’s something that even this far into the season, we’re trying to figure out.”

This is hardly a crisis. The Hawkeyes’ two-game losing streak has occurred in hostile road venues.

But now’s the time for action, with an effort to ignite a season-ending flurry. Iowa (14-12 overall, 6-7 Big Ten) has shown it can hang with and beat quality opponents. What’s missing is consistency.

Streamlining the rotation and defining roles for the stretch run might help McCaffery find some.

It’s worth a (calculated) shot.

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.