Leistikow: Hawkeye hoops can be special, but selflessness must prevail
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tyler Cook’s missed foul shot caromed backward, and Nicholas Baer’s outstretched right arm swatted the descending basketball toward an Iowa teammate stationed outside the 3-point line.
From his spot inside the free-throw lane at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Baer raced to an open area in the right corner of the floor.
The ball found its way back to Baer, and he released a baseline 3-pointer with perfect form.
The basket gave his Hawkeyes a 25-point lead in the second half of Thursday’s exhibition win over Belmont Abbey, a small North Carolina private college.
Upon the ensuing timeout, a joyful set of smiling Iowa players ran from their sideline folding chairs to swarm Baer, congratulating him on a smart and productive 7-second sequence in a meaningless game.
The play — and reaction — underscored what the 2017-18 Hawkeye basketball team is, and what it needs to continue to be about.
“You kind of see that on the bench, we’re all cheering for each other and supporting each other,” point guard Jordan Bohannon says. “That’s what winning teams need to do.”
These guys truly like each other.
“We’re super-tight,” Cook says. “Honestly one of the tighter groups I’ve ever played with.”
Although the roster remains young, coach Fran McCaffery’s depth and talent is as good as it’s been in his eight years in Iowa City.
How McCaffery, 58, manages minutes while maintaining chemistry is perhaps the biggest key to the Hawkeyes' season.
Fourth-year program players Baer, Brady Ellingson and Dom Uhl live together. One of their relaxation staples is hosting games of Monopoly. Ahmad Wagner and walk-on Charlie Rose usually join the mix, too.
“We probably got at least 30 games in this summer,” Baer says. “It’s small things like that.”
When they play, Baer always nabs the Monopoly hat as his game piece.
“That’s my guy,” he cracks.
The consistent choice serves as a metaphor for how Baer — the Big Ten Conference’s reigning sixth man of the year — and his teammates must approach practices and games.
Know who you are. Know your role.
Those who have been part of McCaffery’s seven previous teams can attest that his 2014-15 roster was about as good as it gets.
That was Aaron White’s senior year. The 6-9 forward was the emotional and productive star.
Jarrod Uthoff was the versatile second scoring option. Mike Gesell was the selfless point guard. Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni were hard-working, rotating centers. Peter Jok and Josh Oglesby were the designated shooters. Guard Anthony Clemmons was the defensive stopper.
That 2014-15 team triumphed at North Carolina early in the season; it strung together six wins to close the regular season; and it delivered McCaffery’s first NCAA Tournament win as Iowa’s coach, a 32-point blowout of Davidson.
I reached out to White, in his third year of playing pro ball overseas, this week. He attests that group was the most unified of his four-year career, both off the court and — more importantly — on it.
“Everyone knew their roles, minutes and what we needed from them,” White says. “To me, that's the most important thing for a basketball team. You can have all the talent in the world, but you need guys to understand their roles.”
That 2015 team assembled a 12-6 mark in Big Ten play. Baer was just a true freshman walk-on, but he observed why those Hawkeyes had success.
“One thing about that team, it was a really professional atmosphere," Baer said. "Guys understood what their roles were."
As you can see, this is a recurring theme.
McCaffery plays a big part. But his players must buy in, too. They can't all get 25-plus minutes and be stars.
Sophomore forward Ryan Kriener is an excellent example of this. Here's a big man who has flashed inside-outside talent, but lacks experience.
What is his role on this team? And how quickly can McCaffery find it?
Against Belmont Abbey, Kriener's early mistakes on both ends of the court were easy to spot. But McCaffery stuck with him, and he settled in, ending up with four points, nine rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes.
“If you yank him when he’s going too fast, then he doesn’t benefit from this experience. He settled down … and he was tremendous," McCaffery says. "But he wasn’t tremendous when I put him in. That’s, I think, the more important thing to try to get figured out.”
'These guys are special'
A genuine affection among Iowa players was apparent last winter. The 19-15 season, fueled by senior Peter Jok and a crop of talented freshmen, ended in the second round of the NIT.
Now enters a fresh crop of newcomers — all of whom will play. Big men Luka Garza and Jack Nunge and the coach’s oldest son, Connor McCaffery, are ready to make an instant impact. They must find their roles quickly.
Older players have made it a priority to welcome them with open arms.
“We understand that sometimes with a young group, it’s hard to get everything to mesh,” Baer says. “But when these guys came in, we realized these guys are talented; these guys are special.”
By all indications, they’ve assimilated quickly. A two-week, four-game foreign trip to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France sped up that process.
“I think the Europe trip was really great for us,” Connor McCaffery says. “We had so much time off the court.”
This collection of Hawkeyes wants to be great, and not just this year. Uhl, who is battling for a rotation spot, is the only senior. The top-rated recruit of the McCaffery era, swingman Joe Wieskamp, comes aboard next year.
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The fight for playing time has translated to competitive practices — and even a few fights, Cook says.
No blood. Just fire.
“There’s no ill will. It’s not like we actually want to hurt each other,” he says. “But we understand if we’re going to get good, we’ve got to push each other.
“Just going through the ringer with these guys is what’s brought us closer together.”
There’s no time to waste.
Iowa must win, early and often. The regular season begins Nov. 10 against Chicago State. A 3-5 start last year ultimately kept the Hawkeyes just outside of the NCAA Tournament.
This is a tournament-caliber roster.
If the players can find and embrace their roles, they’ll be dancing in March.
“That’s the fuel,” Cook says. “We don’t want to be in the NIT ever again.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.