IOWA CITY, Ia. — The 2018-19 Iowa basketball season is seven months away. Yet there might not be a more important stretch of calendar for that Hawkeye team — whatever it’s going to look like — than these next four to eight weeks.
Attrition is ongoing.
Two guys (guard Brady Ellingson and forward Ahmad Wagner) have left the program already; at least one more (dynamic forward Tyler Cook) could be on the move. And on Tuesday, forward Cordell Pemsl indicated he wasn’t sure about his Hawkeye future, saying, “The choice is up to me. I want to do what’s best for my career, on and off the floor. Whatever makes me happy.”
Coach Fran McCaffery tried to diffuse the Pemsl transfer talk a day later, telling Register reporter Mark Emmert, “He’ll be back.”
At minimum, such comments fuel continued uncertainty about what this roster is going to look like a few months from now.
Iowa sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl isn’t sure if he will be back with the Hawkeyes. Chad Leistikow / The Register
Jordan Bohannon, the face of the team, understands these are shaky times.
“Obviously, it’s hard,” he said Tuesday.
The junior-to-be guard is known to put a lot on his shoulders. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s taken it upon himself to try to keep the guys that want to be here engaged. He wants to keep them building and fighting for each other, and for big goals.
It's not an easy ask.
“From my aspect, I’ve just got to ... try to get as many guys out as I can with me to try to turn this thing around,” Bohannon said. “That’s been my main priority day by day.”
Last year’s 14-19 campaign took a toll on guys like Bohannon, Pemsl and Ryan Kriener — second-year players who grew up in Iowa and had experienced a much more positive, 19-win freshman campaign that ended just short of the NCAA Tournament.
To finish 4-14 in the Big Ten, tied for 12th, a year later? In what was an overall down year for the conference? That was a harsh helping of reality.
The disappointment cut deep. Bohannon and Kriener couldn’t stomach turning on the TV too much during the NCAA Tournament. When they did, Bohannon called it “frustrating … knowing that we can play with most of these teams out there.”
In the meantime, something this group of Iowa players is always up for: Finding motivation.
Kriener found some last season that aligns with a newly implemented philosophy change in strength training.
“It’s the eye test. You’d hear people say, ‘You guys don’t look like a Big Ten team.’ That’s something we took to heart,” Kriener said. “We said we want to come out and work really hard in the weight room. And we’re going to look the part next year.”
The past four weeks, strength and conditioning coach Bill Maxwell has had Hawkeye players pumping more iron than ever before. The idea is to be able to pack on more muscle, which often leads to better space-filling, space-holding defense — something that Iowa clearly lacked during the Big Ten grind.
“I already feel bigger. I think I’ve gained 10 pounds, and I still feel like I’m in pretty good shape,” Kriener said. “I feel like it’s going to make a big difference. Everybody’s seeing a lot of gains.”
When I look at the nucleus of the guys expected to be in the fold next year, I see potential.
Bohannon, Connor McCaffery, Isaiah Moss (who said despite his NBA trial balloon he'll be back "for sure" next season), Joe Wieskamp and maybe Maishe Dailey and C.J. Frederick (if he doesn’t red-shirt) in the backcourt; Nicholas Baer, Jack Nunge, Luka Garza, Kriener and maybe Pemsl in the frontcourt.
Keeping them united is the first step. And that’s why Fran McCaffery is lucky to have a driven guy like Bohannon leading the charge.
“I’m going to say the same thing I said last year,” Bohannon said. “We’re going to try to get the Big Ten title; we’re going to try to get the national championship.”
Bohannon knows that sounds ridiculous, given the program has one Sweet 16 in the past 29 years and two NCAA Tournament wins in McCaffery’s eight seasons.
It sounds ridiculous given the roster remains in flux.
“I’ve always said this: If people aren’t laughing at your dreams, then they’re not big enough,” Bohannon said. “I’m always going to set high standards like that. All my teammates around me, they all have that same mindset."
That's good to hear
So what about Cook?
He declined an interview request Tuesday. Other players I talked to Tuesday night say Cook hadn’t told them his plans. That might just be their polite way of letting Cook announce his decision — turn pro or come back to school — in his own time.
The university posted an article Wednesday night with no real updates, but did quote Cook as saying, "When I have all the information in front of me I will be able to make an informed decision."
As long as he doesn't hire an agent, he has until May 30 at 11:59 p.m. ET to make a decision.
“Whatever he decides, we’re going to support him,” Bohannon said. “Either way, we’ll have a positive season going forward. We can’t let anything hold us back.”
Whichever Hawkeyes are left behind, those are the ones that must band together and stay together.
If they don't start doing that now, next season will get even uglier than this one.
“The only thing we have to do is come together as a team," Bohannon said. "I don’t think that’s too (much) to ask that much from each other.”
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.