Leistikow: Slimmed-down Hawkeyes rotation working well for Fran McCaffery
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tyler Cook crashed hard to the ground twice Tuesday night, drawing concerned murmurs from the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd.
Thankfully, Iowa’s leading scorer was OK each time.
But the heightened sensitivity surrounding Fran McCaffery’s depth is understandable.
The 6-0, 15th-ranked Hawkeyes are down to nine scholarship players for the rest of the season. They can’t afford to lose anyone else.
It’s nine guys — plus walk-on Riley Till, as needed — against the college basketball world the rest of the way. And Big Ten Conference play has arrived, starting with Friday’s 7 p.m. home game vs. No. 22 Wisconsin.
“The nine guys we have, it’s a good nine,” third-year guard Jordan Bohannon said after the Hawkeyes survived their Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, 69-68, against previously unbeaten Pittsburgh. “It’s mostly guys who have been here a while. It’s a veteran group. We know what we have to do.”
Last year, McCaffery was playing a lot of guys — probably to his detriment — in a 14-19 season. The rotation reached 11 or 12 players, at times. It was difficult for bench players and even starters to find a rhythm.
“I’m not saying Coach is wrong to do that, because we had so many guys that could have played last year,” Bohannon said, “but it’s hard to get in a flow sometimes because so many guys are subbing in all the time.”
Now, McCaffery doesn’t have the option to get zany with his subs.
Now, everyone must understand and embrace their roles.
Forward Cordell Pemsl was the latest Hawkeye to hit the sidelines for the 2018-19 season. The university announced Tuesday that the junior would have season-ending knee surgery and apply for a medical-hardship waiver with the Big Ten. He should get it easily, having only played one game, and will retain two years of eligibility.
The Hawkeyes lost two players to transfer in the offseason (Brady Ellingson and Ahmad Wagner). And McCaffery said the decision to redshirt 6-foot-11 sophomore Jack Nunge won't be undone.
He's comfortable with his versatile nine.
"(It) just means everybody’s got to be ready," lone senior Nicholas Baer said after scoring a season-high 16 points vs. Pitt. "... When you look at our team, we (still) have a pretty deep roster.”
Bohannon and Connor McCaffery can handle point guard. Bohannon, Isaiah Moss and Maishe Dailey give Fran McCaffery added flexibility in the backcourt. Baer, Cook, Ryan Kriener and Luka Garza can handle front-court minutes.
And then there’s Joe Wieskamp.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound freshman was Iowa’s best player against Pitt. Sure, the slimmed-down depth puts more weight on the Muscatine product’s shoulders. But he seems ready for it. He shoots like a guard, rebounds like a forward.
“I view myself as a versatile player, can play the one through the four,” Wieskamp said. “It’s been a little tough, trying to learn all the plays. I know I’m going to make some mistakes, but my teammates are always there if I have a question during the game.”
Wieskamp’s 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Panthers were the reason Iowa remained one of 20 unbeaten teams (out of 353) entering Wednesday’s games.
During one stretch against Pittsburgh, Iowa’s lineup was Connor McCaffery, Bohannon, Moss, Wieskamp and Cook. It seemed Fran McCaffery was testing his options for the inevitable time when front-court depth gets really hairy during this 20-game Big Ten gauntlet.
“He's smart enough and he's talented enough (to play the ‘4’),” McCaffery said of Wieskamp. “And let's face it, a lot of teams in our league are playing 6-foot-4 ‘4’ men now.”
But while Wieskamp’s importance can’t be underestimated in McCaffery’s lineup combinations, the absolute most important piece to Iowa’s puzzle this season with thin depth is Cook.
Good thing he decided to come back to college for another year.
Cook is embracing a heavy responsibility going forward. He’s capable of playing 38 minutes a game, as he did while scoring 26 points against Connecticut in Iowa's title-game win of the 2K Empire Classic in New York City.
But he wants those 38 minutes to be great minutes. After being held to one field goal and nine points against Pitt, he was highly self-critical of his recent performance.
“I haven’t been playing up to my personal standards, as of late, I’ll say,” Cook said, adding that once he does put it together — fans won’t be fretting over Iowa’s front-court depth.
This will be a challenge for McCaffery, especially if more injuries crop up.
But so far, he’s managing it all beautifully. And his players have the right mentality for the grind ahead.
“These guys in the locker room,” Bohannon said, “it doesn’t get any better than what we have.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.