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Leistikow: Why CJ Fredrick's comeback is a game-changer for Iowa basketball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — CJ Fredrick was right there with you, worried he was going to be lost from the Iowa basketball team for an extended period of time. Maybe even the season.

But for the few days leading up to Tuesday’s game at Northwestern, the sharp pain in the side of his left foot subsided. Maybe that week in that gaudy, gray immobilizing boot did wonders.

“I just kept the faith and stayed positive,” Fredrick said. “And here we are.”

And, perhaps, here the Hawkeyes go.

With Fredrick, so much more seems possible. The steady freshman’s presence in all aspects of Iowa’s 75-62 Big Ten Conference road win at Welsh-Ryan Arena provides renewed hope for what’s ahead.

“It really helps to have another sniper out there on the perimeter,” said teammate Ryan Kriener, whose 10 points combined with Luka Garza’s 27 accounted for nearly half of Iowa’s points. “It opens everything up inside a little more.”

CJ Fredrick's ability to take smart shots and extend defenses is critical for the Luka Garza-Joe Wieskamp-powered Hawkeyes. He scored 11 points in Evanston.

After missing his first two tries from long range, Fredrick coolly dropped in three zone-busting 3-pointers in less than five minutes of game clock near the end of the first half. He finished with 11 points and also dished out five of Iowa’s 24 assists.

Next time you watch an Iowa game, pay attention to Fredrick’s court positioning, the way he defends, the decisions he makes. Fredrick plays like a veteran; no wonder he was Kentucky's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2018. If it weren't for Garza's ascent into an all-American-caliber season, Fredrick would be the team's most pleasant surprise.

Fran McCaffery, of course, isn’t surprised.

“He’s a post feeder. He moves the ball. He’s a very intelligent defender. He’s always in the right place. He’s just got great feel,” McCaffery said after his team jumped to fourth nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency — it had dropped from third to sixth without Fredrick. “If we’re running motion, if we’re running sets, if we’re in man, if we’re pressing. He’s just a guy that understands what we want.

“He’s a baller.”

Teammates behind the scenes last year saw this coming, too. While redshirting, Fredrick was one of the best guards on the team in practice. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to be kept off the court, if healthy. That emergence was a factor in three-year Isaiah Moss opting to leave as a graduate transfer.

Fredrick was coming. And now he’s here.

But for how long?

That’s the tenuous part of stress reactions. They are unpredictable. There was concern that he could miss weeks or more. Managing that foot is going to be the latest priority No. 1 for busy trainer Brad Floy going forward.

“It feels good right now,” Fredrick said after playing 30 minutes, 55 seconds — second-most on the team behind Joe Wieskamp’s 35:12. “(Wednesday) will be big to see how it feels. I have good days and I have bad days. Hopefully, I keep having good days.

“We’re just going to keep treating it and see how it goes.”

Maybe it was finally that some injury news went its way or maybe it was joy that a 12-game span with nine away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena was over. But it just seemed like this Hawkeye team left Welsh-Ryan with a new vibe. The road win — even against Chris Collins’ team that’s had more bad days than good — was important validation after Friday’s home takedown of then-No. 12 Maryland.

A slip-up here would’ve been costly.

The losses to Penn State and Nebraska — winnable road games that slipped away in the final minutes with Fredrick unavailable — still sting. If Iowa could’ve snagged even one of those, it’d currently be 4-2 and tied for second place in the Big Ten with three home games on deck against Michigan, Rutgers and Wisconsin.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Kriener said. “All you can do is go from that point. We did a really good job of locking in and executing.”

Bakari Evelyn (4) is finding a more prominent, valuable role as the season wears on. He had eight points, seven assists and no turnovers Tuesday.

It’s not just Fredrick’s return that gave this team a lift Tuesday night.

It was another strong floor game from Bakari Evelyn, the graduate transfer who looked lost early in the season. After playing a season-high 30 minutes against Maryland, Evelyn played 27:31 and scored eight points with seven assists and no turnovers.

“We’ve had some struggles with players being in and out and roles changing, for myself included,” Evelyn said, hitting on an important point.

And, in another positive development, redshirt junior Cordell Pemsl is starting to look more like his freshman self. He registered his second straight four-assist game, not bad for a 6-foot-9 forward in 15 minutes.

“I thought Pemsl tonight was great as a post feeder,” McCaffery said. “On the one side of the zone, he was guarding three guys. His activity level was great."

What we’re seeing is a team with guys zeroing in on defined roles.

Garza is the go-to center, whose scoring average jumped to 22.3 points overall and stayed at a ridiculously good 27.2 in Big Ten games.

Wieskamp is the all-around, secondary star who logs heavy minutes and can fill the net from inside and out.

Connor McCaffery is beginning to find his 3-point stroke; he splashed two more Tuesday and led the team with seven rebounds.

Evelyn provides stability, especially when Joe Toussaint has an off night. Pemsl and Kriener are embracing their ability to bring interior grit.

And then there’s Fredrick.

No question, he’s the difference-maker. His presence can help if Wieskamp (2-for-8 Tuesday) has a rare off night. With Fredrick as a third scorer, the rest of the guys don't have to do too much; they can settle into their roles.

With Fredrick, this looks like an NCAA Tournament team.

Now he just needs to catch a break and keep that healthy foot.

Fingers crossed. Toes crossed.

“If he’s good to go, he’s going to be in the starting lineup,” McCaffery said. “He looked like he didn’t miss a beat to me.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.