Leistikow: Minus Cordell Pemsl, a road map to a key Iowa basketball victory at Indiana

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Within an hour of their 96-72 win against Nebraska on Saturday night, Iowa players were grinning ear-to-ear about the idea of getting two full days off from basketball after playing five games in 13 days.

With a seven-game sprint to the regular-season finish ahead, there was an obvious need to recharge. Coach Fran McCaffery said he would give the players Sunday and Monday off, then resume practice Tuesday. But he didn’t intend for players to check out mentally for 48 hours.

Connor McCaffery, one of Iowa’s core four players logging 30-plus minutes most games, spoke after the Nebraska win about lessons he learned as a redshirt freshman last year, regarding the importance of being smart about every life decision during the home stretch of the Big Ten Conference grind.

Fighting to the finish in the black-and-blue Big Ten is as much about rest and recovery as much than anything. Iowa lost its final four regular-season games a year ago and paid the price, dropping all the way to a No. 10 NCAA Tournament seed and a much tougher road to the Sweet 16.

“You’re weak, you’re tired. You learn,” the head coach’s eldest son said. “You’ve really got to take care of your body. Eat right, sleep well. You can’t be staying up late.”

The Hawkeyes will be without Cordell Pemsl on Thursday at Indiana, meaning an eight-man rotation could be trimmed to seven in a crucial Big Ten road game.

That analysis is spot-on. And that’s maybe the most disappointing part of Cordell Pemsl’s decision to drive with a suspended license early Monday morning. The fourth-year forward knows better. Pemsl, 22, was pulled over in Iowa City at 1:02 a.m. for having a broken taillight. But he never should have been driving to begin with, considering his license had been revoked until March 28, following an OWI charge last Sept. 20.

Now Pemsl’s teammates will pay the price for his selfish decision. Pemsl was suspended one game, meaning he can’t play in Thursday’s 7 p.m. contest at Indiana that may be shaping up as one of the most important of the season in the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes’ quest to earn a top-four seed at the Big Ten tournament.

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Iowa owns a 17-7 overall record and is 8-5 in the Big Ten. Barring a complete collapse, it’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team. But, learning the lesson of last year, carving out the best path possible for an invigorated March run is pivotal right now.

Entering Tuesday’s games, the Hawkeyes were in a three-way tie for fourth in league play — 1½ games out of first place, but also 2½ out of 12th. It’ll almost certainly require at least a 4-3 finish in conference play (to get to 12-8) to have a legit shot at a crucial double-bye in the Big Ten tourney. And of Iowa’s four remaining road games, Indiana appears to be the most winnable. (Trips to Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois follow.)

The Hoosiers (15-8, 5-7) have lost four straight games, two of those coming at home (to Maryland and Purdue). Many of these Hawkeyes know how it feels to win in Assembly Hall, having triumphed there 77-72 last season.

So, without Pemsl, it’s time for everyone to step up.

Luka Garza, stay out of foul trouble. Iowa needs you for at least 35 minutes.

Joe Wieskamp, keep doing what you’re doing. Get ready to play 38.

CJ Fredrick, shoot with confidence. You didn’t attempt a second-half shot against Nebraska after a 2-for-9 first half; Iowa needs your Jordan Bohannon-esque fearlessness in Bloomington.

Connor McCaffery, crash the boards. In the two Big Ten games that Pemsl was relegated to five or fewer minutes, you’re averaging 9.5 rebounds. Consider this your reminder that listless rebounding was a big problem in last week's 104-68 shellacking at Purdue.

Ryan Kriener, channel your best senior self. You haven’t scored in double figures in Iowa’s past five games. These final seven regular-season games of your collegiate career can launch you into the conversation for the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year.

Joe Toussaint and Bakari Evelyn, play smart and under control. You're a combined 23.6% from 3-point range (17 of 72) and silly turnovers (like at Purdue) are a quick way to get the opposing crowd into the game.

And, hey, Riley Till … here’s your chance to show you can at least duplicate the production Pemsl was offering (1.9 points, 2.8 rebounds and 11.6 minutes in league games). We’ve seen you step up in a pinch before, like in last year’s upset of Oregon — when you gathered three offensive rebounds in five spark-plug minutes.

I fully expect the remaining eight scholarship Hawkeyes to bring their best to Assembly Hall on Thursday night. Considering the circumstances and what’s ahead, it might wind up being a game we look back upon as a defining one for the Hawkeyes’ season.

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.