Leistikow: Iowa well-positioned to handle challenges of a COVID-19 basketball season
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Monday marked the 11th media-day news conference in Fran McCaffery’s tenure at Iowa, and it was certainly the most unique. Reporters were generously spaced out, all wearing masks, on the fourth floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. This was the first time McCaffery’s had a preseason-ranked team to discuss, let alone one that was ranked No. 5 nationally by the Associated Press. There wasn’t a schedule for McCaffery to talk about, even though the start of the regular season was 16 days away.
But McCaffery has no reason to worry about historic hype surrounding his program or unexpected turns that surely will come as the Big Ten Conference (and nation) conducts a basketball season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The average age of Iowa’s returning top seven players — with a combined 350 games of Division I starting experience — will be 21 years, 9 months as of the anticipated Nov. 25 opener against a to-be-announced opponent.
Fifth-year guard Jordan Bohannon is almost 23½ years old. Connor McCaffery is nearly 22½. All-American center Luka Garza and forward Jack Nunge will turn 22 during the season. Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick celebrated their 21st birthdays over the summer. Sophomore Joe Toussaint is the infant of the group; he turned 20 last month.
“You've got a lot of guys that can score, a lot of guys who want to score,” Fran McCaffery said. “A lot of guys who can carry a team on any particular day.”
Considering the state of the coronavirus pandemic, which is spiking in the Midwest and nationally, flexibility is going to be paramount for teams to experience on-court success over the course of four months.
A confirmed positive COVID-19 test, under Big Ten Conference return-to-play protocols established in football, would sideline a player for 21 days. An ill-timed illness could mean missing six or seven Big Ten games … or even the postseason.
Iowa should be as well-positioned as anyone to withstand unexpected absences.
Toussaint and Bohannon can play point guard (the 1 spot); Bohannon and Fredrick are great options at shooting guard (the 2). Fran McCaffery touted freshman Ahron Ulis as being able to play multiple guard positions, and fellow newcomer guard Tony Perkins might be the best athlete on the team.
Wieskamp will probably mostly play the 3 spot but can easily become a 4 (if Patrick McCaffery slides in at the 3) with his length and strength. Nunge is primarily a 4, but he is Iowa’s best bet to back up Garza at the 5 when the senior star needs a rest.
And then of course, there’s the most versatile piece of them all in Connor McCaffery — a bulked-up 6-foot-5 athlete who can play all five positions. He can handle the point-guard slot (as evidenced by his leading the nation in assist/turnover ratio last season) and even played the 5 in a game against San Diego State last season. The coach’s oldest son gives his father a wealth of options without having to go past seven- or eight-deep.
“It just gives me a lot of different ways that I can go,” Fran McCaffery said.
To ramp up for a season of unknowns, McCaffery said he has been mixing and matching practice lineups constantly.
“The practices have been incredibly competitive,” McCaffery said. “We kind of rotate those guys on different teams, try different combinations because we very well may have to play different combinations this year not knowing what's going to happen week to week.
“The good news is we have a lot of different options to look at if we need to. It starts with our experienced guys, but I think the freshman group, in particular, has been really competitive. … Those guys have been able to lift and learn, and they're good players. They’re versatile."
McCaffery correctly pointed out that the rest of the Big Ten is pretty loaded, too. Half of the league is ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, including defending champion Wisconsin (No. 7), talent-rich Illinois (No. 8) and always-good Michigan State (No. 13).
Winning the Hawkeyes' first regular-season Big Ten title in 41 years won't be easy, especially this year. But at least they're well-equipped for the fight ahead.
"We have enough weapons offensively," McCaffery said. "I think we have enough depth to keep fresh bodies on the floor defensively. I think we have enough size. I think most importantly we have enough three-point shooters because you can't have enough of those, especially the way the game is being played today, and especially the way we play.
"I really like our team."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.