IOWA CITY, Ia. — Beyond an 8-3 record, perhaps the biggest success in the first 1½ months of Iowa’s basketball season has been bench development.
“Bench play is crucial throughout the season,” Iowa leading scorer Jarrod Uthoff said. “Guys get worn down. And a lot of times, you need a spark off the bench. When you bring energy, nothing replaces it.”
With just Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. game against Tennessee Tech separating the RPI No. 34 Hawkeyes and their Dec. 29 Big Ten Conference opener against No. 1 Michigan State, coach Fran McCaffery has identified a dependable collection of nine guys with complementary skill sets.
Going into the season, how five veterans would blend with eight or nine unproven players to find 200 minutes of game-night harmony was one of the key unknowns.
“We knew what we were going to get from the starting five. Can you get the kind of productivity you’re going to need over an extended period of time?” McCaffery said Monday. “Because you’ve got to be at least nine deep, hopefully 10 deep, sometimes you need to be 11 deep. We already found that out.”
Indeed, the rotation firmly included 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Dale Jones — an inside-outside threat who can rebound — before he was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in practice after Iowa’s sixth game.
But a replacement for Jones has been found with a combination of 6-8 sophomore Dom Uhl’s lengthy athleticism, 6-7 freshman Nicholas Baer’s scrappy energy and 6-7 Ahmad Wagner’s inside strength. Those three, plus 6-4 freshman Brady Ellingson — more of a spot-up shooter in the mold of former Hawkeye Josh Oglesby — give Iowa four bench players to spell veteran starters Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Peter Jok, Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell.
Uhl played 28 minutes to Woodbury’s 12 in Saturday’s Drake win. Baer was so good he was Big Ten freshman of the week.
On Ellingson (55 percent shooter), McCaffery said: “He’s very efficient. He’s a better defender than people think. He doesn’t make mistakes handling the basketball, and he makes shots.”
On Wagner, the only true freshman in the top nine: “A guy that little by little is going to get more playing time. You see what he’s capable of doing.”
So, true freshmen guards Andrew Fleming and Christian Williams are on the outside looking in — primarily because at their position, there are four guys (Gesell, Clemmons, Jok, Ellingson) between them and the court.
But if Iowa can get a decent Tennessee Tech team under control in Tuesday’s ESPN3-televised game, perhaps Fleming and Williams could get their first action since Dec. 7 against Western Illinois.
But that’s no lock. At 8-4, the RPI No. 197 Golden Eagles are off to their best start in 14 years — and have come back from double-digit deficits four times to win games.
"I still have confidence in Fleming and Williams," McCaffery said. "There have been some tough games to get them in. I’m sticking with my experienced guys. They’ll eventually get an opportunity, and I think they’ll be ready.
"It’s just a matter of getting them some opportunities beyond the nine guys that are ahead of them.”
Who: Iowa (8-3) vs. Tennessee Tech (8-4)
When, where: 7:30 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
TV: ESPN3 (online streaming)
Promotions: It's Jarrod Uthoff bobble-head night, with distribution beginning at 6 p.m. The sale of $1 hot dogs also will begin at 6. The Iowa women's team hosts Drake at 5 p.m.; fans with men's tickets are encouraged to arrive early and grab an open seat to cheer on the women.