Basketball coach Fran McCaffery talks about how difficult it is to pick a starting lineup.
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Ahmad Wagner is the sage of Iowa’s front-court players.
He is 19 years old.
“He’s probably the biggest reason why I’ve gotten better since I’ve been here,” freshman forward Tyler Cook said of Wagner. “He makes quick moves, quick decisions. He just plays instinctively and that’s the thing that I kind of lost a little bit when I got here because I was thinking too much. So being able to watch Ahmad, listen to what he has to say, the wisdom that he shares with me, really helps me out.”
It’s a post-Adam Woodbury world in the post for the Hawkeyes, who open play with an exhibition at 7 p.m. Friday against Division II Regis University at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
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Wagner, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Yellow Springs, Ohio, is the de facto leader of a freshman crew that includes a rising star in Cook and a couple of promising native Iowans in Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl.
Wagner, one year removed from being the wide-eyed understudy to the graduated Woodbury, said he’s ready to be the big brother.
“Coach (Fran McCaffery) says I’m a voice that the young guys like to listen to,” Wagner said. “Keep edging them along, keep giving them little tips here and there just to help them be successful this year. Because we need them.”
Iowa, coming off a 22-11 season, will lean on a heavier Wagner to carry a heavier load this season. He was a role player last year, called on for rebounding and defense while averaging 10 minutes of play per game on a veteran team. He scored 83 points with 84 rebounds in his 32 appearances.
There was a glimpse of the impact he could have in a March 1 home loss to No. 11 Indiana. Wagner entered the game with 14:28 left in the first half and promptly gathered four rebounds in his first 4 minutes. By the time it was over, with the Hawkeyes losing 81-78, Wagner had compiled his best stat line of the season – 11 points and nine rebounds in just 17 minutes.
But in the 10 games surrounding that one, Wagner attempted only nine shots, making five. It’s that timidity that McCaffery wants to excise from the forward’s game in his sophomore year.
“Last year, I thought he wanted to fit in,” McCaffery said of Wagner. “I just want him to open it a little bit more, drive to the basket more, score in transition. He’s an offensive threat that (opponents) need to be ready for.”
Wagner said he’s been working extensively on his ball-handling, and that Iowa fans can expect to see him driving to the basket more often. Teammate Peter Jok, a senior, has said that Wagner has the quickest first step on the Hawkeyes.
“Ripping and driving, shooting open jumpers, just looking to be more aggressive out there,” Wagner said of his expanded role.
To prepare, Wagner has been working with a nutritionist. He played at 222 pounds last season, and is at 233 now. His hope is to maintain that throughout a season full of running and sweating, no easy task.
Wagner has adjusted to a new diet.
“I used to be big on ordering pizza late night, just regular college student stuff,” Wagner said. “Now I’m making a sandwich or I’ll make some chicken at home, something more healthy. It was a loss, but …”
He’s feeling the extra bulk when he takes defenders off the dribble or backs them down in the post, Wagner said.
But more than statistics, Wagner said he’ll measure success this year by what his teammates say about him when it’s over.
“If I can get the young guys to all say what Tyler’s saying, that I’m helping to bring them along, having an impact on them, that would be a successful year for me,” Wagner said.
“We know people are thinking and saying that we’re young, it’s going to take a while for us to click. I think we’re ahead of the curve right now. We’re going to surprise a lot of people.”