Iowa started the youngest lineup in the 116-year history of its men’s basketball program in Sunday’s win over Michigan — senior Peter Jok surrounded by freshmen Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Cordell Pemsl.
That’s the unit that coach Fran McCaffery likely will send out for the opening tipoff again at 8 p.m. Thursday when the Hawkeyes visit Nebraska for a matchup to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Iowa (9-6, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) is looking for a sixth consecutive victory against the Cornhuskers (8-6, 2-0).
It’s who finishes the game at Nebraska that Hawkeye fans should pay closest attention to, especially if it’s another tight affair.
In the 86-83 home victory over Michigan, McCaffery relied on a guard tandem of Jok and Bohannon in the final 12 minutes of play. That was the plan all along, McCaffery said in a teleconference Tuesday. Jok is the team’s star, averaging 22.1 points per game, and Bohannon has emerged as a brash playmaker and scorer who is surprisingly secure with the ball for a rookie.
What was more surprising is the trio who consumed all of the crunch-time minutes alongside Jok and Bohannon. The frontcourt that helped Iowa earn a needed win was Cook, Pemsl and sophomore Nicholas Baer. Those five scored the final 25 points for the Hawkeyes against Michigan, after reserve Brady Ellingson’s two free throws made it a 63-61 Wolverines lead with 7:52 left in regulation.
Cook tied the score with a layup, followed by a Jok free throw, two more from Bohannon, a Jok 3-pointer, a Bohannon 3 and a Pemsl layup to send the game to overtime tied 74-74.
In the extra session, it was: Bohannon jumper, Bohannon long-range bomb, Baer floater, Jok 3-pointer and two Jok free throws.
Call them the finishing five.
“We went with Tyler and Cordell because I think they’ve earned that. And you’re wondering how they’re going to perform at both ends, whether it be execution offensively and defensively, how we play in ball screens, transition defense, all those things, remembering who does what, following the game plan,” McCaffery said of a duo who also made their first start together on New Year’s Day. “I just went with Baer because I thought he was an impact player in that game. It could easily have been Brady. It could easily have been Isaiah. But Baer was so good in that game, it just felt like he had to be on the floor.”
Baer finished with 12 points in 27 minutes in his usual super-sub role. The four starters besides Moss got between 31 and 34 minutes, with Jok earning the most.
Now comes a new challenge, particularly for Bohannon and Cook.
Bohannon must contend with Nebraska sophomore point guard Glynn Watson Jr., a rising star averaging 13.9 points per game for a team coming off back-to-back road wins at ranked Indiana and Maryland.
“When you have a scoring 1 (point guard), those guys are tough because he’s really good in ball screens,” McCaffery said of Watson. “He makes 3s, so you’ve got to go up on him. You’ve got to go over screens. You can’t back off him and play him for his drive because he’s so quick. And he gets rid of it.”
Bohannon’s biggest adjustment to the college game has been on defense, but at least he won’t be facing a size deficit Thursday. Both point guards are 6-feet tall.
Cook, meanwhile, must prove his mettle on the boards while trying to fend off Nebraska rebounding dynamo Ed Morrow. The sophomore forward — a high school teammate of Moss at Chicago’s Simeon High School — is just 6-7 (Cook is 6-9), but is averaging 8.4 rebounds per game to rank sixth in the Big Ten.
Cook will be playing in his third game since returning to the lineup after finger surgery. He averages 5.3 rebounds per game, but has not shown that as a strong suit so far.
“I think his rebounding needs to improve. He got eight (against Michigan), that’s a big step for him,” McCaffery said of Cook. “He’s got his hands full with Ed Morrow, though, on Thursday because that’s a guy who seems to get every rebound whenever there’s a missed shot at either end.”
Nebraska ranks 37th in the nation with 13.3 offensive rebounds per game. It’s that relentless effort that has the upstart Huskers seeking their first 3-0 start in league play since joining the Big Ten in 2011.
Iowa is vying for its first road victory this season in its third attempt. Nebraska is a three-point favorite in what shapes up as a competitive matchup.
For the Hawkeyes, that means the squad that finishes will again be more compelling than the young one that starts.