Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar take a look at Iowa's chances in the Big Ten Conference tournament and what it could mean for their chance at making the NCAA tournament.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Maishe Dailey was still unpacking his belongings on his first day in Iowa when he got a text message from a basketball teammate he hadn’t even met yet.
“Let’s get in the gym tonight,” Ryan Kriener implored.
That was fine by Dailey, so he left his mother, Wyashica Tabb, in their hotel room, assuming he’d be back soon.
And that’s how the most remarkable freshman season in Iowa Hawkeye history began, on what became a landmark June evening at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Dailey arrived and was impressed to see that Kriener had already set up his fingerprint-access to the locker room. They headed to the practice gym one floor above, Dailey still expecting a routine workout. He was startled to see the other three incoming freshmen — Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl — already there, lights on, sweat flowing, waiting to shake hands and then shake things up.
The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers battle Thursday in Washington, D.C. Nicole Wiegand/The Register
What followed was a taxing session of shooting drills and a one-on-one tournament. All five competitors wanted to make a strong first impression on the others, so things got intense. Bohannon estimated it lasted three or four hours.
Nine months later, the young Hawkeyes can’t recall all the details from that initial meeting (Cook claims he won the tournament, the others feign ignorance on that front), but they all agree that it set the tone for what was to follow.
“These guys came out and they were playing their tails off on the first day we moved in — and that’s when I knew we were going to have something special,” said Pemsl, a freshman forward from Dubuque. “Guys were just getting after it and understanding that we can be a winning team and we can take this program to the next level.
“And I understood that from Day 1.”
Iowa (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten Conference) enters the league tournament Thursday as the 7 seed thanks to a four-game winning streak. Its NCAA Tournament hopes still flicker, two victories away from likely reality. Indiana (17-14, 7-11) is the first obstacle for the Hawkeyes, with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (ESPN2).
Iowa’s fortunes surely hinge on star senior guard Peter Jok, a first-team all-Big Ten selection averaging 20.2 points a game. Sophomore Nicholas Baer, the top sixth man in the conference, will need to do his part as well.
But it’s that history-making freshman class — which includes last year’s redshirt Isaiah Moss — that will be tested the most this month. If they respond as well as they have all season, the Hawkeyes will be in good shape.
- The freshmen have combined for 87 starts this year, the most in program history.
- They have reached double digits in scoring 54 times, shattering the 1997-98 mark of 42.
- They are averaging 42.8 points per game, besting a 73-year-old school record (freshmen were ineligible to play in NCAA games from 1948-72).
- They are averaging 92.9 minutes per game, topping the 2009-10 squad for the most since such records were kept beginning in 1984-85.
- Four of them — Bohannon, Cook, Moss and Pemsl — have scored 20 or more points in a single game. No previous Iowa team had more than two freshmen who could make that claim.
- When you had two 14-point outings by Kriener, that gives the Hawkeyes five rookies who’ve reached double figures at least once — also a school record.
It’s a young team with a brash attitude, one not content to “wait its turn.”
“Everyone was talking about, ‘These guys are going to be special in a couple of years.’ And that kind of gets under your skin,” Pemsl bristled. “Because we want to be special now.”
Only seven Division I basketball teams have less experience than Iowa, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics. Those teams have a combined winning percentage of 39.1.
The Hawkeyes, by contrast, have grown up fast.
Cook, the star of the class entering the season, averages 12 points a game — second on the team. Bohannon, Mr. Basketball in Iowa last year while playing for Linn-Mar, took over the starting point guard job in the seventh game of the season and averages 9.8 points and a team-leading 4.5 assists. Pemsl comes off the bench to add 9 points. Moss, a streaky shooting guard from Chicago, is at 6.2 points.
They’ve all had moments of brilliance.
Cook admitted that he came to Iowa from St. Louis last summer not sure what to expect from his classmates. The 6-foot-9 power forward had star potential, but not a star’s attitude. It was important for him to fit in and to find guys who shared his outgoing personality.
“When I figured out their work ethic, that alone let me know that we’re going to get along just fine,” Cook was relieved to discover.
“If you’ve got guys alongside you that want to work, that want to win, you can always figure out the little things.”
Bohannon has been the surprise of the group. He’s only 6 feet tall and not a prototypical point guard — he likes to shoot the ball. He lives to shoot the ball. The question was how well he would hold up to the physical toll of Big Ten basketball. And how could he get his shot off against quicker, taller defenders?
He started to answer those concerns with 23 points at Notre Dame in his first start. And he’s been quieting critics ever since, notably with a career-high 24 points on 8 of 10 3-point shooting in a win at Maryland, followed by the game-winning 3 in last Thursday’s 59-57 stunner at Wisconsin.
Bohannon is second on the team with 889 minutes played (trailing only Jok). He also downplays the contributions the freshmen have made, saying it’s inevitable to put up stats when you get playing time.
“It’s kind of given when you’re out there you’re going to make some plays happen,” Bohannon said. “Just having Pete on the floor is going to open our game up because of how much attention is paid to him. So Pete’s game has allowed us to get those historic numbers.”
Maybe. But it’s also true that the freshmen have earned that playing time. Pemsl got his chance when Cook went out with a broken finger, missing seven games. Pemsl averaged 13.6 points in his place and cemented his status in the rotation.
Moss has been in the starting lineup since the seventh game alongside Bohannon. His minutes can fluctuate wildly, but he insists that the competition for playing time in a deep class is fine by him. It figures to be a reality for the next three seasons, too.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys, so that’s going to be really hard,” Moss said. “I think it’s going to make a lot of people better, though, knowing that you’ve really got to come with it every time if you want to play.”
The bond among the freshmen seems genuine. The first-year players share three rooms in the dorms (Cook with Pemsl, Bohannon with Kriener, Dailey with redshirt Riley Till). They are together often, piling into one room or another to play video games, listen to music, talk about life outside of basketball, or go over the next scouting report.
Moss exited the dorm life after last year, but still makes it a point to stop by and hang out. At the gym, he’ll wander over for post-practice free-throw sessions to form what they call “a freshman hoop.”
Bohannon, who has three older brothers, said the dorm experience feels like inheriting five more siblings.
“We’re pretty much our own little family. Once we got here, we were all pretty connected,” Bohannon said. “We enjoy picking fights with each other, making fun of each other. I think that kind of sets up our personalities on the court, too. We’re able to communicate a lot better once we’re all on the floor. So it’s honestly helped that we’ve gotten this close throughout the season.”
It’s telling that the freshmen are all eager to praise each other when talking to reporters. Dailey, a guard from Ohio, hasn’t gotten as much playing time as the rest, but they all go out of their way to speak of how impressive he is in practices. Moss raves about Dailey’s length and versatility.
Kriener struggled during the first half of the season, when he was barely seeing the court. Bohannon tried to keep his roommate’s spirits up — until Kriener had a breakout game in a home victory against Big Ten champion Purdue.
Now, Bohannon speaks of how much Kriener, a 6-9 center with a 7-3 wingspan, reminds him of former Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky also played sparingly as a freshman but was national player of the year by the time he was a senior.
That’s a big target to put on Kriener’s back, Bohannon was told.
“I think he has the ability to be that player,” Bohannon quickly replied. “He’s a smart player. He’s been dominating in practice.”
Pemsl said that share-the-credit attitude permeates the locker room. He thinks it’s a big reason for the freshmen’s success.
“Everyone always is complimenting you on what you’re doing. No one is ever, ‘Oh, that should be me instead of him.’ There’s no jealousy on this team,” Pemsl said.
Kriener, a Spirit Lake native, said the group doesn't burden itself with expectations. That's more of a media creation, he said.
“If it’s historic and it works for you guys, it works for us,’’ Kriener said before a recent practice.
What about the old adage that everyone’s a veteran by the time March arrives? Kriener acknowledged some truth in that, but added:
“I kind of feel like a freshman when you get back from the long road trip and you’ve got to sleep in a little dorm bed. That’s always a humbling experience, knowing that you’re a bottom-of-the-totem-pole kind of guy.”
Not for much longer. These freshmen are ready for bigger things, and bigger rooms.