Freshmen fuel optimism for Hawkeye basketball team
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With the season on the line Sunday, Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery put the ball in the hands of freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon.
Bohannon, in turn, passed it to another rookie, Cordell Pemsl.
Pemsl’s shot was off-target and the Hawkeyes fell 94-92 in overtime to TCU in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. But the fact that Bohannon and Pemsl were even on the court in those crucial seconds is the story of the season for Iowa.
Both came in as unknowns, starting in reserve roles before establishing themselves as building blocks for what looks to be a bright future for the Hawkeyes.
“If you would have told me that this summer, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Pemsl said of launching the potential tying shot in Iowa’s final game of a 19-15 season. “But obviously I worked hard enough to get myself in a situation where that was a possibility and I’m glad Coach trusted me on the court at that time.”
Pemsl scored four points with seven rebounds, two assists and one technical foul in the final game of a surprisingly strong Iowa debut. Then he immediately talked about what he needs to improve on — outside shooting, so next time he can make that 17-foot shot that bounced off the rim against the Horned Frogs.
“Coming here, my bread and butter was around the rim and I was efficient in doing that, so I didn’t want to step out of a role that was working for me,” Pemsl said after Sunday’s loss at a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I’m going to be taking thousands of shots and trying to get that swagger and confidence back that I had when I was in high school (at Dubuque Wahlert). Because I know I’m capable of making it. It’s just whether or not my mind is in the right place.”
The offseason will be full of optimism for Iowa, because of the remarkable contributions of a freshman class that provided 48.8 percent of the Hawkeyes’ points this winter. Heralded forward Tyler Cook, as expected, led the way with 12.3 points per game. He went 7-for-7 from the field against TCU and ended the season by making his last 18 shots.
But it was the growth of Bohannon, Pemsl and redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss that elevated that group of rookies into Hawkeye lore. The freshmen combined for 62 double-digit scoring games, easily a program record.
Bohannon, a lightly recruited 6-footer out of Linn-Mar, took the starting job from Christian Williams seven games into the season and looks like a star in the making. He led the Hawkeyes in minutes (1,005), 3-pointers (89) and assists (175) while finishing the year with a flourish never before seen. He had career-highs in points (25) and assists (13) against TCU, for a third consecutive double-double in those categories. The last Iowa player to even do so in back-to-back games was B.J. Armstrong in 1989.
McCaffery said Bohannon initially was focused on just running the plays that were called from the bench, but became more assertive as he gained experience.
“I give him that kind of latitude to make those kinds of decisions, and you're seeing a guy who's just enjoying that freedom and the benefit of his experience I think at this point,” McCaffery said.
Pemsl got his chance when Cook missed seven games with a broken finger in the non-conference season. He started 14 games before carving out a role as a vital bench player and averaged 8.9 points while leading the team with a field-goal percentage of 61.7.
Moss, a 6-foot-5 guard, fought his way into the starting lineup alongside Bohannon in the seventh game and never left. His production was spotty, but there were games where he carried the offense. He averaged 6.5 points.
The Hawkeyes will need to replace the production of senior star Peter Jok, who averaged 19.9 points while being named first team all-Big Ten Conference. That’s a lot of scoring, but the team showed all season that offense was not the issue. The Hawkeyes averaged 80.5 points per game and ranked 42nd in the nation in adjusted offense, according to kenpom.com.
It was a porous defense that hampered the young Hawkeyes this season, and that is where the offseason work needs to focus. Iowa allowed four teams to score 90 or more points while struggling to a 3-5 start. Things improved as December arrived, but troubles resurfaced in Iowa’s final three games, including a 95-73 wipeout by Indiana that bounced the Hawkeyes from the Big Ten Tournament and Sunday’s season-ending assault by TCU.
Iowa’s adjusted defense ranking ended up 122nd, according to kenpom.com.
“That intensity we had in that four-game stretch when we were winning at the end of the season just wasn’t there these last three games,” Pemsl said. “Our biggest struggle was the difference between knowing the game plan and executing the game plan.
“There was a lot of inconsistency throughout the year. One game we were playing like we should be in the NCAA Tournament and the next we were playing like we might not even make the NIT. It’s frustrating and it’s hard to understand how that can happen. But at the same time — you don’t want to use the excuse that we’re young — but it’s a lot.”
They won’t be so young next year. Aside from Jok, the Hawkeyes are expected to lose junior Dale Jones, whose two seasons in Iowa City were derailed by injury. Three freshmen are set to join the lineup — post players Luka Garza and Jack Nunge, and guard Connor McCaffery of Iowa City West, Fran’s oldest son.
They will battle for minutes with this year’s freshman class and a pair of sophomores who established themselves this season.
Nicholas Baer, the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year, averaged 7.5 points while leading Iowa in rebounding (197), steals (48) and blocked shots (43). The 6-7 dynamo is one of the most important players on the team.
Forward Ahmad Wagner started 18 games alongside Cook in the front court, and his muscle and hustle are two needed ingredients.
Three other potential upperclassmen had patchy seasons. Dom Uhl, who will be Iowa’s lone senior next year, lost his starting job early and scored 10 points only once — in a home win over Rutgers. The 6-9 forward got extensive minutes late in the TCU game because of his defense, but his second-half dunk was his first basket in five weeks. He averaged a mere 3.5 points and shot 23.8 percent from the 3-point line, both markedly down from his sophomore season (6.0 points, 45 percent from 3).
Williams got off to a slow start, was supplanted by Bohannon and then seemed to lose his confidence. A tremendous one-on-one defender, Williams had a strong four-game stretch in February only to find himself glued to the bench in the final three games. He played only 14 scoreless minutes in the postseason.
Likewise, sophomore shooting guard Brady Ellingson followed up one strong string of games with a disappearing act late. He led the Big Ten in 3-point accuracy at 47.8 percent, but also finished the year with 14 minutes and no points in Iowa’s three postseason games.
All three of those players need to turn things around or risk seeing their minutes go elsewhere.
Iowa was clearly Jok’s team this year, and the freshmen all praised his leadership.
But the page turned quickly after Sunday’s NIT exit. Pemsl talked about the need to improve his outside shooting touch. Cook, also a beast around the basket who could use some more range, retreated to the team’s practice gym to get some shots up. Bohannon spoke of the need to develop more upper-body strength to help him finish around the rim.
It’s their team now.
“We were just saying how special we can be in the next couple of years,” Bohannon recounted of his chat with Cook as they both left the court for the final time as freshmen.
“We have a pretty bright future here. We want to stay positive and stay together.”