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Cordell Pemsl is down to 235 pounds and has never felt better. He had offseason sports hernia surgery. Chad Leistikow

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Cordell Pemsl decided to go on a diet during his latest summer of rehabbing from surgery.

In July, he started drinking water instead of soda, eating salad instead of junk food, limiting his portions when he did opt to indulge in pasta or pizza.

Iowa’s sophomore forward even maintained his dietary discipline during a trip to Europe in August. When Pemsl returned, he stepped on a scale and was surprised to discover he was at 234 pounds — 18 below his playing weight as a freshman.

“I haven’t moved like this since I was a sophomore in high school,” Pemsl said at the Hawkeyes’ media day Monday. “To be able to move faster and still have the strength to play down low, I just feel my game expanding.”

Pemsl, a 6-foot-8 native of Dubuque, averaged 8.9 points and 5 rebounds as an Iowa freshman, coming off a second knee surgery. But he played much of the season with a hernia that also required surgery this spring. That kept him from playing in the Hawkeyes’ four exhibition wins in Europe.

He said he’s healthy now as fall practices have arrived, jumping higher, running faster and for longer periods of time. The aficionado of low-post moves is even dribbling past teammates at times.

“He’s playing the best basketball I’ve ever seen him play,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Pemsl. “A lot of times, when guys trim down like that, they don’t maintain the strength that they had — or the physicality. He’s done both.”

A healthy Pemsl would provide a big lift in what looks like a loaded Iowa front court. He started 14 games last year and shot 61.7 percent from the field, showing off a savviness around the basket that no other Hawkeye did.

Added athleticism could help Pemsl be a contributor in the biggest goal for the 2017-18 Hawkeyes.

“Our main focus is to lock up on defense,” Pemsl said.

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Devoted to defense

The Hawkeyes allowed opponents to score 78 points a game last season — the biggest factor in an up-and-down 19-15 campaign. In four of their first five losses, they allowed 90 points or more. They did the same in their last two defeats — to Indiana in their lone Big Ten Tournament game and in a home loss against TCU that ended their run in the National Invitation Tournament.

So an emphasis on defense was to be expected. But sophomore forward Ryan Kriener said the Hawkeyes quickly found out this month that it was much more than lip service.

Kriener said the players came in for a typical film session one day and were informed that the previous practice session featured such shoddy defense that the next one would include nothing but defensive drills.

“We got the message,” Kriener said. “I think it was, ‘Play better defense or we’re going to have more days like this that aren’t going to be fun.’”

Junior Ahmad Wagner was the star of the “all-defense” practice session. The team split into three stations — for defending the wing, defending the point and defending the post. Wagner, a 6-7, 235-pound forward, was the best at each.

“I’ve been guarding every position in practice so I can be ready to take on whatever challenges are thrown at me,” Wagner said.

Even point guard?

“If I’m in there, I’m switching that guard. I’m trying to guard the 1,” Wagner confirmed.

Junior forward Nicholas Baer said Wagner will be the role model for Iowa on the defensive end.

“He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to look to be our lockdown defender,” Baer said. “He’s really quick. He’s the best athlete out there. He moves his feet really well and he’s got length, too.”

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Baer on the bench again?

Baer was named the top sixth man in the Big Ten last season after averaging 7.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and producing 59 assists, 48 steals and 43 blocked shots. The one-time walk-on from Bettendorf is the consummate teammate.

And he may be asked to stay in that role this year, McCaffery said.

“He probably deserves to start,” McCaffery said of Baer. “We’ve got some other guys that are really playing well, so we could give ourselves that instant spark off the bench, and Nicholas Baer was clearly the best player in the Big Ten in that capacity last year.”

Baer has said that he prefers to start, just as every other player does. He did so 10 times last season. But few players are able to come off the bench and make the immediate impact that he does. He seemingly needs no time to get into the flow of the game, something that junior guard Brady Ellingson admitted he has struggled with in his years as an Iowa reserve.

“As long as you’re able to make plays at the end of the game, that’s far more important to me than starting,” said Baer, who has proved to be a valuable crunch-time performer for the Hawkeyes.

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Filling Jok’s shoes

Baer figures to be one option for filling the void left by Iowa’s lone graduating senior, shooting guard Peter Jok. Jok averaged 19.9 points per game to lead the Big Ten last year and his 30.7 minutes per game were tops for the Hawkeyes.

Baer has been working to improve his outside shot (39.7 percent from 3 last year) so he can play more on the perimeter this season.

But option No. 1 at shooting guard will be sophomore Isaiah Moss. And he left little doubt that he thinks he’s ready.

“They gave me the opportunity, so I’ve just been working hard every day and embracing the pressure,” Moss said.

He is no stranger to the starting lineup, making 28 starts a year ago alongside Jok on the wing. But Moss was inconsistent, playing brilliantly at times, and then disappearing at others. The end result was 6.5 points per game but only 41.2 percent shooting, including 35.8 percent from the arc.

“I’m just trying to extend my shot so it’s harder to guard me,” Moss said.

“I know this year is going to be better. (Iowa fans are) going to see a whole new Isaiah from last year, to be honest.”

“I think now, with Pete gone, he understands that his responsibility is different,” McCaffery said of Moss. “I think consequently his confidence level will be much improved.”

It sure seemed to be.

The Hawkeyes will also turn to Ellingson for help at shooting guard. He shot 47.1 percent from 3 last season but was very selective about it and consequently averaged only 4.4 points per game.

“I know that I have to be more aggressive than last year. I’m not going to fill in Pete’s shoes just by myself. He was the best player in the Big Ten arguably,” Ellingson said.

Ellingson said he’s not fazed by having to battle for playing time with Moss, Baer and even backup point guard Christian Williams.

“You’ve got to earn your minutes. There’s no other way to say it,” Ellingson said.

Jordan Curry?

What’s a media day without a little hyperbole? McCaffery got things rolling during his session with reporters when he was asked about the moxie exhibited by sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon, the team’s smallest player at 6-foot, 180 pounds.

“He reminded me a lot of Steph Curry when you watch him play,” McCaffery said of his days scouting Bohannon at Linn-Mar High School. “He can pull a jumper right in your face. He’s fearless. He’s got unbelievable range, but he can go by you, and he’s a real good passer.”

Bohannon later admitted that he patterns his entire game off of Curry, the Golden State Warriors star who is one of the best shooters in the history of the sport.

Bohannon started his freshman season as a reserve but won the starting point guard spot six games in and was a driving force the rest of the season for Iowa. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.1 assists and never backed away from a big moment, canning 89 of 214 3-pointers (41.6 percent). His most memorable was the game-winner against Wisconsin.

“Obviously, that’s a really bold statement to say,” Bohannon said when his coach’s comments were relayed to him. “But I’ve watched so much film of him, it’s a huge compliment ... It kind of shows the moves I’ve been able to copy from him.

“His shot off dribble is probably the best the NBA’s ever seen — that’s something I’ve worked on ever since high school. … It’s much harder to guard someone off the dribble knowing the amount of moves you can do and the amount of times you can pull up for a shot.”

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