Have Iowa Hawkeyes 'turned a corner?' Game at Penn State will tell for sure

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery isn’t really a believer in the notion that teams can “turn a corner.”

He’s certainly encouraged by the way his Hawkeyes have played in their past two home games. But sometimes you can turn a corner only to find yourself in a dead-end alley.

So McCaffery wants to see Iowa (12-12, 3-8 Big Ten Conference) put together a solid 40-minute effort on both ends of the court on the road before getting too excited. It hasn’t happened yet this season. An opportunity comes at 5 p.m. Saturday at Penn State (15-9, 5-6) in a game televised by BTN.

“It’s been an issue all year long: We’ve not been consistent pretty much in anything.  We’ve been really, really good in everything at times. And that’s why we’re sitting at .500,” McCaffery said Friday.

Iowa's Cordell Pemsl takes a contested shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.

Helping Iowa’s cause is that sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl does believe he’s turned a corner. His recent play suggests he’s right.

Pemsl is averaging 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in the past three games — home wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota sandwiching a loss at Nebraska. Pemsl has made 11 of 12 shots in that span and has gotten to the free-throw line 12 times, making nine. All of this production has come despite playing just 23 minutes per game off the bench.

It followed a six-game span in which Pemsl averaged 3.2 points and watched his team lose five times. The 6-foot-8 native of Dubuque admitted he was frustrated by the losing and overcompensating by trying to do things on the court that were beyond his skill set. Once he stopped doing that, Pemsl said, he felt like he got back to being the player he was a year ago, when he averaged 8.9 points on 62 percent shooting.

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“There were times earlier in the year when he was great,” McCaffery said, coming to Pemsl’s defense. “There were times when we were playing a lot of guys and he didn’t get as many minutes, so it wasn’t all his fault either.

“He helps you against the press, he helps you in the zone, really good passer. I think for him the way he’s played, certainly recently, has made a dramatic impact on our team.”

Iowa is coming off its highest second-half point total in a Big Ten game in McCaffery’s eight years as coach. The Hawkeyes blistered Minnesota with 57 points in a 94-80 win. Their 12 3-pointers were the most in a league game this season. Pemsl was one of six Hawkeyes who scored 10 or more points.

“You need other folks to step up on a regular basis, and I think we have the talent to do that. You saw it the other night,” McCaffery said.

It was a grand performance. But Iowa needs to follow it up with another one to make it really matter.

The Nittany Lions led from wire to wire at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 2, handing the Hawkeyes a 77-73 setback. Remarkably, that’s the only game the Hawkeyes have been involved in this season decided by fewer than five points, although they did win an overtime game at Illinois.

Penn State got all its scoring from its five starters in the win at Iowa. All of them average double-figure scoring, led by brilliant sophomore point guard Tony Carr, who leads the Big Ten at 19.6 points per game.

Iowa will likely be without guard Brady Ellingson and forward Ryan Kriener again. Both are out with concussions. That has forced McCaffery into a much tighter rotation. He leaned on eight players in the second half against the Gophers.

That has meant more time for guys like Pemsl, who has made the most of it.

“We did a good job of taking care of the tempo of the game, playing at our pace,” he said of the Minnesota win.

Pemsl knows his team must take a bigger step now.

“We’ve showed glimpses of where we can be. We can’t sustain that a whole entire game,” he said of an up-and-down season that may finally be trending up.

“That’s definitely our key is sustaining that positive energy, that awareness.”