'There's a lot more in store for me': Iowa's Cordell Pemsl is getting lean with a purpose

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The way Cordell Pemsl sees it, he’s dropping weight to add value to the Iowa basketball team.

The junior forward, who has lost another five pounds this summer to check in at 229, said he can feel the difference on defense.

“I’m containing a lot better off the dribble. On-ball screens, I’m able to help a lot better,” Pemsl said this week before a practice session at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I’m rebounding better. I’m jumping better.”

Cordell Pemsl saw his scoring average dip to 5.7 points per game as an Iowa sophomore. It was a trying season, he admits. But he's determined to make things better for himself and the team this winter.

The Dubuque native said he’s also rediscovering some finesse on the offensive end.

“I still want to be able to go down in the post and make my moves there,” Pemsl said. “But obviously as time goes on and teams start to figure you out, I want to be able to extend that part of my game and keep guys on their toes.”

Does that mean the 6-foot-8 Pemsl, who came to Iowa pushing 260 pounds, is now a small forward?

Not quite, he said. But in the right circumstances …

“I want to be in a situation where coach (Fran McCaffery) can trust me at either/or. Depending on who’s in foul trouble, for situational purposes, if he needs me at the 3, he can put me there. If he needs me at the 4, he can put me there. If he wants to go small, he can put me at the 5. Whatever he needs to do,” Pemsl said.

Pemsl shows he can score inside, but where did his jumper go?

That “whatever it takes to win” attitude is not new for Pemsl. He showed up as a Hawkeye freshman happy to be healthy after a pair of knee surgeries had hampered his high school career at Dubuque Wahlert.

In his second career game, Pemsl made all seven of his field goals and netted 18 points in 18 minutes against Savannah State. That set the tone for a season during which he  averaged 8.9 points while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor.

But Pemsl said that success masked a more troubling development. He missed a few early jumpshots and then stopped trying them.

“I shot it in high school. I haven’t shot it here at all. And that was more of a confidence thing,” Pemsl said.

He’s working to get that confidence back this summer, surprising his teammates in practice with the number of 15- to 18-foot jumpers he’s not only taking, but making.

A year ago, Pemsl was frustrated to find himself back in a familiar pattern — rehabbing after offseason hernia surgery. He was forced to watch while his teammates practiced for, and played in, a series of exhibition games in Europe.

He went on a diet and shed about 20 pounds, but Pemsl’s sophomore season was a disappointment. For him and the team.

Pemsl’s minutes dropped by 140 from the year before. His scoring average slid to 5.7 per game. The Hawkeyes stumbled to a 14-19 finish. Pemsl, who plays with extreme exuberance, felt the weight of all of this.

“It was a weird year. I guess it affected me, but obviously there was a lot more that affected us as a team than that,” he said.

Pemsl on thoughts of leaving Hawkeyes: 'Deep down, I knew where I wanted to be'

In the spring, Pemsl raised some eyebrows when he told reporters before the team banquet that he was uncertain about his future with the Hawkeyes. He quickly backed away from that sentiment.

“After the season that we had, there was a lot of thoughts going through everyone’s mind,” Pemsl explained this week. “But I think deep down, I knew where I wanted to be. I always have. And as hard of a year as it was, I think eventually the right decision was made for me to come back, and I knew it all along.”

Fast forward three months and Pemsl said he’s eager to build on his impressive freshman season and not dwell on what happened last winter. The weight loss is his idea, but one McCaffery endorses.

“Cordell looks like a different person,” McCaffery said. “He looks lean and fit. He’s shooting the ball a lot more from the perimeter, with confidence. I think that the quickness aspect and the perimeter aspect has really changed things for him.”

Pemsl said he never envisioned himself reshaping his body in college. It’s not like he was obviously overweight or appeared sluggish while averaging 19.3 minutes per game as a freshman.

“Three years ago, I would have never thought, ‘By junior year, I’m going to be 30 pounds lighter,’” Pemsl said. “But I always wanted to be a better version of my body. I never wanted to lose weight drastically or gain weight drastically. I wanted to be around where I was but just be more built. But I felt like as the game’s evolving — it’s fast-paced — I just felt like I was better off getting my conditioning real right and being able to affect the game in more ways than just power moves and back to the basket.”

That’s the Pemsl that Iowa fans have grown accustomed to seeing, however. This new version may take some getting used to.

Pemsl said no one has seen the real him yet.

“They’ve seen a competitor. They’ve seen a guy who’s ready to fight at any moment for his teammates,” he said.

“But there’s a lot more that I can bring. I know I can get my guys better looks. I know I can put my guys in better situations to score the ball. I know I can show them that I can shoot it from 15 to 18 feet and be a serious threat to shoot the ball. And I want to show them that I can defend all over the court and stay in front of a lot of guys. And that there’s a lot more in store for me.”