Back from suspension, Cordell Pemsl plans on making positive impact for No. 20 Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Cordell Pemsl never doubted that his Iowa basketball teammates would welcome him back after his second suspension of the season.

Still, any apprehension was put to rest when the Hawkeyes went through their usual pregame routine Sunday at Minnesota. The team doesn’t huddle up and head to the locker room until Pemsl, a junior forward not known for his outside shooting, makes a 3-pointer from the corner.

On Sunday at Williams Arena, Pemsl missed eight in a row. Center Luka Garza kept retrieving the ball and handing it to him with words of encouragement. Pemsl looked like he wanted to give up at one point. Garza wouldn’t have it.

Finally, Pemsl made the 3-pointer. The Hawkeyes let out a roar and gathered at the free-throw line, jumping excitedly with Pemsl right in the middle of the scrum.

“It just shows how close we are,” Pemsl said Wednesday. “We’re going to be brothers way past this.”

Pemsl went out and had his best game of the season in that 58-55 win over Minnesota, making all three of his field-goal attempts, blocking a shot and gathering three rebounds. For the first time this year, he looked like the player who averaged 8.9 points per game on 61.7% shooting as a freshman.

Pemsl felt it, too.

“It’s all been in my head. I’ve been down on myself, lacking confidence. But I felt more like the aggressor in that Minnesota game. Making more powerful moves, more precise moves, knowing what I want to do with the ball when I catch it,” Pemsl said.

“I’m hoping from here on out just to give everything I have on the floor and be a better role model.”

Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) and forward Cordell Pemsl (35) celebrate their victory against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Williams Arena on Feb. 17, 2020.

That’s precisely what the No. 20 Hawkeyes (18-8, 9-6 Big Ten Conference) need from Pemsl, with a 6 p.m. Thursday home game looming against No. 24 Ohio State (17-8, 7-7). The game will be televised on ESPN. About 1,500 tickets remained as of Wednesday afternoon.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is handling a depleted roster, exacerbated by the ankle sprain suffered by starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick. He is unlikely to play Thursday, meaning senior center Ryan Kriener will make his fifth start of the season. And that leaves McCaffery with a bench that consists primarily of Pemsl and senior guard Bakari Evelyn.

Pemsl has had a rocky season, but is showing signs of becoming the impact player he believes he can be. He was suspended for Iowa’s first game of the year after a Sept. 20 arrest for OWI. Last week, Pemsl got into trouble again when he decided to make a late-night trip to McDonald’s despite having a revoked license. He was pulled over and cited for that.

Pemsl had to watch on TV as the Hawkeyes lost 89-77 at Indiana. But the forced time off also forced him to do some soul-searching, starting with a conversation earlier in the week with McCaffery and athletic director Gary Barta.

“Everyone was super understanding and letting me know that they’re still there for me,” Pemsl said.

“They told me how important I am to this team and what I can bring.”

That gave Pemsl a dose of confidence. And he brought that into a hotly contested game against the Gophers.

Early in the second half, with Iowa trailing 41-33, Pemsl took an inbounds pass along the baseline and instead of handing it off, noticed Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu cheating off of him. Pemsl spun, took one aggressive dribble and made a layup before the Gophers’ Isaiah Ihnen could contest the shot. It was startling to see Pemsl, who was averaging just 2.4 points per game, be that decisive again on the basketball court. And it came in the midst of a stretch in which Iowa missed eight of its nine shots.

Pemsl said that’s the player he plans on being the rest of the season as Iowa seeks a top-four finish in a deep Big Ten.

“I know I still have it. It’s not like that’s gone,” he said. “A lot of people doubt me. I think playing with that chip on my shoulder after being through so much this year and knowing what this team has left in store and the push that we hope we can make, I just want to go out there and be aggressive and not look back and say, ‘I wish I would have done this.’”

McCaffery said Pemsl was being more active in practices leading up to his Minnesota breakout. And it’s true that Pemsl, who didn’t score a single point in five of his first 11 Big Ten games, has 15 of them in the past three. Increased faith in Pemsl means McCaffery can rely on him more, and he used a lineup featuring Pemsl (6-foot-9), Kriener (6-10) and Garza (6-11) for extensive minutes against the Gophers.

“It gives you big bodies on the wings, if we're in zone in particular,” McCaffery said. “The thing about Cordell is he can guard a ‘3.’ A lot of people think because he's got the big frame (248 pounds) that he can't. He's really good at that. And so it gives me the flexibility to be able to go with that lineup.”

McCaffery has precious little flexibility these days. So if Pemsl can help in that regard, Iowa has a much better chance of winning even with Fredrick out for a few games.

“He’s a total energy guy. He provides a lift every time he’s on the court,” Garza said of Pemsl. “He’s got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of guys in the locker room respect him.”

Pemsl said he appreciates that. He sent a text message to all of his teammates the morning of his second arrest, letting them know what he’d done and that he was sorry.

“I knew it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a distraction for us during a period of games where, we’re coming down to the wire here, it’s getting close to March,” Pemsl said.

“I know I’m strong enough to overcome those obstacles off the court and not let them affect my game. I felt like I was letting outside noise affect me personally on the court, in the classroom.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines to make sure you never miss a moment.