Brown: Iowa bench gains valuable experience in big win

Rick Brown
Iowa's Ahmad Wagner fights for an offensive rebound over Coppin State's Mufaro Murinda during the Hawkeyes' 103-68 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Two things tell you everything you need to know about Sunday’s Iowa-Coppin State basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

One: Iowa point guard Mike Gesell had 10 first-half assists, six more than the entire Coppin State team. Two: The bench logged more minutes and scored more points for the Hawkeyes than the starters did.

Gesell, who finished with a career-high 12 assists in just 19 minutes and has 21 assists through two games, is showing the kind of playmaking ability this team needs.

But just as valuable is the experience logged by the bench in the 103-68 victory. All 58 points and 119 minutes played. And watching their mistakes unfold on game tape will be invaluable.

“In practice we can stop things and coaches can tell us what to do,” said redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellingson, who scored a career-high 20 points off the bench. “But in the game, we’re learning on the fly.”

The schedule ramps up for the next five games. It starts Thursday at Marquette in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Then comes three games in the  Advocare Invitational in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 26-29. Iowa opens with Dayton and the eight-team field includes Wichita State, Notre Dame and Xavier. That’s followed by a Dec. 2 home game against Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

In other words, no more cupcakes, a lot of college basketball’s main course between now and the start of December. It will be baptism by fire for the newbies.

“To be able to watch (game) tape, and see where I’m messing up, helps me a lot,” freshman forward Ahmad Wagner said.

No one has stopped, looked and listened better in the early portion of the season than sophomore forward Dom Uhl. Expected to be an important part of the rotation, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery played him just 2 minutes in Iowa’s exhibition loss to Augustana of South Dakota on Nov. 6.

“Dom’s got more in there,” McCaffery said last week.

Uhl took a positive step with six points and six rebounds in Friday’s season opener against Gardner-Webb. He made his first career start in place of the injured Peter Jok on Sunday, and scored a career-high 18 points.

“I just had to stay confident and play hard,” Uhl said of escaping his early-season funk. “I feel like I know what (McCaffery) wants me to do now.”

There’s a depth of experience in Gesell, Adam Woodbury, Jarrod Uthoff, Anthony Clemmons and Jok, who sprained an ankle in Friday’s opener but will be back at Marquette. It’s the other moving parts that will likely determine the success or failure of this team.

In close games, against better competition, mistakes can earn you a ticket to the bench. On Sunday, the up-and-comers were allowed to play through of them.

“And a lot of good things happened,” McCaffery said.

The playing rotation will likely fluctuate all season. Isaiah Moss will redshirt. McCaffery said Sunday that not burning a year for Brandon Hutton is also a possibility. Everybody else will get their first taste of big-time basketball in the weeks ahead.

“If these young guys are going to get ready they’ve got to be on the floor, they’ve got to stay in, and they’ve got to have some success,” McCaffery said. “That’s how you build the confidence.”

So roll the tape. There’s a lot to learn.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.