Hawkeye hoops rotation breakdown: How will Fran McCaffery spread out the minutes?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A deep basketball team is a wonderful thing in theory. Allocating minutes is a stickier proposition when you have 13 players clamoring for them.

That’s the conundrum for Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery this season, and it’s one that, so far, he seems happy to embrace.

“I’ve got a whole bunch of good players and I’m going to play them all,” McCaffery declared Thursday after the Hawkeyes won their second exhibition game. “Sometimes some less than others.”

Jordan Bohannon (left) and Tyler Cook were all-Big Ten freshman last year and enter this year as the most important players for Iowa. But who will absorb the rest of the minutes on a deep and young Hawkeye team?

That last sentence makes it difficult to predict how McCaffery will spread out playing time in a typical game. It may mean there’s no such thing as “typical.”

Who will back up freshman center Luka Garza and sophomore power forward Tyler Cook? It could be Cordell Pemsl getting heavy minutes one game, Ryan Kriener the next, Jack Nunge, Ahmad Wagner or Dom Uhl in others. The pressure on those forwards will be to perform exceptionally from the second they enter play or risk sitting for a long stretch while McCaffery rides the hot hand.

Kriener’s situation Thursday provides a great example. The 6-foot-9 sophomore from Spirit Lake had a tough first half against Belmont Abbey, getting pulled after 5 scoreless minutes. He bounced back with 13 minutes in the second half and finished with four points and nine rebounds. But in a Big Ten Conference game would he have been afforded a second chance?

“In the beginning, he was going really fast and once he got himself settled down, he was really good,” McCaffery said, before revealing his dilemma as a coach. “So if you yank him when he’s going too fast, he doesn’t benefit from this experience. That’s a more important thing to try to figure out.”

In the backcourt, Iowa lost junior Christian Williams to transfer just before the season began. That means McCaffery will pull the redshirt off his son, Connor, to be the backup point guard. Isaiah Moss is expected to start at shooting guard, with Brady Ellingson behind him and Maishe Dailey searching for a role.

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At small forward, McCaffery may have the most juggling to do. Nicholas Baer is the reigning Big Ten sixth man of the year, but also could start there. Wagner started Thursday and for half of last season. Freshman Nunge will push for playing time. Baer can also play the “2;” Nunge and Wagner could see time at the “4.”

Is your head spinning yet? McCaffery’s surely isn’t, but what the coach is ultimately thinking remains a mystery, except that he doesn’t plan on redshirting anyone.

With that backdrop, here’s an attempt at guessing how Hawkeye playing time will be dispersed (sorted by average minutes; total equals 200) in a typical game against Big Ten-level competition.

Jordan Bohannon, 6-0, 180, So.

Position: Starts at point guard

Analysis: Bohannon took over the starting job seven games into his rookie year and his accelerated improvement was perhaps the biggest story in Iowa’s 19-15 campaign. By Big Ten season, he was averaging 30.5 minutes per game, producing 10.6 points and 4.4 assists. He’ll be even more valuable this season, and may even slide over to shooting guard at times when Connor McCaffery is in the game to steady the ship. No Hawkeye figures to carry a heavier workload.

Projected minutes per game: 33

Tyler Cook, 6-9, 255, So.

Position: Starts at power forward

Analysis: Emphasize the word “power” here. Cook had a solid freshman year with 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. You might have noticed him dunk a time or two (or 20). He comes back with a more muscular frame and a mindset to take over this year. He’s a team leader and the biggest mismatch Iowa presents. Look for him to be a low-post menace and to attempt at least 200 free throws.

Projected minutes per game: 29

Iowa forward Tyler Cook dunks on Belmont Abbey in Thursday's Hawkeye exhibition victory. It was a common sight, as the Crusaders had no answer for Cook.

Nicholas Baer, 6-7, 210, RS Jr.

Position: Sixth man, playing on the wing

Analysis: “I like him off the bench,” McCaffery said Thursday of Baer. And what’s not to like? The Bettendorf native is a fan favorite for his all-out hustle but probably underrated for his ability to handle a role that not every basketball player embraces. It’s difficult to come into a game in progress and make an immediate impact. But Baer does — on both ends of the court. He’s become a better long-range shooter this year (39.7 percent from 3 a year ago). He’s needed on the court late in close games. He still tires himself out at times but he’ll play more than the 23.8 minutes he averaged last year.

Projected minutes per game: 26

Isaiah Moss, 6-5, 205, RS So.

Position: Starts at shooting guard

Analysis: Moss enters the season nursing an injury to his right ankle and foot, but the Hawkeyes can afford to bide their time while facing an easy early schedule. When healthy, Moss is a dynamic scoring threat in the open court and from the 3-point arc. He’ll need to become an elite perimeter defender, too, but he has the skills. It’s easy to imagine him taking the biggest leap of any returning Iowa player as he tries to fill the role of departed senior star Peter Jok. That means eliminating the scoring droughts, looking for his shot more freely. That’s music to Moss’s ears. He can be a 13-point-per-game scorer in this offense, double his output of a year ago.

Projected minutes per game: 26

Luka Garza, 6-11, 235, Fr.

Position: Starts at center

Analysis: Garza is an enticing mixture of skill sets — an old-school banger on the block who can also stretch the floor at times, has a nimble shooting touch around the rim, and makes his free throws. He teams with Cook to give the Hawkeyes a stellar post combination, both players smart enough to know when to give the other space to operate. Garza is also difficult to contend with on the offensive glass, but that may also lead to foul trouble at times. He’s not a cardiovascular sensation, and that too may limit his minutes. But when he’s in the game, everyone will notice it.

Projected minutes per game: 22

Cordell Pemsl, 6-8, 240, So.

Position: Backup power forward/center

Analysis: Pemsl averaged 8.9 points and 5.0 rebounds as a rookie and even earned 14 starts while playing injured most of the year. He has both savvy and moxie to spare. He’s the player most likely to be booed in opposing arenas. After offseason hernia surgery, he has dropped weight but added some lift and may even surprise fans with a dunk or two this season. Pemsl is too solid and too smooth to be left out of the front-court rotation, although it’s hard to see his role expanding beyond the 19.3 minutes per game of a year ago.

Projected minutes per game: 17

Brady Ellingson, 6-4, 196, RS Jr.

Position: Backup shooting guard

Analysis: Ellingson is the team’s most accurate long-range shooter and that alone will earn him minutes behind Moss. A 47.1 percent marksman from deep last year, the biggest knock on Ellingson was that he didn’t shoot enough. He’s promised to change that this year. He also is extremely trustworthy with the ball (14 turnovers in 34 games last season) and is in his fourth year in the program. He’ll get his shot. In some games, if he heats up, he’ll get many of them.

Projected minutes per game: 12

Iowa's Brady Ellingson warms up during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

Ahmad Wagner, 6-7, 235, Jr.

Position: Starts at small forward

Analysis: Wagner loves the grunt work. He Iowa’s best defender. He is most likely to come up with a loose ball or to wind up in a spectator’s lap. He is a jovial leader and well-respected by teammates. His value in the starting lineup is to set a gritty tone for each half of each game before departing for Baer or Pemsl, both more skilled scorers. “Ahmad’s energy level at the start of the game is good. That worked for us last year,” McCaffery said. Look for Wagner to be inserted whenever McCaffery feels his team’s focus is sagging.

Projected minutes per game: 12

Jack Nunge, 6-11, 225, Fr.

Position: Backup forward

Analysis: Nunge is the tallest player on the team and maybe the most difficult to get a read on this early in his career. He seems more at home on the wing than in the post and could use a few pounds if he wants to defend on the interior. But his length can make things difficult when guarding on the wing. He also has a polished, although not always consistent, offensive game, outside and inside. What he might not have is a defined role on this year’s team. Nunge will be useful in spots. McCaffery’s challenge will be to identify those spots.

Projected minutes per game: 9

Connor McCaffery, 6-5, 200, Fr.

Position: Backup point guard

Analysis: McCaffery was named the Des Moines Register player of the year in Iowa as a senior at Iowa City West for good reason. He is a natural at getting teammates organized and putting the ball in the right person’s hands at the right time. He won’t be asked to score much on this team, and that’s just fine with him. He showed in the two exhibition games that he will be a reliable hand whenever Bohannon needs a breather. That’s plenty valuable, even in limited minutes.

Projected minutes per game: 8

Iowa freshman Connor McCaffery is shown during media day on Oct. 16.

Ryan Kriener, 6-9, 250, So.

Position: Backup power forward/center

Analysis: Kriener is working on becoming a “stretch 4” and that would go a long way toward increasing his playing time. If not, he may be the odd man out in a frontcourt brimming with talent. There will be games — such as against Purdue last year — when Kriener will no doubt be called upon to provide Iowa with a boost. But how many, and at whose expense? Pemsl? Nunge? Wagner?

Projected minutes per game: 6

Dom Uhl, 6-9, 220, Sr.

Position: Spot duty at forward

Analysis: Things are trending downward for the Hawkeyes’ lone senior, who was a vital role player as a sophomore, started the first six games last year, but has apparently lost confidence in his shot. Uhl can be a good shot-blocker and defender. But if he’s not willing to shoot, he’ll get lost in the shuffle on this year’s team.

Projected minutes per game: 0

Maishe Dailey, 6-7, 195, So.

Position: Spot duty at shooting guard

Analysis: Dailey saw limited action last year and never really got the opportunity to showcase his game. In the summertime, you can see that he does a little bit of everything, and all of it well. But does he do any one thing well enough to supplant Moss, Ellingson or McCaffery? He hasn’t shown that yet and he’ll need to in order to get on the court.

Projected minutes per game: 0