Iowa basketball’s youthful exuberance was on full display in the summer Prime Time League, when the incoming freshmen interrupted each other’s interviews with their own questions and funny faces.
Three months later at the team’s media day, those same rookies showed little drop-off with how they handled attention. They coordinated a fake dunking contest where the rim snuffed every attempt. They laughed, they posed, they talked big.
That’s quite a change from the normally stoic and businesslike Hawkeyes who won 22 games in each of the last two seasons. But it will take time to see if that puppy-like enthusiasm will extend Iowa’s basketball success to a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.
“We’re always high energy, a lot of laughs,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said from media day earlier this month. “We’re just kind of loose. We don’t really get caught up in who’s better than who or which guys are going to play this year because that’s not something we want to talk about right now.
“We showed up together, we do a lot of things together. It just kind of builds that chemistry off the court which translate on the court. It’s been a great experience this far.”
Iowa enters a major youth movement this winter, almost shockingly so. The Hawkeyes lose from last season’s roster 392 career starts, a consensus All-American in forward Jarrod Uthoff, the Big Ten’s co-rebounding leader in center Adam Woodbury and its single-season assists record holder in point guard Mike Gesell. From a team that was ranked as high as third nationally last year, Iowa drops 57 percent of its scoring and 59 percent of its minutes.
With only three upperclassmen on its roster —and fifth-year senior Dale Jones is coming off his second ACL tear — youth will take Iowa toward its destination. Sure, returning second-team All-Big Ten guard Peter Jok will have a say. But it’s how quickly five scholarship freshmen and four sophomores can adapt to the college game and grow that will determine the Hawkeyes’ season.
“(The freshman are) a very confident group for being so young,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day session in Washington, D.C. “The critical thing is going to be as you go through the journey, and we all know it’s a difficult journey. Can we sustain that when we have bumps in the road? And that’s where the leadership comes in.”
Freshman forward Tyler Cook is the star recruit, standing 6-9 and weighing 253 pounds. He’s explosive, agile and cut with a Big Ten frame. He’s designated as a post player, but McCaffery will have him perform multiple tasks, from bringing up the ball to shooting 3s and running the floor.
“He preached to me from Day 1 when he recruited me, ‘you’re going to be more than just a post player, you’re going to be more than just a five-man,’” said Cook, who led St. Louis Chaminade to the Missouri Class 5 title. “As my high school career went on, I saw that more in myself, and the fact that he seen that before I even saw it was a big factor for me coming here.”
At 6-8 and 250 pounds, Pemsl is the wide-bodied post player capable of moving outside the paint if necessary. Point guard Jordan Bohannon has the family pedigree and the Mr. Basketball accolades but lacks the height at only 6 feet. Bohannon’s older brothers Jason and Zach played at Wisconsin with Jason scoring more than 1,000 points. Another older brother, Matt, scored more than 1,000 for two-time NCAA participant Northern Iowa.
Ryan Kriener hails from small-town Iowa, but he has become a true pick-and-pop threat potentially too good to redshirt. At 6-9 and 247 pounds, Kriener provides the versatility necessary for a team in transition. Perhaps the group’s wild card is 6-6 left-handed shooting guard Maishe Dailey, who decommitted from Rutgers and has impressed coaches and observers in workouts.
Iowa’s nonconference schedule includes games against Seton Hall, Virginia, Notre Dame, Iowa State and Northern Iowa — then comes the 18-game Big Ten grind. That slate will test their inexperience like nothing the players have faced. Yet their off-court chemistry could develop a cohesiveness necessary in the program’s quest for a fourth straight NCAA appearance.
“I think we have enough depth, enough size, enough 3-point shooting, enough ball handlers, and I think we have great chemistry,” McCaffery said Thursday. “But it still remains to be seen how all that meshes together when the games begin. I think that’s the fun of it, that’s the challenge that we all face. I think what we have is a young group that’s excited about the opportunity before them, and they believe in each other.”
— Iowa On BTN (@IowaOnBTN) October 13, 2016