IOWA CITY, Iowa — Barely a few weeks removed from their high school graduation, five incoming freshman basketball players converged on Iowa’s campus and made a random connection with one another.
They comprised nearly 40 percent of Iowa’s scholarship roster and had to replace the nucleus of a team that advanced to three straight NCAA Tournaments. In early June, their thoughts weren’t centered on that type of pressure. Their focus instead was on the reason they chose to attend the University of Iowa.
“The first day we came here, we all met each other in a gym and we didn’t even tell each other to come to the gym, we all showed up and each one of us is there,” said Iowa freshman forward Tyler Cook. “I think that kind of set a tone for how our relationship has been since then.”
Cook hails from St. Louis. Cordell Pemsl (Dubuque), Jordan Bohannon (Marion) and Ryan Kriener (Spirit Lake) are in-state players. Maishe Dailey comes from the Cleveland area. Combined with redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss, Iowa’s freshman class has grown and developed over the course of a long season. It shows this current NIT campaign — the next game is 4 p.m. CT Sunday against TCU at Carver-Hawkeye Arena — could be only a small pothole in a long run of potential NCAA Tournament bids.
Nearly 50 percent of Iowa’s points have come from freshmen. More than 46 percent of the minutes and assists as well as 40 percent of the rebounds also were compiled by freshmen. Three freshmen have started at least 25 games, while another has opened 14 times.
“I’ve been impressed with how they’ve been able to develop going through nonconference, some of the struggles we went through defensively and being able to pick that up as the conference season went on,” Iowa sophomore Nicholas Baer said. “They just continued to grow and continued to learn and I’m proud of how they developed.”
Cook, a 6-foot-9 forward, averages 12.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game this year. Bohannon, the youngest brother of Division I basketball players Jason (Wisconsin), Zach (Wisconsin) and Matt (Northern Iowa), scores 10.5 points a game with a team-best 162 assists as the team’s point guard. Pemsl, a 6-8 forward, averages 9.0 points and 4.9 boards. Cook and Bohannon were named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team this year.
Moss (6-5) redshirted last season but has become a force at times this year. He’s opened 27 games and puts up 6.7 points a game. Moss scored 16 points and hit four first-half 3-pointers against South Dakota on Wednesday.
Kriener (6-9) twice notched 14 points in Big Ten action. Dailey (6-6) has played the least but has flashed potential with an explosive burst and a left-handed shooting stroke.
Freshmen rank second (Cook), third (Bohannon), fourth (Pemsl) and sixth (Moss) on Iowa’s scoring list. Bohannon is one of only three freshmen nationally in the last 25 years to post more than 160 assists and 80 3-pointers in a season. He’s the first Iowa player since B.J. Armstrong in 1989 to collect a double-double for points and assists in consecutive games. Bohannon drilled eight 3-pointers at Maryland, the most ever by an Iowa freshman and one away from tying the school record. Bohannon’s 162 assists are 22 more than compiled by any other Iowa freshman.
In his first start at Notre Dame on Nov. 29, Bohannon scored 23 points and hit seven 3-pointers. He’s made at least five 3-pointers in five games.
“Once we moved him into the starting lineup, he’s been good ever since,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I haven’t seen a big difference since then. I thought he was great against Notre Dame, the first game he started. He pretty much handled everything we threw at him after that.”
Bohannon had to replace the point guard tandem of Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, which was difficult. But the 6-foot freshman has developed into a different kind of playmaker from his predecessors.
“The ups and downs, (Bohannon) just kept coming,” said Iowa senior shooting guard Peter Jok, who leads the Big Ten in scoring. “The thing that separated him from the other guards is he’s a scoring guard. He can really shoot the ball so it’s hard to guard a player like that. Sapp (Clemmons) and Mike are great point guards, too, and I loved playing with them. But I also love playing with Jordan. He came a long way from the start of the season to now.”
As a 4-star prospect from St. Louis Chaminade, Cook was the most heralded recruit in the class. He made all eight shots in an NIT win against South Dakota. He has scored in double figures 18 times and notched 24 against Seton Hall and 21 at Maryland.
Cook and Pemsl started alongside one another for a few weeks but now regularly rotate. Pemsl has scored in double figures 15 times and ranks first in Big Ten field-goal percentage (62.3 percent).
The season has been challenging for the freshmen, who are playing well past a normal high school season against better competition than they’ve previously experienced. Most of them struggled mightily on defense before the Big Ten campaign, then improved throughout the season.
“You don’t really know until you get down that long stretch in January and February that it’s exhausting mentally and physically,” Pemsl said. “It’s obviously way longer than a high school season, but I think I just learned that I’m able to play at this level, and that’s the one thing you’re thinking about when you’re first starting in the summer and then coming in the fall. You’re playing against your guys all the time. You don’t know what to expect from all the other Big Ten schools, all your nonconference schools.”
Iowa finished 10-8 in the Big Ten season and was one of the four top teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes join Wisconsin and Michigan State as the only Big Ten teams to win at least half their conference games in five straight years. With victories against the Big Ten’s top three teams in Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland, plus wins against conference tournament champions Iowa State (Big 12), Michigan (Big Ten) and North Dakota (Big Sky), the freshmen’s growth shows the program could vault into Big Ten title competition next year.
“Definitely exciting,” Bohannon said. “We just have to keep it day by day because we know how bright our future can be. But it starts in the present and how hard we’re willing to work each day in games like we have Sunday, in games like we had (against South Dakota). We’re all getting experience and it’s all going to help us in the next couple of years to come, and we all have that mindset that we know we can do something special here. We want to keep pounding that mindset each day.”