Iowa basketball's guard depth a growing issue

Hawkeyes likely to get Nicholas Baer back vs Virginia Tech, Connor McCaffery still out awhile with mono

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) drives to the hoop against Belmont Abbey's Ben Ferguson during the first half of their men's college basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) drives to the hoop against Belmont Abbey's Ben Ferguson during the first half of their men's college basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — More than one aspect to the Iowa men’s basketball team was exposed as less-than-ideal during the Hawkeyes’ trip to the Cayman Islands Classic.

Defensive deficiencies returned in much the same manner as the start to last season, but Coach Fran McCaffery pointed out after Iowa’s losses to Louisiana and South Dakota State that the offense wasn’t what it needed to be, either. He used the word “connected” — as in, they weren’t — much the same as he has on several occasions. McCaffery said Monday “it’s our execution,” that had them disconnected in those losses, and that “it’s not as sharp as it needs to be.”

The Hawkeyes (4-2) not being as sharp can be any number of reasons, but there’s a good chance a lot of it has to do with the depth, or lack thereof, in the backcourt. Iowa being without a true backup point guard, with Connor McCaffery out dealing with mononucleosis, has forced Brady Ellingson out of his comfort zone and Jordan Bohannon into more than 34 minutes per game in the three games in the Caymans.

Not having depth at guard won’t get better soon, either, as Fran said Connor was hospitalized for two days last week while the team was traveling. Connor is home and working back to the court now, Fran said, but when he’ll be back exactly remains a mystery.

“I think it hurts in a couple aspects,” Fran said. “It puts Brady in a tough spot. He’s been solid, but he was really playing well as a shooting guard and hasn’t had the opportunity to do that yet. I feel bad for him.

“I can always swing (Nicholas) Baer back there, too. We’ve got pretty good ball-handling forwards in general. It puts a lot of pressure on Jordan, no question. Isaiah (Moss), Brady and Maishe (Dailey) just have to step up.”

If Iowa gets some relief in the backcourt, it could come from Nicholas Baer. While Baer isn’t a traditional guard, he’s always played somewhat of a hybrid shooting guard/small forward/power forward kind of game, and Fran said before this season and on Monday that Baer could be used in the backcourt until Connor returns.

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That’s a bit of news in and of itself, of course, given Baer has missed the first six games with a broken left pinkie. Fran said Monday morning it wasn’t totally official, but that he expected both Baer and Ahmad Wagner, who missed the UAB game with a shoulder injury, back for Tuesday’s game at Virginia Tech.

Baer’s return is key for several aspects of what the Hawkeyes do, but perimeter defense and keeping the other few guys fresh might be the most pressing at the moment. Fran addressed defense from the Caymans on Monday as well, highlighting how the zone — both 2-3 and 1-3-1 — “was OK. It wasn’t great.” Iowa will oscillate between man-to-man and zone, depending on the situation, but Fran acknowledged the growth needed regardless of defensive set, especially with a Virginia Tech team up next, which averages 1.146 points per possession (18th nationally) and a nation-leading 102 points per game.

For Connor, his freshman year continues to become a bit of a saga. Fran said “he’s really behind physically,” which makes sense given what mono does to the body, but that he’s stayed mentally sharp. The plan is for Connor to play this season and not redshirt, but health still could be a factor.

“It’s a real good question in terms of timetable because he had a pretty good situation in terms of how badly he felt,” Fran said. “He won’t play, won’t travel (Tuesday). He’ll probably be cleared to play sometime at the end of this week, and then it’s going to take him a while. Your body is severely compromised, so we’ll see how long it takes him to get back to where physically he can run consistently. So the plan is for him to play.

“But we’ll see how long this period takes. It might take a week, it might take two weeks. If it takes two or three, then you re-evaluate at that time.”

Iowa and Virginia Tech tip off at 8 p.m. CT for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup, and it can be seen on ESPN2.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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