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IOWA CITY — There’s no freshmen orientation for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
There’s no easing in.
There’s no break-in period.
If the 2016-17 season was proof of anything — and it could be argued it proved quite a bit — it’s if you’ve got talent and you’re brought in to display that talent, you’re expected to do so right away. Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl got thrown in the deep end last year. They swam — pretty darn well.
With a position group as talented as the Iowa frontcourt for 2017-18, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge better know how to swim, too.
Garza and Nunge are ready-made, to ask Coach Fran McCaffery. Translation: buckle in, young fellas.
“They’re incredibly versatile,” McCaffery said. “They come ready. It’s not like we have to develop them. They’re both really good players. They have versatile skill sets. They can dribble, pass and shoot. When you have two 6’11” guys that can do all those things, then you have high expectation for them, and they’re going to be right in the middle of it.”
Garza and Nunge enter a frontcourt that is stocked — well enough some who follow the team are concerned it’s overstocked.
Cook and Pemsl return, as do Nicholas Baer, Ahmad Wagner, Ryan Kriener and Dom Uhl, all of whom contributed last year. That means the Hawkeyes have eight players for what’s traditionally a two-player position group at power forward and center.
For that group, though, there’s relief in the fact that McCaffery’s teams don’t follow tradition in that way. It’s well-documented Iowa doesn’t have, outside its point guard, specific positions, but rather several players who float in between and do a variety of things. Garza and Nunge fit right into that.
Both freshmen laughed when asked how hard they’ve been pushed in practice. They got extra time this summer ahead of their European trip — during which Garza stood out especially — are a couple weeks into full team practices, and are getting absolutely no breaks from their teammates.
Not that they would want any, of course. If they are, in fact, going to be in the middle of it, there can’t be any kid gloves.
“Going to Europe and stuff kind of sped up that process as well (for me),” Garza said. “I feel like I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t feel like a freshman, really.
“All the depth we have and the guys we have, there’s no day you can take it easy. Every matchup you could possibly have on this team is a hard one. Going against these guys, they’ve pushed me every day.”
So let’s say McCaffery is right, and Garza and Nunge contribute the way they’re expected to. What then?
How does a coach possibly rotate 13 guys — because Bohannon, Isaiah Moss, Brady Ellingson, Christian Williams and Maishe Dailey are involved here, as guards — and still give them enough time to get in a rhythm on the floor to feel comfortable?
To ask McCaffery: “fairness.” He said the obvious at Media Day on Monday, that it won’t be easy, and that the players who have “elevated themselves” will see the floor. That group of players, with a few exceptions, showed the ability at one point or another to be capable of doing everything McCaffery wants on both ends of the floor.
Each player asked said they believe in McCaffery and his assurances that he and his staff have a plan.
If he has one specifically, he wasn’t giving it out Monday.
“Do I have something in mind?” McCaffery said. “Probably. But I think we’re only two weeks in. I think we have to give everybody a chance to kind of establish themselves. We’ll identify who the five are, and then six, seven, eight is typically where you go from there, and then nine, 10, 11. But even with this team, that could change.”
McCaffery pointed out that last year he experimented with different kinds of lineups, often with success in spots where it might not be expected. Baer said Monday he’s practiced at what usually would be the “2” spot, or shooting guard, at times in practice when they’ve gone big. Pretty much any and all combinations among the players they have are a possibility.
It doesn’t make things clearer yet, but on Oct. 16, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
What is clear: Bohannon, Cook and Moss are starters. McCaffery said “you can start from there,” in developing a starting five. The other two spots could be filled by several different players. Pemsl and Wagner both started last year. Baer, who was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, did early in the season as well, and is in consideration for one of those spots. Then you have Garza and Nunge, who wouldn’t be a shock considering Cook started from Day 1.
McCaffery said there’s still “work to do with the rotation.” That work won’t be finished soon.
Garza and Nunge have been tossed into this with no break-in period. If Iowa is going to match its own expectations — NCAA Tournament or bust — there can’t be. How fast they all figure it out will dictate whether or not it happens.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play, and that’s the most important thing,” McCaffery said. “We have size, we have depth in the backcourt, we have length, and we have guys that can score coming off the bench. And that’s typically the biggest problem you have.
“And that’s not the case at all with our team. We are equally good with whoever we bring off the bench, and I think that’s exciting. I have complete confidence in those guys, and they know that I’m going to try to do the best job I can to distribute playing time accordingly.”
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