INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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IOWA CITY — The future is bright.
That was the phrase that was thrown around before, during and now after the Iowa men’s basketball season. It’s a phrase you’ll read here and from just about every media outlet that covers the Hawkeyes.
It’s true, of course. Iowa brings back 76.7 percent of the offense and has just one player set to be a senior (Dom Uhl) and just four more to be juniors. The three recruits slated to join Iowa next year — Luka Garza, Jack Nunge and Connor McCaffery — are all highly rated and highly touted players who could contribute in a big way as soon as they arrive.
Peter Jok, who departs the program after four years and 1,508 points scored, was not shy after Iowa lost to TCU in the second round of the NIT on Sunday about what he thinks the Hawkeyes could be.
“Coach has let them play through mistakes all year, so all year has been a learning experience for them. The future is really great for them,” Jok said. “I think they’re going to be an NCAA Tournament team next year. I see them in the Sweet 16 to Elite Eight.
“It’s going to depend on them, how they take this offseason, how they improve their game individually and also stay together as a team. It’s going to be up to them.”
Expectations are a weird thing.
Everyone has them — it just depends on what a player or coach values. For instance, freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon said Iowa’s expectations from the outside were different from what the players expected of themselves this season. He pointed out that “the NIT was kind of the expectation,” but that “we kept setting higher goals for ourselves. We wanted to make the NCAA Tournament.”
McCaffery said there never has been — and won’t have in the future — an expectation tied to wins and losses.
He said what he and his staff have an expectation of is “we’re going to play a certain way and individuals are going to play a certain way, and it’s my job to get them to play to their potential, and how you do that is you coach each player individually.” Certain players require certain types of coaching, and a one-size-fits-all approach is a thing of the past.
With a bright future and the potential for great things coming, McCaffery said he has to self-evaluate as well, that “if I’m not doing a good enough job, my staff is not doing a good enough job, what do we have to do to help them?” He and his staff tried to be mindful of that this season and will next year and beyond.
Because of that approach, McCaffery was grateful for what this group brought and likely will bring.
“I would say this: I really appreciated how they responded to me and my staff all year long,” McCaffery said. “They kept grinding and kept trying to get better, so I think ultimately that would be my expectation, that regardless of whether we’re 5-5, 8-5, three-game losing streak, we’re going to keep grinding and we’re going to keep concentrating on the game plan, stay true to the game plan, and be a great teammate that helps the guy next to him. And that’s what we’ll keep trying to do.”
It’s also true that there’s never a guarantee how an individual will respond to different kinds of coaching when they get on campus. Being recruited and being part of a program are two very different things.
There were no secrets about the aforementioned expectations from McCaffery and his staff for the group of six freshmen who stepped on campus last summer. What they had to realize quickly — and to a man, each of them have said it happened — was that no matter what was said or how it was said, McCaffery and his staff were doing things for the benefit of the individual and of the whole.
Freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said “at first you don’t really know what to expect,” coming in with “a whole new style and obviously a lot more intense than high school basketball.”
“They’re there to make us better players. They’re there to make us a better team,” Pemsl said. “What they say, you may not want to hear at the time, but in the long run, what they’re saying is what’s going to benefit you in the long run. I think bringing in the amount of guys we did and adapting as quick as we did was something a lot of people didn’t expect. I think we can move forward from here.”
Adapt, they did.
Bohannon and freshman forward Tyler Cook were named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Pemsl and redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss both started several games and both had a 20-plus-point game while contributing significantly. Pemsl also led the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 61.7 percent.
Bohannon was one of just three players in Iowa history to reach 372 points and 175 assists in a single season, and averaged 22.7 points and 11.3 assists in the final three games of the season. He was the first Hawkeye to post three straight double-doubles since Greg Brunner had five straight in 2006.
Cook averaged 12.3 points (second to Jok) and 5.3 rebounds per game and made his last 18 field goal attempts of the season — including going 8 of 8 and 7 of 7 in his last two games.
That’s just the freshmen. Nicholas Baer’s role was invaluable. Dom Uhl was key defensively, even if his minutes waned. Brady Ellingson’s outside shooting came up big several times. Ahmad Wagner moved into a starting role and did the unsung work required to win.
Factor in the aforementioned Garza, Nunge and Connor McCaffery, and yeah, the future seems pretty bright. But it only will be bright, they all said, if the work doesn’t cease. That was evidenced by Cook heading to the practice gym after Sunday’s loss to TCU.
“We’ve got an opportunity I think to have a really good team, but the only way that’s going to happen is if we keep fighting and keep working, and it starts immediately,” McCaffery said. “Offseason conditioning, summer workouts, we get extra practices and we’re going to take our team overseas. That will be an opportunity for us to grow together, to assimilate our new players into that group, and play some games overseas, and I think as a result, we’ll benefit greatly.”
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