Iowa's basketball bond grows from edgy exhibition

Hawkeyes' starters and reserves form cohesive unit

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Mike Gesell (10) celebrates after the game against the Michigan State Spartans on Dec. 29, 2015 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa won 83-70. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Mike Gesell (10) celebrates after the game against the Michigan State Spartans on Dec. 29, 2015 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa won 83-70. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

IOWA CITY — For the better part of three seasons, Iowa had a depth chart where opening roles were almost ceremonial and the backups played nearly as often as the starters.

Last year, Iowa had eight players average at least 18 minutes a game but only two put up more than 26 minutes. At times many key players became interchangeable parts. That changed significantly entering this season.

The Hawkeyes (15-3, 6-0 Big Ten) brought back four starters and another who opened 12 games last year. But only one other returning player — sophomore Dom Uhl — saw even a modicum of action last year. With five incoming freshmen, two red-shirt freshmen and a junior-college transfer, the Hawkeyes quickly had to bridge the knowledge and cohesiveness gap. It wasn’t easy.

In the team’s exhibition opener against Division II Sioux Falls, there appeared to be little on-court trust between the veterans and newcomers. Iowa won decisively, but the frustration was palpable after the game. Senior Jarrod Uthoff met reporters with a look of concern and said, “It’s a learning curve, and it’s a slow process” when he talked about how the groups were meshing.

The disparity became more obvious in the team’s second exhibition, which the Hawkeyes lost to Division II Augustana 76-74. Only two backups played more than five minutes, and the challenges appeared daunting. But instead of dividing the team, the difficulties galvanized it.

The exhibition defeat served as a wake-up call to the veterans. The group endured a two-day early fall workout from the Navy Seals that required team building and mental application, as well as physical demand. If they were to have a successful season, they needed to become better mentors to their younger teammates. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery never delivered a rah-rah speech to his seniors, but he encouraged better communication and leadership. The seniors listened and took their roles seriously.

“Obviously at practice he’d get on us for not helping the young guys out enough, but he never really had to sit down with us,” Iowa center Adam Woodbury said. “I think we understood that we kind of had to let those guys take their bumps and bruises and then we’re able to pick them back up. Everything’s not going to come easy for them, and we’ve got to let them take the trials and tribulations and help them along the way.”

“I think the upperclassmen did a pretty good job mentoring them,” McCaffery said. “Maybe not so much in the very beginning, but as we got closer to playing games, they recognized there’s only so much those five guys can do. They need these other guys to step up, and they’ve been very helpful there in terms of leadership, communication, encouragement.

“There was a stretch there where I was really tough on those guys because I knew we weren’t going to make the deadline, which was the beginning of the season. They weren’t ready to contribute right off the bat. We saw that in the Augustana game, which is why we played that game, which ended up, I think, being something that benefitted our team because those guys were experienced and they played that way.”

There’s a natural disconnect between upperclassmen and newcomers in all college sports, but it’s most obvious in basketball. Physical limitations prevent many players from competing early in football, but basketball is a skill sport where some athletes achieve immediate success. Iowa had several skill players entering their prime of their college careers. What the team needed the most were role players who could impact a game in small doses.

“I definitely think it was a process,” Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell said. “When everybody gets to college, they want to be the man. Everyone wants to put up points. I think you kind of form roles as the season goes along; everyone’s not going to hop into a role instantly. There’s a lot of figuring that out and figuring out how you can help the team.

“Look at a guy like Nicholas Baer. The guy just works hard all the time and didn’t necessarily have a role right away. But he continually worked hard every day in practice and fit into that role. He’s a guy that’s coming off the bench and just working hard making the right plays.”

Baer and Uhl have shown versatility, from working in the post to hitting 3-pointers. Ahmad Wagner has become a key contributor in spurts. Iowa’s reserves average 33 percent of the playing time this year, down from 36.6 percent last year. But this team is ranked No. 9 in both polls and is off to its best Big Ten start in 29 years. Its bench players are contributing, and the team appears undivided three months after its first exhibition.

Against Michigan last Sunday, an odd mix of veterans with three bench players pushed Iowa’s lead from one point to 11. That led McCaffery to say after the game, “it’s great that we have four seniors and a junior, but I said from the beginning, we would not have success this year unless those young guys came through for us.”

“I think one of the beauties of this team is that everybody has embraced their roles and even down to the bench with the guys who don’t play they play minimal minutes, they’re cheering us on the whole game,” Gesell said. “I think everybody has really understood their roles, and we’re just a very close team on and off the court and it allows us to gel.”

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