Iowa's McCaffery likes newcomers' enthusiasm, work ethic and potential

Hawkeyes' roster rolls over with youthful influx

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NORTH LIBERTY — In a poignant final scene of the movie “Friday Night Lights,” Coach Gary Gaines — actor Billy Bob Thornton — selects player magnets from a board and slowly drops them into a basket. Those names were special, but the split second the names hit the basket, their contributions fade into memories.

That scene represents a metaphor for Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery’s summer. His men’s basketball program graduated four senior starters that guided the Hawkeyes to 89 wins and three consecutive NCAA tournaments. The Hawkeyes lost 392 starts and 57 percent of their scoring from last year’s 22-11 squad (12-6 Big Ten). It’s a complete roster upheaval, and it also symbolizes a program rebirth.

Senior Peter Jok (16.1 points per game) is known but the other returnees combined for just 575 points. Iowa brings in five freshmen and rosters just three upperclassmen. But on random Thursdays at the Prime Time League, one never would sense any pressure facing Iowa’s youngsters. The incoming freshmen often interrupt postgame interviews with their own questions. They bring a youthful exuberance to the program, something McCaffery has noticed.

“They’re excited to be here,” said McCaffery, who enters his seventh season at Iowa. “They want to get better, and they legitimately like and care about each other. I think that’s important. You want them to be excited about this opportunity and want to do something. They all know they’ve got a chance to play because we graduated four senior starters. Yes, we have a young team and yeah, they’ve got to pick stuff up quickly. But the challenge, I think, excites them, and they’re willing to accept that challenge and they’re willing to work. That’s the only way it happens.”

The newcomers are different in body, style and personality from their predecessors, and nobody represents that change more than 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Cook. Alongside top national recruit Jayson Tatum (who signed with Duke), Cook (12.2 points, 6.4 rebounds) paced St. Louis Chaminade to the Missouri Class 5 state title. His explosiveness belies his age (18) and his potential appears limitless. For all of Cook’s physical marvels, however, McCaffery also is drawn to his intangibles.

“He’s special, there’s no question about it,” McCaffery said. “I think you’re blown away by his athletic power, but I think if you get to know him and understand the quality of who he is and how he wants to be good and how he wants to be a complete player and how he wants to be a guy that is recognized for all the things that he can do — he can dribble, pass, run, shoot, jump, defend — he could be the guy that everybody’s talking about. But he just wants to win. I think that’s the thing that impresses me with him. I think what you’ll see is as good as he is today, he’s just going to keep getting better with more work.”

 

 

Cook’s athletic ability flashes, as do the games of his incoming teammates. From the power of forward Cordell Pemsl (6-8, 245) to guard Maishe Dailey’s sleek physique (6-6, 183), from forward Ryan Kriener’s (6-9, 247) pick-and-pop post game to steady perimeter shooting of point guard Jordan Bohannon (6-0, 182), each bring different skills. While all have unequal development trajectories, all expect to become immediate contributors.

“The key is to get them ready to play as quickly as possible,” McCaffery said. “You look at our schedule and you look at the Big Ten, you’ve got to be ready. These guys have to jump in and be ready to go right away. I think they will because, physically, they can do it.”

Pemsl (21.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) rebounded from right knee surgery 14 months ago to guide Dubuque Wahlert to the Class 3A finals. He’s a power player with a versatile game. As his knee becomes stronger and his body is refined, Pemsl could shift into a primary role.

“He can really pass it, he can put it on the deck, he can score, he’s got a low-post game, he can play facing the basket,” McCaffery said. “He just knows how to play. You know what he is, he’s a really good basketball player. Everybody looks at a lot of other things, but he just knows how to play the game.”

Kriener (22.4 points, 11.8 rebounds for Class 2A Spirit Lake) missed a few weeks of workouts this summer with an undisclosed illness. But Kriener has returned and impressed McCaffery.

“He’s a real worker,” McCaffery said. “He practiced before he told anybody he was sick. He went hard for two hours and then they said, ‘We think he might have mono.’ You’d never have known that. He was dying after practice.

“He works hard. He’s smart. He’s long. A lot of real big guys aren’t always long like him. If you look at his arms, he blocks shots and dunks the ball a lot of times because of his length more than anything else.”

 

McCaffery’s new guards are versatile. The left-handed Dailey (13.2 points for Beachwood, Ohio) can run, pass and distribute with fluidity. Dailey is rail thin, but McCaffery said he can work with that.

“He’ll get stronger,” McCaffery said. “He’s really long and really athletic. The thing I like about him is he can shoot. He can make a play for somebody. He can play above the rim, he can pass, and he can make 3s. That’s what I like. He’s got some real versatility. He’s got good size. Even though he’s 6-6, he’s a solid 6-6 and long. The way we play is perfect for him.”

Bohannon, who was Iowa’s Mr. Basketball at Linn-Mar, averaged 25.8 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. Like older brother Matt, who played at Northern Iowa, Bohannon can shoot from 3-point range. Similar to eldest brother Jason, Jordan Bohannon has an all-around game that enables him to play the point or shift off the ball.

“Sometimes guys are really good shooters and they affect the game with that, and he can do that,” McCaffery said. “He’s a really good player. He’s smart, he’s tough, he finds people. He knows how to get the ball to people. He’s got that intellect that will make that learning curve short for him, and we need him to play right away. And he will, because he’s already picking everything up.”

There are no guarantees this group can extend Iowa’s NCAA tournament run to four or will be as successful as their predecessors. But McCaffery is pleased with the progress they’re making their first month in Iowa City.

“These guys are willing to work, they listen, they’re coachable, and they’re willing to accept their role, whatever that role is going to be,” McCaffery said. “Some of them will be starters, some of them will play a lot. We’re going to play a lot of guys. You look at that team and you say, ‘There’s a lot of guys who deserve to play.’ They’re good enough to play, and I’m going to play them.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3169; scott.dochterman@thegazette.com

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