IOWA CITY — Tyler Cook never will forget the first day he arrived on campus at Iowa last summer. The young forward from St. Louis had no sooner unpacked his bags when he decided to pop over to the gym to get in some work.
He was stunned to find that Jordan Bohannon also was there. So were Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener and Maishe Dailey. Iowa’s five incoming freshmen hadn’t arranged to meet there. It just sort of happened. They were all just that eager to get started.
“I think that just set a tone for how our relationship was going to be,’’ Cook said. “I think from the jump, we knew all of us were going to give it everything we had.’’
The freshmen have been together less than a year, but it already is clear that it is going to be a special class that could end up doing some special things.
The new kids teamed with senior Peter Jok, junior Dom Uhl and a batch of less ballyhooed sophomores to give Iowa fans at least a few things to cheer about this season and to whet their appetites for bigger and better things in the future. With three highly regarded recruits arriving this summer to join a team that returns pretty much everyone except Jok from a 19-15 season, expectations will be much higher next season.
“Definitely exciting,’’ Bohannon said. “We just have to keep it day by day. We know how bright our future can be but it starts in the present, how hard we’re willing to work each day … We have the mindset that we can do something special here and we want to have that mindset each and every day.’’
It’s certainly not unprecedented for a team to have as much youth on the roster as the Hawkeyes did this season. In fact, there were three other teams in the Big Ten that also started three freshmen most of the season and two of those teams — Maryland and Michigan State — made the NCAA Tournament.
What was impressive about Iowa’s youngsters was the development they showed over the course of the season, both individually and collectively, right up through Sunday’s season-ending 94-92 loss to TCU in the second round of the NIT.
After being 14-13 at one point, the Hawkeyes staged a late-season run that came up just short of the NCAA Tournament. It’s more than most predicted when the season started. Many of us figured the NIT was the most this team could achieve.
As a group, the big improvement was at the defensive end. Head coach Fran McCaffery said the defense the Hawkeyes showed in two games in a Thanksgiving tournament in Florida was as awful as any team he’s ever coached.
It still wasn’t consistently great at the end but there were some late-season games — including road victories at Maryland and Wisconsin — in which defense was the big reason the Hawkeyes won.
“Early in the season, our defense was not good at all,’’ McCaffery said. “The critical thing is that we recognized that and made improvement. We could not continue to give up the amount of points we were giving up and just trade baskets with teams. I always go back to losses that stick out in my head. We score 92 and lose (to Memphis). We score 89 and lose (to Omaha). You’re supposed to win those games and we figured out how to do that.’’
The individual improvement by some players was much more tangible. Cook and Bohannon struggled on defense and were inconsistent on offense early in the season, but both ended up making the five-player All-Big Ten freshman team. They were still be getting better when the season ended.
Bohannon’s emergence was almost mind-boggling. He wasn’t even the starting point guard at the outset of the season but he ended up shattering Iowa’s single-season records for assists (175) and 3-point field goals (89) by a freshman. He had double-doubles in the last three games of the season, averaging 22.7 points and 11.3 assists over that span.
Bohannon admitted he gradually became more and more comfortable as the floor leader.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and obviously he gives us a different dimension when he can shoot it that deep …’’ sophomore Nicholas Baer said. “I think he’s really developed as a person as well as a player over the year.’’
Cook finally stopped being a defensive liability, became much more of a rebounding presence and averaged 12.3 points per game, second on the team behind Jok. He made the last 18 shots he took in the season.
Baer had double-doubles in two of his last four games and had the second highest blocked shot total of any sophomore in Iowa history. The former Bettendorf star was named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year and joined Draymond Green as only the second Big Ten player in the past 25 years to collect 250 points, 45 steals, 40 blocks and 40 3-point field goals in a season.
Pemsl, Kriener and redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss and sophomores Ahmad Wagner, Brady Ellingson and Christian Williams showed less dramatic signs of improvement, but all showed flashes of excellence.
Early in the season, the Hawkeyes were built almost completely around Jok, who led the Big Ten in scoring and free throw percentage, but as the season went on their reliance on him faded. He missed two games because of injury in the middle of the Big Ten season and the Hawkeyes won them both.
Next season, McCaffery will add three more gifted players to the mix — 6-10 Luka Garza, 6-9 Jack Nunge and his son, Connor, who led Iowa City West to the Class 4A state title.
It’s hard to figure how he is going to find playing time for all of them, but it’s one of those pleasant problems to have.
The head coach consistently raved about the work ethic and resiliency of his young players.
“This is a group that makes you want to come to work every day,’’ he said. “And I think that says a lot about who they are.’’
After Sunday’s overtime loss to TCU, Bohannon, Pemsl and others talked about going right to work to get ready for bigger and better things next season.
McCaffery was right there with them.
“We're not going to take any time,’’ he said. “We're going to get back in the gym. 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.
"Offseason conditioning, summer workouts, we get extra practices and we're going to take our team overseas (to Germany in August). 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.’’