IOWA CITY — Nicholas Baer said it has been “open season.’’
Ahmad Wagner used a slightly harsher term. He said it has been “a war zone.’’
But in a good way.
That is how Iowa basketball players described their first two weeks of practice as the Hawkeyes seek to sort out a very congested battle for playing time for the coming season.
While some college coaches around the country may be trying to scrape together six or eight players that they are comfortable with, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery admitted at the Hawkeyes’ preseason media day Monday that he has an entirely different problem.
He figures he has 13 very solid players and it would be 14 if he hadn’t already committed to redshirting his son, Connor, in his first season of college basketball.
“It's not going to be easy. There's no question about that,’’ McCaffery said of the decisions he needs to make about playing time. “So you know, you just try to institute a sense of fairness the best way that you can. You try to identify who have been the guys that have elevated themselves to the point where you consider them to be starters, and where do you want to go from there.
“That said, I don't think I've ever really tried to get 13 guys in. It's typically been 10 or 11, so it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.’’
McCaffery has 11 lettermen returning from a 19-15 team that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. Ten of those players saw action in almost every game and eight of them started at least six games.
Then you add in a pair of highly skilled 6-foot-11 freshmen, one of whom led the Hawkeyes in scoring in every game on their European tour in August with the other being named the most valuable player of the Prime Time League during the summer.
It’s created a really nice problem.
McCaffery said he already has begun to develop some thoughts about what his rotation might look like and he dropped a few hints about that Monday. He indicated that Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook, both of whom made the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team last season, will almost certainly start along with sophomore guard Isaiah Moss. And Bettendorf’s Baer, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year, will play extensively whether he starts or not.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess right now.
“We're only two weeks in,’’ McCaffery said. “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.’’
Things are especially crowded in the frontcourt where the two new kids, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge, join a group that includes Cook, who reportedly has made big improvements in his game; Wagner, who started 18 games last season; Cordell Pemsl, who started 14 times; Dom Uhl, the only senior on the team; and Ryan Kriener, who showed flashes of brilliance while playing in 28 games.
“We’ve got seven guys at my position basically, the 4 and 5, who in any different game could be a starter,’’ Pemsl said. “It’s competitive in practice. It gives us a look in practice when you play against guys like Luka and Tyler every day and Ryan, Ahmad, Dom, Jack, all those guys. To be able to go up against them every day is making me a better player and I know them going up against me is doing the same thing.’’
That may be the biggest positive at this point: All this competition for playing time is making everyone better.
“It’s great. Practice is just incredible,’’ Cook said. “We’re all fighting for spots but at the same time in practice you kind of forget we’re all on the same team.’’
That’s what Baer meant by “open season.’’
“You have 13, 14 guys vying for spots and for minutes,’’ he said. “It obviously makes it competitive but it also makes it fun, too. That’s what you want, you want it to be competitive and when everyone’s playing at that high of a level, it’s going to make practices more enjoyable and a lot more fun.’’
"It’s a war zone, but it’s all competitive and we’re all having fun with it ...'' Wagner added. “It’s going to make us a better team in the long run.''