Kirk Speraw knew even before this week that this has a chance to be a special season for the Iowa basketball team.
And nothing the Hawkeyes’ veteran assistant coach has seen through the first week of workouts has altered that opinion.
“The guys have been fabulous this first week of practice,’’ Speraw said Monday during an appearance at the Davenport Grid Club’s weekly luncheon.
“I think we’re ahead of the game because of the practices we had this summer for our European trip. But it has been as competitive a week of practice as I’ve ever been involved with as far as the first week of practice. We’ve just been active defensively, we’ve been unselfish in moving the ball offensively. It’s really been a great first week.’’
There is no question Iowa (19-15 a year ago) has enough talent to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth and perhaps much more. The questions primarily involve how head coach Fran McCaffery is going to utilize all the players he has at his disposal.
The entire team returns except for Big Ten scoring leader Peter Jok and Dale Jones, who played only 15 minutes last season. And the Hawkeyes have added a pair of freshman big men in 6-11 Jack Nunge, who was named the most valuable player of the Prime Time League during the summer, and Luka Garza, who led Iowa in scoring in all four games on its overseas trip in August.
Speraw said he thinks the team could go "13-14 deep.''
Asked Monday to name what he thought might be the starting lineup, Speraw hesitated, then mentioned Garza as a strong candidate to start along with returning regulars Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss.
The fifth starter? Speraw said Bettendorf’s Nicholas Baer has earned the right to be a starter, but he admitted he loves the energy Baer provides in a reserve role. He provided enough of it last year to be named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year.
“Nicholas is one of the few players I’ve ever coached who has the unique ability to push himself to exhaustion,’’ Speraw said. “He does it not just occasionally but almost every day …
“To me, he is so valuable coming off the bench,’’ he added. “He’s like John Havlicek was with the Boston Celtics. He always gives you something. He can change the whole dynamic of the game.’’
If Baer doesn’t start, Speraw admitted he doesn’t know who will. He noted that even the 6-11 Nunge has seen action at small forward during this first week.
“It could be any number of people …’’ he said. “They’re all competing so hard and I think that could be flexible and change from week to week.’’
Speraw said he thinks it’s also perhaps the most close-knit team he ever has been around. That could help when McCaffery has to make some very tough decisions about who plays and who does not.
“The guys have been really unselfish in regards to moving the ball but also enjoying other teammates’ success,’’ Speraw said. “Even if they’re competing with somebody for playing time at a particular position, they’ve really taken pride in the success that their teammates have in making a good play. I think we have a unique group and I think we’ve got a very unselfish group.’’