IOWA CITY — Nobody could blame them for being bitter.
After all, senior Eric May and juniors Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe have combined for 160 career starts for the Iowa basketball team, including 71 a year ago while leading the Hawkeyes to their first winning season in five seasons.
But 10 games into the current season, the three upperclassmen find themselves adjusting to reserve roles as the Hawkeyes work toward Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. game against Northern Iowa at the Big Four Classic.
Each averages 16-18 minutes per game for an 8-2 Iowa team which has included three freshmen in its starting five since Anthony Clemmons replaced McCabe in a lineup shuffle three games ago following consecutive losses to Wichita State and Virginia Tech.
“We didn’t go into this envisioning starting three freshmen, but it has worked out that way, and it has worked well,” coach Fran McCaffery said.
Clemmons has a 21-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio in his three games as a starter, and the shuffle has helped Aaron White average 15 points over that same span since shifting back to the power forward spot he filled a year ago.
As for McCabe, the only one of three who has started a game this season, the opportunities continue to exist.
May, Basabe and McCabe have combined to average 18.3 points and 12.3 rebounds this season.
“The reality is that (McCabe) and Basabe are going to get starter’s minutes in every game, but if the upperclassmen don’t buy in — and I’ve been around teams where that has happened — it can be a disaster,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery said the personalities of the three players involved have helped Iowa avert potential problems.
“The chemistry on this team is good, and that’s a credit to the guys who have been around,” McCaffery said. “They all want to do whatever it takes for us to be successful.”
McCabe said Wednesday he understands the reasoning behind McCaffery’s move.
It followed a 13-of-40 start from the field and was made in part to ease some of the pressure McCaffery saw McCabe putting on himself on the offensive end of the floor.
“Any time you lose two straight games, you have to look for ways to adjust to turn things around,” McCabe said. “I don’t take it personally. Any of us could start, but right now we’re playing well off the bench.”
In his three games off the bench, his shooting percentage has risen slightly, but his role on the floor remains unchanged.
“My job, and all of our jobs really, are to come in and compete at a high level and help the team be successful,” McCabe said. “We’re coming in ready to go, playing hard, playing with energy. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
May, the team’s captain, expected his off-court leadership to be as valuable as his on-court contribution this season.
He said McCaffery has clearly defined roles for his players.
“That is one of the reasons why people aren’t getting upset,” May said. “Everybody knows where they stand, and that does make a difference.”
As long as victories follow, McCabe said that is a tradeoff he is willing to live with.
“We all want to get to the NCAA tourney, as long as we have the chance to make that happen, it’s worth some sacrifice,” McCabe said. “We’re not a selfish team, and that is helping us make this work.”