IOWA CITY — The main thing that Fran McCaffery has noticed about his young Iowa basketball team so far is that it has been consistently inconsistent.
“It's kind of been the trend since June,’’ McCaffery said. “We look good some days. We look just OK some days. Individually, there's days when guys are absolutely spectacular and then there's days when they go missing. That's not uncommon for a young team.’’
McCaffery would like to see it become a little less common beginning tonight when the Hawkeyes host Kennesaw State in their season opener at 8:30 p.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Don’t misunderstand: McCaffery loves his team. He loves the five new freshmen he brought in this year. He loves the way his returning players have developed. He loves the potential he sees.
He loves his talent pool so much that he said it’s going to be hard to trim his rotation down to 10 or 11 players and he said Wednesday it’s very possible he won’t redshirt any players.
But when you have one returning starter and 10 freshmen and sophomores, it’s going to take time to get a team to play with purpose every minute every night.
“That's a challenge we face every day when we come to work is to get whatever team you're coaching to play that way all the time, and it's often harder, obviously, with younger guys,’’ McCaffery said. “But we do have depth. We do have length. We do have a bigger, stronger, more physical team than we had last year, even though they're not as experienced. So I'm confident that we'll be able to get it fixed.’’
There definitely have been positive glimpses in five weeks of practice, in a closed scrimmage with Illinois State and in an exhibition game last week against Regis University. The Hawkeyes had an 18-0 scoring run in the first half against Regis and a 17-3 blast in the second half. But at other times they looked fairly listless against a middle-of-the-road Division II squad.
If there’s one thing that has been consistent, it’s that the Hawkeyes are nearly unanimous in recognizing that they need to play with more sustained intensity, especially at the defensive end of the court.
“We struggled defensively in the game, in the exhibition game …’’ 6-foot-9 freshman Tyler Cook said. “We’ve just got to be more sound defensively and the effort’s got to be there the whole game, not just in spurts.’’
Sophomore forward Ahmad Wagner, who McCaffery said has been among his most consistent players so far, echoed that theme.
“Even though we’re very young, we’re talented and we can score the ball pretty well, but it’s going to be important that we play good defense this year,’’ he said. “These next two games (against Kennesaw tonight and Savannah State on Sunday), we’re going to focus on getting stops on defense, getting multiple stops and just not allowing our opponent to score. That’s going to be a big focal point.’’
Senior Peter Jok, a returning second-team All-Big 10 pick, said it can’t just be a priority for two games.
“We have spurts where we play really good defense but we have other spurts where we don’t look that good,’’ Jok said. “Our consistency on defense definitely needs to improve a lot. That’s going to be our main focus all season. On offense, we’ve got a lot of scorers so we’ll be good on offense.’’
Jok, who averaged 16.1 points per game last season and had 28 in the exhibition game, said it’s really a simple fix.
“Just play with high intensity, play harder than the other team,’’ he said. “Everybody is talented now. We’ve got to do something to separate us from everybody else and that’s playing hard. Our main goal is to play hard.’’