IOWA CITY — Can depth be a defining difference for a sixth-seeded Iowa basketball team needing a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament?
The Hawkeyes count on it.
“When you have to win four games in four days, going nine or 10 deep can’t hurt,” Iowa forward Aaron White said. “It’s helped us get to this point, helped us win 20, and it’s going to keep helping us moving forward.”
A coach who has been accustomed to settling on a seven- or eight-player rotation, Fran McCaffery has grown comfortable with frequent substitutions this season.
With the probable return of guard Mike Gesell from a foot injury, McCaffery will again find himself shuttling 10 players into the game when Iowa tips off tourney play today with an 8 p.m. game against Northwestern at Chicago’s United Center.
Facing the prospects of needing a deep run into the tourney to keep NCAA tourney hopes alive, McCaffery sees that level of depth as an edge the Hawkeyes can maximize as the Big Ten tourney progresses.
“I definitely think it helps,” McCaffery said. “You know, if you’re in a seven-man rotation it’s going to be hard to win four in four days. You’re going to slow down over the course of those games.”
Fresh legs and bodies are not the only benefit McCaffery sees with a deep bench.
He believes the rotations the Hawkeyes have been utilizing have made Iowa a much more challenging team to face.
“I don’t know of any coach who is going to want to face Iowa in the postseason,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “They are very difficult preparation because they can take on a number of different personalities.”
McCaffery has watched that evolve over the course of the season.
“No matter what game you look at, sometimes there’s just different guys on the floor who are producing,” McCaffery said. “It’s not always the same top two scorers and the same four players doing the same thing.”
He points to Iowa’s win over Nebraska last weekend as an example.
Reserves Gabe Olaseni, Josh Oglesby, Anthony Clemmons and Zach McCabe joined starter Melsahn Basabe on the floor as the Hawkeyes pulled away from a 46-44 lead midway through the second half with a run of 17 unanswered points.
“That lineup really clicked for us, and it’s been like that all year long,” McCaffery said. “It’s been different guys on different days.”
Iowa guard Anthony Clemmons appreciates that as much as anything about an Iowa team that has reached 20 wins for the first time since 2006.
“It doesn’t matter to anybody here whether we start or if we come off the bench,” Clemmons said. “Coach has shown that he will play whoever is getting the job done and stick with them and he’s doing a good job of keeping everybody fresh.”
Nine Hawkeyes have started games this season. Two of Iowa’s top five scorers — Basabe and McCabe — have filled reserve roles more frequently than they have started on a team that has nine players averaging more than 16 minutes per game and has only one topping 30 minutes of playing time.
Leading scorer Devyn Marble tops that just barely, averaging 30.2 minutes.
McCaffery likes the way Hawkeyes starters and reserves seem to be supporting each other.
“When I watched that particular group making the run (against Nebraska), the starters were going crazy rooting for each,” McCaffery said. “There is no like, ‘I should be out there’ or ‘When is he going to put me back in?’ Instead, it’s like our guys are rolling, that’s great for us.”
Gesell sees that attitude as a result of how tight this team has become.
He saw that coming together even last summer.
“We’re competitive, but we also understand that we’re a team,” Gesell said. “I think going as deep as we’ve gone on the bench is one of the reasons we’ve finished the way we have. We’re able to put pressure on other teams at a time of year when they are tiring because we’re using so many guys.”
The Hawkeyes expect that to give them an edge beginning tonight against the Wildcats.
“We’re going to be a tough team to beat from here on out,” Marble said. “Getting to the NCAA tourney has been our goal along and we know the only way to get there is to get there together. We’ll pick each other up.”
Game 1: Illinois vs. Minnesota, 11 a.m., BTN
Game 2: Michigan vs. Penn State, 1:30 p.m., BTN
Game 3: Purdue vs. Nebraska, 5:30 p.m., ESPN2
Game 4: Iowa vs. Northwestern, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Game 5: Indiana vs. Game 1 winner, 11 a.m., ESPN
Game 6: Wisconsin vs. Game 2 winner, 1:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 7: Ohio State vs. Game 3 winner, 5:30 p.m., BTN
Game 8: Michigan State vs. Game 4 winner, 8 p.m., BTN
Semifinals, 12:40 and 3:10 p.m., CBS
Championship, 2:30 p.m., CBS