IOWA CITY, Iowa – With nearly half of his roster filled by newcomers, including five freshmen, Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery is faced with a delicate balancing act this season.
McCaffery is trying to mix youth with experience, but it’s not easy because so many of his players are seeing and experiencing things for the first time, including Thursday’s exhibition game against the University of Sioux Falls.
Iowa defeated the Cougars by the lopsided score of 99-73 at Carver-Hawkeye, but the victory didn’t come without some growing pains and frustration.
McCaffery used 14 players during Thursday’s exhibition, which kicked off his sixth season as the Iowa head coach.
“I was trying to get all these guys in, and yet, I was trying to keep our cohesion together with our first group,” McCaffery said. “We made a bunch of mistakes early, which I wasn’t expecting with our starters. But they got it together and I thought we spurted.
“The reason you play an exhibition game versus a scrimmage is you can put some guys in game-like situations and see what they can do and see if they know where to go, see if they know where to lineup, see if they understand time and score.”
Iowa struggled for much of the first half and actually trailed its Division II opponent by as many as three points before halftime.
“We just didn’t have the energy in the first half for whatever reason, first game of the year, shaking the rust off, I don’t know,” said senior point guard Mike Gesell, who finished with a game-high 24 points, including 16 in the second half. “But you have to give them credit. They came out and really attacked us and played fearless. They really gave us their best shot, and in the second half I think we really stepped it up defensively.”
Gesell’s performance sort of mirrored that of his team. He made a few mistakes early before settling down in the second half.
“The great thing about Mike is he had three turnovers early that were very uncharacteristic for him,” McCaffery said. “And the way he came back and was that aggressive with his jumper, with his drive, with his defense, I just can’t be more proud of him, the way he played, the way he fought.”
Gesell was among three players for Iowa who scored in double figures. Junior Peter Jok finished with 18 points, while senior forward Jarrod Uthoff scored 13 points and led Iowa with 10 rebounds.
All six of the newcomers played in Thursday’s exhibition and were led in scoring by freshman Andrew Fleming with eight points in 14 minutes off the bench.
Redshirt freshman Nicholas Baer, a 6-7 walk-on forward, also provided a spark off the bench with eight points and five rebounds.
“He’s going to be a very effective player for us, I think moving forward,” McCaffery said of Baer, who is from Bettendorf.
Baer made 3-of-5 shots from field, including two 3-point baskets. Iowa made 9-of-21 3-pointers as a team.
“I felt in a groove to start out,” Baer said. “I think some of it was my mindset to go in there and play with energy and effort and rebound well. And I thought I did that tonight. All the credit to my teammates because they really loaded me up on those shots.”
Jok led Iowa’s long-range attack by making 4-of-7 3-point shots. His performance drew praise from McCaffery afterwards, at least half of his performance.
“He’s really playing well,” McCaffery said. “He’s playing at a very high level offensively. Defensively, he’s got to be a little better.”
Iowa is coming off a season in which it finished 22-12 overall and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2001.
However, three key players are gone from that team after using up their eligibility last season, including former all-Big Ten forward Aaron White and 6-10 center Gabe Olaseni.
Four starters are back from last season, but the challenge is getting them to jell with the newcomers.
“It’s been up and down I think so far,” Gesell said of the transition with the newcomers. “A lot of inconsistency, but that’s what you would expect with a lot of new guys.
“We’ve got a great core group of veteran guys that really know what to do and we’re just trying to bring these freshman along because we’re going to need them this year. There is a lot of potential and talent in that class and we’re just continuing to try and teach them and get better each day.”
It seems likely that McCaffery will redshirt at least one of the five freshmen, but he isn’t sure who at this point.
“I don’t know yet,” McCaffery said. “I really don’t. We’ll wait a while before we come to that conclusion.”
Iowa led for most of the first half, including by as many as 10 points, but the Cougars refused to wilt.
The score was tied at 23 when Sioux Falls guard Jared Mayes made a basket with 10 minutes left in the first half. His basket started an 8-0 scoring run for the Cougars, cutting the deficit to 23-21 with less than 9 minutes left before halftime.
Sioux Falls took its first lead of the game at 34-33 when forward James Lawson banked in a 3-point shot with 4:57 remaining before halftime.
Iowa outscored the Cougars 13-6 to close out the first half, which ended with Gesell making 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Hawkeyes a 46-40 lead at halftime.
The Hawkeyes then outscored Sioux Falls 27-9 during the first seven minutes of the second half, thanks largely to Gesell’s contributions. In addition to his scoring, Gesell and fellow starting guard Anthony Clemmons also led Iowa with six assists apiece.
“I’m just looking to stay aggressive out there,” Gesell said. “I think we’re a much better team when me and ( Anthony Clemmons) from the guard position are being aggressive and creating scoring opportunities for ourselves and for other guys.”