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HAWKEYE HOOPS: Frontcourt Preview

Can we talk about something else now?

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

What do you do during a football bye week in the midst of a disappointing season? Start dreaming about basketball success of course! The hoops season is (mercifully) right around the corner, with Iowa set to take the court at Carver for its first exhibition in a little over a week on Nov. 4th. We here at The Pants are taking this opportunity to start looking ahead at what this year’s Hawkeye squad will look like, starting today with the frontcourt.

IN MEMORIAM: Those We’ve Lost

Following the departures of Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury, Iowa has some legitimate question marks in the frontcourt entering this season. That’s a combined 26.5 points, 14.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game worth of production that is no longer on the roster and must be replaced, which is no small feat. On top of that, it’s easy to overlook and difficult to quantify how important Woodbury has been to the Hawkeye defense over the last four years. There’s no denying that this year’s young frontcourt will have some big shoes to fill—let’s take a look at how Iowa might go about doing that.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Villanova
Jarrod Uthoff was good at basketball.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Those We’ve Retained

The term “X-factor” is borderline cliché at this point, but while Peter Jok and Tyler Cook have been getting a lot of (well-deserved) attention, Dom Uhl may be the most pivotal player on this year’s roster. Like several Hawkeyes before him under Fran McCaffery (Devyn Marble, Aaron White, and Jarrod Uthoff come to mind), the 6-8 junior seems to be poised to take a big step forward as an upperclassman; the Hawks will need that in a big way this season with the obvious offensive question marks outside of Jok.

Uhl had a solid, if frustratingly inconsistent, sophomore campaign. He started the season strong, to the tune of 7.5 points per game on 47.8% shooting from beyond the arc in Iowa’s first 22 games. Those numbers plummeted in the final 11 games of the season, however, during which Uhl only averaged 4.8 points and shot 35.7% from 3. There were certainly other factors, but it is not coincidental that the Hawkeyes went 3-8 in those games down the stretch. If Uhl is able to reliably stretch the floor and create mismatches offensively, it will go a long way towards taking pressure off of Peter Jok to do it all on offense.

Speaking of stretching the floor, the forgotten man Dale Jones returns for what is technically his senior season (although he will likely gain another year of eligibility) after missing most of last year with a knee injury. McCaffery seemed to underscore the importance of Jones’s role this year by bringing him along with Jok to the recent Big Ten Media Days. Fran talked up Jones’s ability to score in bunches, which will be a welcome relief to Iowa fans who witnessed a lot of offensive stagnation down the stretch of the 2015-16 season.

The key for Jones is much the same as for Uhl: don’t be a liability defensively and shoot well enough to stretch the floor and alleviate some of the scoring burden placed on Jok’s shoulders. Any production on top of that will be icing on the cake for the 6-foot-7 senior.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Villanova Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Another player sure to see an increase in production is sophomore forward and possible grizzly bear Ahmad Wagner. The 6-7, 235-lb Ohio native will be crucial to replacing the defense and rebounding that Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff provided the Hawkeyes last season. Fortunately for Fran and company, Wagner showed flashes of being able to do just that as a freshman, but there’s no doubt he will need to take a substantial step forward if Iowa is going to compete for an NCAA Tournament berth in 2016-17. Wagner likely won’t be counted on to produce much offensively outside of garbage points and transition buckets, however his ability to be a defensive enforcer in the middle will be very important to the Hawkeyes’ success this year.

Like most Iowa fans, I love me some Nick Baer. He quickly became a fan-favorite last year after breaking into the rotation and providing boundless energy. There’s no doubt of the importance of that role—and I don’t think that will change much for Baer this season. Expect to see the wiry sophomore coming off the bench to provide defensive intensity, outside shooting, and all of the little things that go a long way toward winning games.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Villanova Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Those We’ve Gained

Few freshmen in recent memory have arrived in Iowa City with as much fanfare and excitement as Tyler Cook. The 6-9, 253-lb forward out of St. Louis already has the body and athleticism to make an immediate impact and, if we’re to believe Fran (I vote yes), has the skill and mentality to match. McCaffery hasn’t been shy about talking up the crown jewel of his 2016 recruiting class, nor should he be. Cook has the sort of motor that Iowa covets on the defensive end and already boasts a wide enough variety of post moves to be a threat offensively.

It’s important (albeit difficult) not to pin too high of expectations on an incoming freshman, no matter how highly-ranked; however the fact that Cook won’t immediately be the focal point of this Iowa team bodes well. If he can be a fairly reliable secondary scoring option and hold his own defensively and on the glass, it’s shaping up to be a successful debut season for Cook.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Cordell Pemsl is another freshman forward that has flown a bit under the radar because of Cook, but may work his way into a regular role on this year’s team. Pemsl doesn’t ooze athleticism like Cook, but is by all accounts fairly skilled already and equipped with an array of post moves—with some ball handling and passing aptitude to boot. There’s bound to be a lot of competition at the bottom of Iowa’s rotation this year, but don’t be surprised to see Pemsl break through and see legitimate minutes, much like Ahmad Wagner last season.

The last piece of Iowa’s frontcourt recruiting haul in 2016 is Ryan Kriener, a 6-9, 247-lb native of Spirit Lake. Kriener seems to be the most likely candidate to redshirt, but that may have more to do with the sheer abundance of bodies at Fran’s disposal than anything else. Kriener obviously has the size to eventually be a factor in the Big Ten and by many accounts already brings some shooting ability to the table. As I said, the last couple of spots in Iowa’s rotation will be highly contested. Kriener figures to be in the mix, but right now barring injuries I expect him to redshirt.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Iowa vs Temple Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Lineup Predictions

Right now I see four guys essentially fighting for three starting spots: Dom Uhl, Ahmad Wagner, Dale Jones, and Tyler Cook. Ultimately I see Uhl, Wagner and Cook getting the nod, with Jones and Nicholas Baer seeing significant playing time as energy guys off the bench. There are certainly a lot of intriguing, if inexperienced and unproven, frontcourt options featured on this year’s installment of the Hawkeyes.