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Breaking down Iowa basketball’s bench play

A once-deep Iowa basketball team now utilizes a three-man bench, but it’s performed better than anticipated.

NCAA Basketball: Kennesaw State at Iowa
Ryan Kriener has blossomed into Iowa’s sixth man this season.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2019-20 college basketball season, Iowa appeared to have one of the conference’s deepest rotations. Fran McCaffery had essentially an 11-man rotation to work with, and that’s how Iowa rolled at the beginning of the year.

But injuries forced Fran McCaffery’s hand into an eight-man rotation, and it’s working. Not by choice, but by necessity.

With no Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge, and Patrick McCaffery, the eight remaining Hawkeyes have found their respective niches on the team and embraced their roles.

Iowa’s rotation goes as follows:

  • Starters: Joe Toussaint, Connor McCaffery, CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, Luka Garza
  • Bench: Ryan Kriener, Bakari Evelyn, Cordell Pemsl

Barring injuries, that starting lineup isn’t changing, nor should it for any other reason. The first five are incredibly balanced, top to bottom, in scoring and facilitating.

But the players in the second unit have held their own as of late — a key reason for Iowa’s success recently and going forward. Here’s a breakdown of Iowa’s bench play.

Ryan Kriener

Season stats: 17.3 minutes, 7.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1 assist per game

Kriener is Iowa’s most vital piece coming off the bench. He’s the sixth man.

Kriener has a 19.2 percent usage rate, the highest of the bench players in Iowa’s eight-man rotation. He boasts a higher usage rate than starters CJ Fredrick (16.5 percent) and Connor McCaffery (12.2). In other words, when Kriener’s in, Iowa runs a solid chunk of its offense through him.

Kriener’s last six games featured some of the best basketball of his Hawkeye career. In that span, he’s averaged 10.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. Granted, he started in a pair of those contests, but in his last two games coming off the bench, he’s been crucial to Iowa’s success.

Look at his performance against Michigan: 14 points, three assists, and two rebounds. He proved to be the perfect complement to Luka Garza, who shredded the Wolverine defense.

And that’s the big thing here. While Kriener gives Iowa some offensive life off the bench, his game pairs nicely with Garza’s. Take the Michigan game, for example. Michigan’s bigs had seemingly no answers to Iowa’s one-two punch of Kriener and Garza.

Fran McCaffery played Kriener and Garza on the floor together for 16 minutes and 10 seconds during the win. In their time on the court together, here’s what their numbers looked like:

  • Garza: 21 points, four rebounds, one block
  • Kriener: Seven points, two rebounds, two assists (both on Garza buckets)

Garza played 16:29 of his minutes without Kriener on the floor, and Kriener played 6:14 by himself. Their numbers during that span:

  • Garza: 12 points, three rebounds
  • Kriener: Seven points, one assist

Iowa found a mismatch and went at it, especially in the second half. This pairing is what Iowa went with down the stretch of the game for nearly the final 10 minutes of regulation, in which the Hawkeyes outscored the Wolverines 25-14. Kriener and Garza combined for 12 points in that span.

Granted, running this two-big lineup isn’t perfect. With essentially every college basketball team spacing the floor with five shooters, this does put Iowa at a disadvantage defensively, at least in terms of defending the perimeter. Neither has pristine speed.

But, from an offensive standpoint, it works just fine. Both players can space the floor on their own — Garza is averaging 37.5 percent from 3-point range, Kriener sits at 40 percent — all while going to work in the paint.

Kriener is hands down Iowa’s most valuable player coming off the bench. He ranks second out of all Hawkeyes with a +8.9 box plus/minus, the only Iowa player behind Garza’s +10.3.

Bakari Evelyn

Season stats: 16.6 minutes, 2.5 points, 1.8 assists, 1.6 rebounds per game

After a slow start (or first half) of the season, Evelyn’s turned it up a notch as of late. And it’s been noticeable.

In his first 11 games of the season, Evelyn averaged just 12.5 minutes. Then, once Jordan Bohannon opted to shut down his season and have surgery, Evelyn’s minutes essentially doubled, clocking in 21.1 a game over Iowa’s last seven.

Evelyn struggled to make any sort of dent in those first 11 games:

  • 1.5 points, 0.6 assists, 0.6 rebounds, 1 turnover, 29.5% from the field, 23.1 percent from 3-point range

Now, look at his numbers over the last seven:

  • 4.1 points, 3.6 assists, 3 rebounds, 1.9 turnovers, 31% from the field, 35% from 3-point range

He’s been much more involved in the offense — a combination of being forced into more minutes but also making the most of his time on the court.

Evelyn flashed his potential in the first game without Bohannon, dropping a season-high 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and dishing four assists in Iowa’s win over Cincinnati.

Iowa’s wins over Northwestern and Michigan, though, have been the best two-game stretch of Evelyn’s Hawkeye tenure.

Against Northwestern, he finished with eight points, seven assists, and five rebounds to go along with no turnovers. He followed that performance up with a five-assist outing against Michigan, serving as one of Iowa’s best facilitators in the win.

That being said, Evelyn owns one of the worst turnover percentages of Iowa’s eight-man rotation (32.3%). He’s turned the ball over at least twice in his last six games. That’s an area for improvement, for sure.

Slowly but surely, Evelyn is making his presence felt on the court. He still has the lowest usage percentage (11.9%) of Iowa’s eight-man rotation, but don’t be surprised if that number increases.

Cordell Pemsl

Season stats: 12.4 minutes, 2.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game

In his freshman season with Iowa, Pemsl averaged 8.9 points, five rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor. He played nearly 20 minutes per game.

The days of Pemsl scoring 18 points against Notre Dame or 21 against Stetson are almost forgotten.

Pemsl has yet to show any form of an outside game, and even his inside game regressed this season. He’s shooting 40 percent on 2-point shots this season, a 15 percent decrease from that range in his first season with the program.

Additionally, his usage percentage dipped every season since his freshman year while his turnover percentage rose. This season, Pemsl owns a 24.8 turnover percentage compared to a 13.5 usage percentage. Not great at all. In other words, possessions don’t revolve around Pemsl often, but when they do, there’s a solid chance for a turnover.

What Pemsl has working for him, though, is his role as a facilitator. Pemsl’s assist percentage sits at 17.8 this season (better than Kriener, Evelyn, Wieskamp, and Garza). In Iowa’s past three games, Pemsl’s averaged 3.3 assists per game — not bad from the last man on Iowa’s rotation. Throw in some flashy passes like this one for good measure, too.

Don’t be confused, though. Pemsl isn’t going to make an impact quite like Kriener, nor will be stretch the floor like Evelyn. He’s post-heavy forward with above-average passing ability.

Where does that leave Iowa?

The Hawkeyes are about to face a tough five-game slate: Rutgers, Wisconsin, Maryland, Illinois, and Purdue. In other words, the Hawkeyes are right in the thick of their Big Ten schedule.

Iowa’s eight-man rotation feels thinner than it actually is. Maybe that’s just because of injuries. But for the Hawkeyes’ impressive run to continue, the second unit must keep pace with its recent games.

Small sample size, yes, but as of late, the bench has looked as though it’s up for the challenge.