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Fran, now is not the time for an 11-man rotation

With so much experience returning, there is little reason expand beyond them when setting a rotation

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State
Fran McCaffery showing his preferred rotation size by holding up 10 fingers
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In a normal October, it’s easy for basketball “news” to slide through the cracks as Iowa Hawkeyes fans are clamoring for all things football. Even though football hasn’t started, it feels even more saturated as a preview written about basketball is one which wasn’t about football. Adding to the overload, there was a press conference bonanza last week where every football coach took the stand to overshadow Fran McCaffery’s time with the media.

Thankfully, Chad Leistikow of Hawk Central had a little writeup earlier this week about Fran’s comments, centered around Luka Garza. Yet something tangentially related to the All-American (how to get him rest) stuck out, and really, is concerning:

In addition to the returning core eight players (Bohannon, Fredrick, Wieskamp, Garza, Joe Toussaint, Jack Nunge and Connor and Patrick McCaffery), the head coach sees at least two, if not three, true freshmen adding to the rotation.


His takeaway comes from McCaffery’s insistence on depth as a tactical advantage:

“[A] little more depth enables you to endure a longer season or enables you to be a little bit more physical defensively. When you’re not deep, maybe you’re resting a little more on defense. So maybe we can be a little more physical defensively and on the glass, which I think would translate to even better offense.”

And hey, maybe that is the case for [insert random team here], which the Iowa Hawkeyes are in a normal year. Yet this is not a normal year for many reasons. As it most pertains to the topic at hand - Iowa basketball - it is abnormal because the Hawkeyes figure to contend for a conference championship and potential Final Four.

In looking at the past five Big Ten co-champions (2016-2020) and five years of Final Four participants (2015-2019), depth is not a determining factor of success. In fact, many teams go the opposite direction and lean on their best players to play significant minutes throughout championship-caliber seasons:

Rotation Sizes of Final Four Teams & B1G Champions

Year Team Accolade Seed # in Rotation (> 10% of minutes) Players > 80% of minutes
Year Team Accolade Seed # in Rotation (> 10% of minutes) Players > 80% of minutes
2015 Michigan State Final Four 7 9 2
2015 Kentucky Final Four 1 9 0
2015 Wisconsin Final Four/B1G Champion 1 8 3
2015 Duke National Champion 1 8 2
2020 Michigan State B1G Co-Champion 3* 10 1
2020 Maryland B1G Co-Champion 3* 8 1
2020 Wisconsin B1G Co-Champion 4* 8 1
2019 Michigan State Final Four/B1G Co-Champion 2 10 1
2019 Purdue B1G Co-Champion 3 10 2
2018 Michigan State B1G Champion 3 10 0
2017 Purdue B1G Champion 4 8 1
2016 Indiana B1G Co-Champion 5 9 1
2016 Michigan State B1G Co-Champion 2 11 0
2016 Syracuse Final Four 10 7 3
2016 Villanova National Champion 1 8 0
2016 North Carolina Final Four 1 9 0
2016 Oklahoma Final Four 2 10 3
2017 Gonzaga Final Four 1 8 0
2017 North Carolina National Champion 1 11 1
2017 Oregon Final Four 3 10 0
2017 South Carolina Final Four 7 10 1
2018 Loyola Chicago Final Four 11 9 0
2018 Villanova National Champion 1 8 0
2018 Michigan Final Four 3 10 1
2018 Kansas Final Four 1 8 3
2019 Auburn Final Four 5 10 1
2019 Virginia National Champion 1 8 3
2019 Texas Tech Final Four 3 8 1

Just two teams had rotation sizes of 11 players while five teams played three players 80% or more of available minutes.

Perhaps the case for a short rotation is even more compelling when looking at the five most recent national champions. While just North Carolina had a rotation greater than eight at 11, all of them were 1 seeds. 1 seeds were also the most constant presence in the Final Four, taking up 10 of the 20 spots.

In other words, the easiest path through the tournament is as a top seed. This is also because they are typically among the best - if not the best - teams in the nation. While there is some confirmation bias in this assessment, it actually enhances the byproduct of Iowa’s 2020-21 goals - if they win championships and accumulate big wins, a 1-seed is very much in their grasp.

While the way to get there is to play your best players the most they’re capable of playing, it is worth touching on why depth does matter in the upcoming season. Below are a few ways Fran could positively develop depth and versatility on a roster returning seven Hawks with starting experience.

Schedule rest

While Iowa’s schedule is coming into focus with a tilt against the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the multi-team event in Iowa City, and annual bouts against Iowa State and ACC team to be named later, we simply do not know when these games will happen. If teams & conferences are looking to pack as many games in between Thanksgiving and by the time schools return to school in January, you could be looking at three games per week with regularity.

Depending on the amount of travel involved, it would certainly be more wear and tear than the average college athlete is used to.

Under such a circumstance, instead of sprinkling in guys on the lower end of Fran’s rotation with regularity at just 3-5 minutes per game, the coaching staff should consider the “load management” approach employed by many NBA teams to keep their players fresh for the playoffs.

Just a hypothetical, but if Jack Nunge is feeling the effects of his ACL rehab, give him a game off while working in somebody like the Keegan or Kris Murray; try out a 5-out lineup like Pat McCaffery at center.

This way, players to better understand their role game-to-game instead of simply “be ready.”

Experiment with rotations among the top 8

When Iowa is faced with a circumstance in a close, high pressure game where they need to employ a curveball, the value is not necessarily in the depth of the bench but the flexibility of those playing the most minutes. Should Fran face a situation where both Nunge and Luka Garza are in foul trouble, does it make sense to roll with Josh Ogundele to tide them over? That is putting the freshman big man in a tight tight situation.

Instead, Fran could develop a small ball lineup throughout the season of Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, & Connor McCaffery. Now, if Iowa’s consistently playing a lineup like this 8 minutes a game, it’s probably time to use that depth a little more. But reps for a versatile and skilled lineup like this should be worked in throughout the upcoming season should the Hawks need it if they’re in a pickle.

Develop hyper-specific lineups

Coach McCaffery loves to talk about how newcomers can often “dribble, shoot, pass.” Iowa does not necessarily need more guys to dribble, shoot, and pass: they have plenty of that returning.

What they do need, without question, is to develop defensively, as a team. Yet if there are 5 guys who can be menaces in a 3-4 minute spurt of full-court pressure, it could be employed in a similar fashion to first point above. It gives a clear role for a lineup which otherwise would not be used.

Blow teams out

The best way to give deep bench players minutes is to have the top 8 play 36 great minutes of basketball and put a game out of reach. Hopefully there are many of those this season.

Depth is typically overblown as an asset in college basketball. With the very best teams playing up to 40 games over 5 months, that’s 8,000 minutes to allocate unlike nearly 20,000 in the NBA’s regular season.

Fran’s instincts to reward players who practice well with minutes in games is well-intentioned. In fact, that carrot can still be used game to game if he is clean with the role he’s expecting out of them, whether it be to fill in as that night’s 9th man or flip the game with a blitzing defensive lineup.

However, Iowa is simply at the precipice of something rarely seen in Hawkeye sports, a serious chance at a deep run. Like many other teams faced with similar situations, Iowa’s best path to a Final Four is settling into a tight rotation and sticking with it.