Sometimes even when you win, you lose. Iowa basketball concluded the regular season with a hard-fought 77-73 victory over their rivals the Wisconsin Badgers, but this triumph came at an extremely high cost. Hawkeye nation took a collective gasp when star small forward Joe Wieskamp crumbled to the ground with an apparent ankle injury midway through the first half, and the health of the dynamic wing scorer may well dictate how many more games this Iowa team will play before its season comes to an end.
Reports trickled out at halftime that Wieskamp would be sidelined for the remainder of the game against Wisconsin, but assistant coaches expressed optimism about the long-term prognosis of the injury. Head coach Fran McCaffery indicated after the game that the staff believes Wieskamp suffered an ankle sprain as opposed to something more severe, while teammate Jordan Bohannon predicted a speedy recovery and a return to action during the Big Ten Tournament. Despite these encouraging comments, it remains unclear how long Wieskamp will be forced to sit out and whether he will be back to 100% when he eventually does return to the court. McCaffery’s position is an unenviable one; the Hawkeyes will struggle to win the Big Ten Tournament without Wieskamp, but should the junior reinjure himself by attempting to play before he is fully healed, the Hawkeyes certainly cannot contend for a national title if he is forced to miss time beyond next week.
Wieskamp’s play has been especially critical to Iowa’s success this season, and to say that the team would suffer from his absence is a massive understatement. Wieskamp is the most complete multi-level scorer on the Iowa roster and has emerged as dynamic and reliable offensive weapon that is lethal from deep and capable of punishing defenders off the dribble. Wieskamp’s length allows him to elevate over smaller defenders on the perimeter, while his quick first step lets him blow past opponents who close out on him too aggressively. He rebounds well for his position (averaging nearly seven boards per game, the second most on the Hawkeye roster), leads the team in steals, and is tied with Luka Garza for the most defensive win shares on the squad. Garza may be the undisputed best player on this current Hawkeye roster, but Wieskamp has clearly emerged as the team’s second most important asset.
How will Iowa make up for Wieskamp’s important offensive production if he is forced to miss time or is unable to play at full strength upon his return? Luka Garza is always good for 20+ points a game, but the Hawkeyes cannot reasonably ask him to carry much more of the scoring load on a game-by-game basis, particularly given that Garza’s minutes have already increased since the loss of fellow big man Jack Nunge to injury (at least in games that have remained competitive into the second half).
Hawkeye fans may have glimpsed one potential formula towards the end of Iowa’s win against Wisconsin. After a poor first half of shooting, senior point guard Jordan Bohannon became the driving force behind Iowa’s offense in the second half, further elevating his game in the contest’s closing minutes. Bohannon’s is one of the country’s most dangerous offensive players when he is hitting his shots from beyond the arc, as his quick release and ability to stretch the defense with his deep three-point range puts tremendous pressure on opposing teams trying to guard the Hawkeyes. Bohannon cannot match Wieskamp’s ability off the dribble (the senior point guard is shooting a higher percentage from three than he is from two this season), but having made 11 threes in the past two games, he may be able to pick up some of the slack from long range if his hot streak continues.
Perhaps Iowa’s closest approximation of Wieskamp’s offensive contributions lies in another sharpshooter who is battling foot and ankle injuries. Sophomore C.J. Fredrick has missed four games and been pulled early from several others due to a series of lingering ailments this season, but has shown himself to be one of the team’s most efficient scorers when healthy and leads the team’s regular contributors in both true shooting percentage (64%) and effective field goal percentage (63%). Fredrick trails only Da’Monte Williams of Illinois in list of the Big Ten’s top three-point shooters (Fredrick is shooting just a shade above 50% for the year) and while he does most of his damage from beyond the arc, he has shown a greater aptitude for scoring off the dribble or in the midrange than Bohannon has this season.
Is Fredrick ready to shoulder a greater portion of the scoring load? While the sophomore sharpshooter averaged over ten points per game last season, he has seen his scoring plummet since being struck by the injury bug against Indiana in late January. Fredrick’s only double figure scoring outing since then came in an 18-point outburst against Penn State, and he was virtually invisible on offense for much of the Wisconsin game after Wieskamp went down with his injury, scoring only one point in the second half. A return to form by Fredrick could help buoy Iowa’s offense if Wieskamp is forced to sit, but the Hawkeyes will likely struggle if both important players are nagged by injuries for the rest of the season.
There is also a growing concern about the depth of Iowa’s bench. With Fredrick oscillating in and out of the lineup and Nunge confirmed to be out for the season, players like Keegan Murray, Joe Toussaint, the McCaffery brothers, Tony Perkins, and Aaron Uhlis may be called on to play larger roles during Wieskamp’s absence. Murray is a proven commodity as both a defender and a rebounder and continues to develop more confidence on the offensive end, but how many minutes will he be able to play with the starting lineup while also being tasked as Luka Garza’s backup at the center position? Toussaint and the younger McCaffery are both tantalizingly athletic prospects who have developed an intriguing two-man game on offense, but can they avoid the mental mistakes that have plagued them over the course of the season if called upon to play more minutes? Perkins and Uhlis have been nice high-energy players in limited time off the bench this year, but are either of them capable of making a meaningful impact on the offensive end? And can Connor McCaffery, once a credible three-point shooter, rediscover his shooting stroke after going 2-13 from beyond the arc over the past six games?
Joe Wieskamp has played as well as any wing player in the Big Ten this season, and a full and quick recovery would be mana from heaven for a Hawkeye team with aspirations of cutting down a net or two before season’s end. However, Fran McCaffery and the Iowa coaching staff will have to find creative solutions to help the team manage should Wieskamp be anything less than 100% for a meaningful amount of time, and several Hawkeyes who have played largely complimentary roles this season will be called upon to elevate their game to fit the growing need. If Wieskamp can truly regain his form before the end of the season, Iowa can still make the postseason run fans have been dreaming of since Wieskamp, Bohannon, and Garza announced their returns to school. Without a healthy Wieskamp, however, anything beyond a possible trip to the Sweet Sixteen may be too tall a task.