As Iowa enters the month of February, its basketball season sits in a precarious position. The Hawkeyes have looked like a potential NCAA Tournament qualifier for much of the season, and strong wins against Indiana, Virginia, and Utah State gave fans hope that the program could qualify for postseason play even after losing Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp to the NBA. However, the Hawkeyes have hardly looked like a tournament team for most of Big Ten play. Iowa is tied for 9th in the conference standings and has lost two straight games and three of its last four. It may not be time for the Hawkeyes to hit the panic button yet, but a few more losses similar to those against Penn State and Rutgers could give fans understandably itchy trigger fingers.
In light of Iowa’s recent struggles, head coach Fran McCaffery stated that he is open to tweaking his starting lineup to help address the slow starts that afflicted Iowa against Purdue (when the Hawkeyes fell behind 21-9) and Penn State (when the Hawkeyes fell behind 15-5). Lineup changes may be necessary anyway in light of the recent injury to key role player Connor McCaffery, who was expected to miss the game against Ohio State before its cancellation and whose status against Minnesota remains in doubt.
Fran McCaffery said the injury to Connor McCaffery was not a separated shoulder, but a contusion to his arm causing a nerve issue. Out for OSU. Potentially back for MN on Sunday.— Tom Kakert (@HawkeyeReport) February 2, 2022
Could the Hawkeyes be in for some new lineup experimentation? If so, what combinations might Fran McCaffery lean on in the games to come?
Kris Murray could be in line for more minutes, either assuming a greater load in the absence of Connor McCaffery or possibly even replacing Filip Rebraca in the starting five. Kris has provided an offensive spark off the bench on a near nightly basis since his breakout game against Indiana and has averaged 14.66 points per game over the past three contests. Kris could give an offensive lift to a Hawkeye team that has struggled to score in recent games, as Murray is shooting 48.7% from the field and 40% from deep on the year. He provides plus athleticism for his position, though he does sacrifice some size and strength when he replaces Rebraca at the five.
Alternatively, Iowa could look to the guard position to shake up its starting lineup. Joe Toussaint seemingly disappeared in the second half and overtime periods of Iowa’s loss against Penn State, replaced by sophomore point guard Ahron Ulis. Iowa’s offense does function differently with Ulis running the point; he lacks the extra gear that Toussaint plays with and is slightly less disruptive on defense, but also plays more under control and is less prone to making questionable decisions with the ball. However, it’s unclear whether starting Ulis would meaningfully improve Iowa’s offense, as he averages fewer assists per 40 minutes than Toussaint (6.7 compared to 7.6) and is shooting only 32.8% from the field this season, including an 0-7 performance against Penn State.
If Iowa desires a change at the guard position, it could conceivably make a move that would have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the season: relegating sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon to the bench. Bohannon’s shooting, easily his most important attribute given the team’s current roster, has fallen off a cliff this season, as the sharpshooter is shooting only 30% from the floor and 25.5% from three in conference play. Between Bohannon’s sustained shooting woes and his longstanding defensive struggles, could Fran McCaffery ask Bohannon to follow in Connor McCaffery’s footsteps and try coming off the bench? There are certainly downsides to this proposal, mainly that replacing Bohannon with Ulis, Tony Perkins, or another non-shooter would undermine the spacing of Iowa’s offense and allow opponents to clog the paint without fear of being beaten from range.
If the coaching staff is committed to keeping Bohannon in the starting lineup, they could also consider moving him back to the starting point guard position in hopes that his playmaking abilities might help jumpstart the offense and that he can create more quality shooting opportunities in the pick and role game. However, this would not change Iowa’s lineups as much as it would change who is playing on the ball, and letting Bohannon run the point would result in fewer capable catch-and-shoot options available for him to pass to. One potential way around this might be to surround Bohannon with size at every position. A lineup of Bohannon-P. McCaffery-Murray-Murray-Rebraca would pose a major size mismatch for opposing guards, would give the Hawkeyes a lot of flexibility to switch on defense, and would ironically give the team better three-point shooting than if they replaced one of the forwards with Ulis or Perkins. However, Iowa would sacrifice quickness for length, and the coaches would likely have to pull two of the forwards early in games to ensure that the team had the requisite amount of size on the court at all times. This combination could give the Hawkeyes an interesting wrinkle to throw at opponents and keep them on their toes, but it’s questionable whether it would function as a workable starting lineup.
Finally, Iowa could use Connor McCaffery’s absence to further integrate Payton Sandfort into the rotation. Sandfort is certainly a willing and capable shooter (the freshman is shooting 34.5% from three on the season), but has not yet flashed the defensive, rebounding, and playmaking skills to earn more than the six minutes he is getting per game in Big Ten play. Could Sandfort increase his production if given the opportunity to assume a greater role? If so, his offense could be an X-factor for an Iowa team that is shooting a Big Ten-worst 30.8% from three in conference play despite being 3rd in the league in attempts per game with 24. The more shots Iowa can make from deep, the easier it will be for the Murray brothers and Patrick McCaffery to do what they do best: attack opposing defenses off the dribble and get to the rim.
Iowa fans will have to wait until Sunday (weather permitting) to see if Fran McCaffery is serious about making lineup changes, but one can hardly blame him for wanting to mix things up. One thing is certain: the Hawkeyes need to spark their offense again if they hope to regain their footing and make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Whether that spark comes from Iowa’s current starting five or from a new lineup combination altogether remains to be seen.