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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — A young, yet mature University of Iowa men’s basketball team aims for the program’s fifth-straight 20-win season and its third with at least 12 victories in the Big Ten Conference.
UI head coach Fran McCaffery met with media Wednesday in the Feller Club Room inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena to tip off media day. Players with nearly 400 career starts graduated from a team that was 22-11 overall and advanced to the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The lone returner with significant starting experience is senior Peter Jok, who averaged 16.1 points with a team-high 80 3-point goals. Jok is one of seven returning Hawkeye letterwinners.
“The key for us is going to be when you look at Pete (Jok) and Dale (Jones) and then Dom (Uhl), Ahmad (Wagner), Brady Ellingson, Nicholas Baer, these guys are young but they’ve been around,” McCaffery said. “They have had great examples of how to do it, and get these young guys to step in and be good because they’ll have the ability.
“If you look at them, everyone has a chance to be special, but how soon will that happen? They’re going to get a chance. They’re going to play, and I’m going to play them.”
With 872 career points, Jok is an obvious focal point for the Hawkeye offense. McCaffery said he is happy with Jok’s development and leadership, especially when younger players arrived on campus (there are seven freshmen and four sophomores on the roster).
Jok was named second-team All-Big Ten as a junior.
“What you will see is Pete sometimes bringing the ball down and you will see him have the ball on top,” McCaffery said. “You’ll see him have the ball in different situations than he did last year, as opposed to being a traditional point guard and getting us into our offense.
“When we have him on the floor, we want to get him buckets and create opportunities for him to have space. He’s going to have to diversify his game in some ways because he’s going to see tight coverage in a lot of ways, whether it’s double teaming, rotating personnel, physicality. He’s going to see it all, so the critical thing for him is going to be to keep moving and the thing for us is going to be keep getting him open.”
Jones is the other Hawkeye senior. He averaged 5.5 points in six games last season before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in practice Dec. 1.
“We always seem to forget Dale Jones,” McCaffery said. “He’s in the gym all the time rehabilitating and getting back, but he is also a good person and says all the right things. He will have an impact, too. He makes 3s, he’s 6-feet-8, 235 pounds and he’s also a rebounder. A lot of jump-shooting forwards don’t rebound, but he rebounds the ball and he’s physical.”
“Everybody is doing good things, scoring the ball, playing smart. I don’t have a mistake-maker. I don’t have a guy who’s confused every day. I don’t have a guy who’s out of shape. So we’ve got stiff competition for what minutes are available, and there are a lot of minutes available. They’re going after them.” — Fran McCaffery, UI head men’s basketball coach
Aside from Jok, junior Dom Uhl returns with the most playing time at 17.2 minutes per 33 games. Uhl averaged 6.0 points a game and shot 45 percent from 3-point range. Sophomore Nicholas Baer averaged 4.8 points in 33 games (14.5 minutes per game). Other returners with experience are sophomores Wagner (32 games, 10.1 minutes per game), Ellingson (27 games, 9.1 minutes), and Christian Williams (20 games, 5.1 minutes).
An exhibition game with Regis University is less than a month away, but McCaffery is still tinkering with possible rotations. He said using 8-10 players is easier to juggle than 11 or 12.
“I think you could pencil in some guys, but six, seven, eight, nine — we’ve got too many guys and that’s a good problem to have,” McCaffery said. “A lot of times you get to this point and you look and say, OK, these three guys are definitely not playing. I don’t have that with this team.
“Everybody is doing good things, scoring the ball, playing smart. I don’t have a mistake-maker. I don’t have a guy who’s confused every day. I don’t have a guy who’s out of shape. So we’ve got stiff competition for what minutes are available, and there are a lot of minutes available. They’re going after them.”
A seven-member freshman class includes Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Maishe Dailey, Ryan Kriener, Isaiah Moss (redshirted in 2015-16), Cordell Pemsl, and Riley Till. Bohannon was Iowa’s Mr. Basketball in 2016; the 6-9, 253-pound Cook was ranked as the No. 38 player in the 2016 recruiting class by ESPN.
“I think (Cook is) capable of being a star, I really do,” McCaffery said. “I think he’s an impact player, certainly on our team, in our league, and on a national level. I think he’s that good.”
The regular-season opener for the Hawkeyes is Nov. 11 against Kennesaw State.