Iowa Basketball Position Previews – Big Men

Story by Levi Thompson

This season will be one of growth and transition for the Iowa Hawkeyes men’s basketball program. The loss of Peter Jok leaves plenty of minutes to go around at the shooting guard spot to team up with returning point guard Jordan Bohannon in the backcourt, as the young guards look to grow and improve in 2017–18.

For the Hawkeyes big men, it is not as simple. With two new, highly touted freshmen and every single frontcourt contributor returning, Fran McCaffery is faced with the problem of having too many players and not enough minutes – an issue he’s yet to deal with during his tenure at Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ mixture of youth, experience, size and length in the frontcourt could lead to a recipe for a special season – but with too many talented players, who is going to get left out?

Here’s a preview of every Iowa forward and center expected to contribute this season leading up to this Friday’s exhibition opener at Carver-Hawkeye Arena against William Jewell College.

Ahmad Wagner, Jr.
6’7”, 235, Yellow Springs, Ohio

Wagner was named the Hawkeyes’ most improved player in 2017, and the step forward he took last season was clear. After mostly reserve minutes as a freshman, Wagner started 18 games in 2017 and averaged 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. The raw numbers do not shine out, but the tenacity that Wagner shows as an undersized forward appears every time he is out on the court.

At media day last week, Wagner said he has been practicing guarding at all five positions – yes, even point guard – this offseason. Wagner had 14 blocks and 27 steals last season as he was one of the Hawkeye’s most relentless defensive players.

With more size around him in the freshman class, Wagner’s role as a power forward may decline. If it is true that he has been improving on his defense at multiple positions, don’t be surprised to see McCaffery work Wagner in at the small forward spot on some occasions. He should see significant time, likely as a starter, to begin the year.

Jack Nunge, Fr.
6’11”, 225, Newburgh, Indiana

Jack Nunge brings a massive high school legacy in Indiana’s highest high school division to Iowa City. The near seven-footer has a wide range of skills and talents that come with his massive frame. Nunge scored 1,376 points in high school, the third most in Castle High School (Indiana)’s history. He was a finalist for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2017, an honor that eventually went to five-star UCLA recruit Kris Wilkes. He averaged 22.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks as a senior, and had an impressive showing on Iowa’s summer trip to Europe.

Nunge’s strengths reflect the growing trend of how big men are developed in today’s NBA – tall, lengthy guys (his wingspan is 7-foot-2, according to teammate Ryan Kriener) that can both work in the post and step out and shoot three-pointers. Nunge showed a well-balanced game in Europe, hitting threes, rebounding and leading the team in blocks. How much he will play is yet to be determined – McCaffery has yet to give many clues – but Nunge’s skill set will demand for him to end up on the court at some point, likely sooner rather than later.

Iowa forward Tyler Cook dunks the ball during Iowa’s annual college basketball media day, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Tyler Cook, Soph.
6’9”, 255, St. Louis, Missouri

Tyler Cook comes into the season as the best post player on the Hawkeyes roster, and possibly the best player on the roster period. His skillset and body type are NBA-level. He is an absolute monster in the post, and became a fan favorite with his vicious dunks throughout the year at Carver last season. Cook’s game is more than just dunks and post moves, though.

He collected 5.3 rebounds a game last season and had 11 blocks and 18 steals on the season. More aggressive play on the defensive end in the post will only improve his game. The reports on Cook’s offseason improvements were glowing from around the program – especially from himself. Cook described himself as “unstoppable” during media day. Cook at times did look unstoppable on offense last season, including dominating performances against Seton Hall and Maryland, but often struggled with consistency, as well as a finger injury that hampered him in November and December.

If Cook stays healthy and stays consistent, he should easily begin to earn national respect. He was a first team All-Big Ten Freshman last year, and a strong year could propel him to first team All-Big Ten status – Iowa has had a first team honoree each of the past four years.

Cook can play in the NBA one day. Right now, he has a chance to show off as the Hawkeyes’ leader this year.

Ryan Kriener, Soph.
6’9”, 250, Spirit Lake, Iowa

It took a little longer than he may have wanted, but Ryan Kriener got his shot midway through last season and made the most of it. His breakout came early in conference play, when, with Cook sidelined, he saw significant meaningful minutes for the first time in his freshman year – and he made the most of them. Kriener finished his rookie campaign with averages of 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in just 8.4 minutes, shooting 55% from the field.

The best aspect of Kriener’s game is his spot-up shot. He only attempted five three-pointers last year, but his money spot is the mid-range area just outside of the key. In a game where mid-range shots are losing their appeal and usefulness, having a player with Kriener’s skillset from the mid-range is very valuable. Unfortunately, he lacks a lot of strength and ability to drive inside, and was not a great post defender last season. He is still young, so there’s room to grow and improve this season, but he’ll likely come on as a reserve forward with the ability to put some important points on the board from the mid-range.

Dom Uhl, Sr.
6’9”, 220, Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey

The lone senior on the Hawkeyes roster, Dom Uhl will occupy the role more of a veteran leader than veteran contributor this year. Last year was not a good one for Uhl, who fell out of the fans’ favor much of the year (but not McCaffery, who played him a consistent 12 to 15 minutes per game). His struggles on offense were evident, as he shot a putrid 35.1% from the floor and 23.8% from three – this coming after a sophomore season in which he shot 41% from the floor and 45% from three.

Uhl lacks a serious standout part of his game. After his sophomore year, it looked to be his three-point shooting, but he did not look good in that aspect as a junior. As a senior, Uhl will probably see around the same amount of playing time, as McCaffery likes to reward older players (the team’s trip to Europe this summer was partly to visit Uhl’s native country of Germany). Unfortunately, Uhl’s Hawkeye career has just not lived up to the potential that he had coming out of high school. One last run to the NCAA Tournament in his final year would a good way to wrap it all up for a guy that gives his all 100% of the time, even if his performance does not always reflect it.

Cordell Pemsl, Soph.
6’8”, 240, Dubuque, Iowa

Cordell Pemsl was perhaps the most hot-and-cold player on Iowa’s roster last season. At some times, especially in the non-conference season, he looked dominant, hitting his shots inside and mid-range, and overpowering other power forwards on defense. Other times, he could not shoot to save his life, and he was the one being overpowered, especially in the latter half of Big Ten play. Pemsl made a big move to improve his inside game this offseason by dropping almost 25 pounds from his frame.

The move should not only increase his game inside – he says he can now dunk – but also help with his consistency on offense in general. Pemsl often struggled to move around inside with how big he was last season, and lost weight can seriously improve mobility. Pemsl has no outside game, so defenses only have to game-plan for him to score inside of 18 feet or so. Adding more agility and moves to his inside game gives him an upper edge on opposing defenders.

Defensively, Pemsl still has a bit of a ways to go. He showed some ability as a shot-blocker last season, but too often was matched up with opposing centers standing three to four inches taller and found himself completely overmatched. This season, with the additions of physical monsters Jack Nunge and Luka Garza, Pemsl most likely will no longer have to play the five anymore, which is a huge coup for him, as he fits much better at the power forward spot. He started fourteen games last year, but may end up as a better option as a reserve big man this year who can step in in a pinch and provide key minutes.

Iowa freshmen Connor McCaffery, from left, Jack Nunge and Luka Garza pose for photographers during Iowa’s annual college basketball media day, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Luka Garza, Fr.
6’11”, 235, Washington, D.C.

A gigantic force inside, Garza, a consensus four-star prospect, committed early in his senior year to the Hawkeyes and stayed committed even when other names came calling (Garza was offered by Notre Dame, Indiana, Georgetown, and Louisville, among others). His commitment is huge for the team. Garza is the best freshman big man Iowa has had in a long time. He comes from a basketball legacy – his father played at Idaho, his grandfather at Hawaii, and his uncle, the all-time leading scorer for the Slovenian national team, played at Oregon State. He averaged 24.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a senior for the Maret School in Washington, D.C., and was named 2017 Gatorade D.C. Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

Garza should see immediate minutes at the center position for the Hawkeyes, perhaps even as a starter. He was fantastic on the team’s trip to Europe, leading Iowa in scoring and rebounding as he averaged a double-double and shot 70% from the field. Garza can contribute quickly offensively, both inside and out. He has excellent post moves and can step out and shoot it from outside – not something many post players can do, let alone defend against.

Garza may not be a blue-chip, five-star prospect, but his offer list shows that the Hawkeyes truly got a diamond in the rough. Garza has a chance to be Iowa’s most valuable freshman in a long time if he gets sufficient minutes and touches. We could be talking about a Cook/Garza frontcourt as one of the best in the country within a few short months.

This wraps up our Hawkeye Basketball position preview! We’re looking forward to bringing you more basketball coverage as the beginning of the season is right around the corner! 

Hawkeye Heaven


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