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Harty: Through the grind, Hawkeye men stick together

[ 0 ] March 13, 2013 |

So much goes in to forming a successful basketball team, but one thing that often gets overlooked is how the players coexist together.

Of course, it helps to have players who excel as shooters, rebounders, defenders and ball-handlers because the game is very demanding from a physical standpoint.

But it also helps to have players who like each other and don’t care who gets the spotlight as long as it’s shining on somebody.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery describes his current team as being that way.

McCaffery feels fortunate to not only have a team with depth heading into Thursday’s game against Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, but also a group of players who seem to care about each other.

“It’s vital,” McCaffery said. “When you think about it, I don’t care what team, what sport, if you have any issues at all, and it could be one guy, it’s going to derail your attempt to make any kind of progress. We have none of those issues.”

That isn’t to say that every day is a love fest for the Iowa players or that they don’t sometimes get on each other’s nerves. There almost certainly have been times in practice when things got chippy, but that’s to be expected during the course of a 31-game schedule.

Playing Big Ten basketball is a physical and mental grind, so it helps to enjoy the company of those grinding with you on a daily basis.

“I don’t know if anybody really pays much attention to it, but it’s really a fun group to be around,” McCaffery said of his current team. “It’s enjoyable to come to work every day and work with these guys. They want to get better.

“They listen. They accept constructive criticism. They just continue to persevere through any kind of adversity. They encourage one another, and when you see them sort of away from the basketball side it, they really enjoy each other. If we go to a restaurant or if we’re just on a bus or in an airport, they really get along. That’s what you want.”

McCaffery’s players also win games together, nearly two-thirds of the games so far this season with Iowa having finished the regular season with records of 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. Iowa has won six of its last eight games and is seeded sixth in the Big Ten Tournament.

Only once before has Iowa been seeded sixth in the Big Ten Tournament — and that 2001 team defied the odds by winning four games in four days to capture the title. Iowa is the only team to win four games in four days at the Big Ten Tournament.

Sophomore forward Aaron White used the word unselfish Tuesday to describe his teammates. He also used Iowa’s high-percentage of assists on made field-goals to illustrate his point.

The Hawkeyes have assisted on 63.8 percent of their field-goal makes (475 assists on 744 field goals) to rank 17th best in the country.

“I think it shows in the numbers, the assists-to-field-goals made are always high game in and game out,” White said. “That’s just kind of how we work. Everyone is unselfish sharing the ball and we like playing with each other.

“So I think it’s a really good component of our team.”

Part of being unselfish is accepting your role on the team. McCaffery has changed his starting lineup at least three times this season, but it hasn’t disrupted the team chemistry or caused a rift.

Freshman point guard Anthony Clemmons began the season as a reserve, then started 13 consecutive games through December and most of January before returning to the bench. He’s accepted whatever role McCaffery has for him, as have his teammates.

McCaffery has used a 10-man rotation for much of the season and will again Thursday if freshman point guard Mike Gesell is healthy enough to play. Gesell missed the last four games with a stress reaction in his right foot.

McCaffery’s substitution patterns often change depending on matchups and who’s playing well at a specific time. What doesn’t change is the reaction from the players on the bench.

“There’s no like, ‘Wow, I should be out there or when is he going to put me back in,’” McCaffery said. “Our guys are rolling, hey, that’s great for us. If we’re in there, they’ll be hooting and hollering for me.”

The fact that McCaffery uses so many players on a regular basis helps to create a stable working environment. Iowa has 10 players who average at least 10.4 minutes of action per game.

The players stay more engaged, but they also avoid becoming fatigued, which is beneficial when trying to win four games in four days at a conference tournament.

“I definitely think it helps,” McCaffery said of having a deep bench. “If you’re in a seven-man rotation, for example, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to slow down in the course of four days.

“The other thing is, as teams prepare for us, no matter what game you look at, sometimes there are just different guys on the floor who are producing. It’s not always the same two top scorers and the same four players doing the same things.”

The reaction from the players on the bench always stays the same, though.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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