The Iowa men's basketball team shows little signs of getting stronger in the wake of adversity

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A frustrated Fran McCaffery buries his head during one of Iowa's 19 losses this past season. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Teams either unite or unravel in the wake of adversity and the Iowa men’s basketball team shows some signs of doing the latter.

Forward Ahmad Wagner and shooting guard Brady Ellingson already have left the team, while power forward Tyler Cook and shooting guard Isaiah Moss are testing the NBA draft process as sophomores.

And now a fifth player, sophomore power forward Cordell Pemsl, was non-committal about returning based on what he told the Des Moines Register before the team’s post-season banquet on Tuesday.

Pemsl said he wanted to do what is best for him, but wasn’t sure if that meant staying at Iowa or transferring to another school.

He then tried to diffuse the situation on Wednesday by saying in a story published on Hawkeyesports.com that he was 100 percent committed to staying at Iowa. That was a drastic change from what Pemsl had said the day before. So he either miss-spoke for some reason or suddenly changed his mind.

Cook declined to be interviewed before the team banquet, which only leads to speculation that Iowa’s leading scorer from this past season has played his last game as a Hawkeye.

Moss said he would definitely be back next season if he isn’t selected in the NBA Draft in June, which means he almost certainly will be back because the odds of Moss being selected in the two-round draft are slim to none, but much closer to none.

Wagner wants to switch to football where he was a star receiver as a high school senior in Ohio, while Ellingson will graduate this spring and then play as a graduate transfer for another school next season.

The Iowa men’s basketball program hasn’t seen this much roster uncertainty and potential attrition since the tumultuous three-year stretch under Todd Lickliter from 2007-10. The combination of losing games and player defections ultimately cost Lickliter his job after just three seasons.

The current situation under head coach Fran McCaffery hasn’t reached the Lickliter stage yet, but it’s moving in the wrong direction with Iowa coming off a disastrous 14-19 season that included a 4-14 Big Ten record.

McCaffery’s body of work, which includes three NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons, still ranks way above what Lickliter accomplished at Iowa.

But the current situation appears far from being stable.

Instead of rallying after a disappointing season and vowing to fix the problems, some of the Iowa players appear more focused on individual goals and concerns at this stage.

It makes you wonder if that way of thinking contributed to the poor season that nobody saw coming after Iowa won 19 games during the 2016-17 campaign.

The players all seem to get along off the court, but they still lacked chemistry on the court this past season.

The fact that former point guard Christian Williams decided to transfer the day before Iowa played its first exhibition game in November was strange to say the least. It was the first sign of trouble for a team that has been dealing with trouble ever since.

Pemsl graduated from Dubuque Wahlert and always dreamed of being a Hawkeye. He is also close friends with many of the players on the team, and yet, he isn’t sure if he wants to return.

He could just be waiting to see what Cook ultimately decides to do because Pemsl almost certainly would play a much bigger role without Cook on the team.

You can’t blame Pemsl for wanting to do what is in his best interest because he only has so long to play college basketball. Pemsl already is halfway through his college career, but still hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament and he performed worse as sophomore than as a freshman.

Pemsl didn’t start a game this past season after starting 14 games as a true freshman. He also helped the Hawkeyes win 19 games as a true freshman, including one game in the National Invitation Tournament.

And with four starters returning from that team, expectations were high heading into this past season. The Iowa players spoke confidently at media day about making it back to the NCAA Tournament, but they didn’t come close to achieving that goal.

Iowa performed woefully on defense and didn’t have enough firepower on offense to make up for it. The season was a disaster any way you slice it.

Iowa has now gone back-to-back seasons without making the NCAA Tournament and it’s hard to picture that streak ending based on the current situation.

It’s hard to plan and prepare for next season when one-third of your roster is in flux. And it’s hard for the Iowa coaches to recruit without knowing for sure who will be back next season.

The challenge for McCaffery is to right the ship, but he’s never really been in this kind of situation before.

McCaffery was successful at his three previous head coaching jobs and his teams at Iowa all improved until the past two seasons.

McCaffery now has a mess to clean up and it starts with stabilizing his roster.

Junior-to-be point guard Jordan Bohannon and sophomore-to-be center Luka Garza both have star potential and have given no indication that they are thinking of leaving.

Iowa also will add two freshmen next season, including 6-foot-6 Muscatine star Joe Wieskamp, who should contribute immediately.

So McCaffery has talent to build around.

But he also has an unstable situation that is causing some of his players to question whether it’s worth staying at Iowa.

It could be argued that losing Wagner and Moss is addition by subtraction because they both were buried on the bench and weren’t likely to play much next season.

But on the other hand, Iowa is losing two seniors-to-be on scholarship who failed to develop.

Ellingson and Wagner were part of two different recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015 that have failed to produce.

Iowa signed six players in its 2014 recruiting class, but Moss is the only player from that class still on the team. Wagner and Christian Williams also were in that class, along with forward Dale Jones and guards Andrew Fleming and Brandon Hutton.

Iowa’s 2014 recruiting class consisted of Ellingson, point guard Trey Dickerson and forward Dom Uhl. Dickerson left Iowa after just one semester, while Uhl played sparingly throughout his career.

It seems pretty clear that eight of the nine recruits in those two classes didn’t pan out and the effects of that were seen this past season.

With Lickliter, there was a feeling of hopelessness. He seemed overmatched and out of his comfort zone in the Big Ten.

It doesn’t feel that way with McCaffery, partly because he cleaned up Lickliter’s mess after replacing him in 2010.

But the glow from McCaffery has definitely faded over the past year and will continue to fade if Iowa fails to make the NCAA Tournament next season.

McCaffery could add a graduate transfer for next season that would have no effect on the 2019 recruiting class, but Iowa rarely has been mentioned with players who are currently seeking that route.

Another trip to the NIT next season might calm things a little, but that would also mean not making the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.

That would be a problem.