One of the expected challenges for the Iowa basketball program headed into the 2016-2017 regular season was their ability to defend the paint. Long gone is center Adam Woodbury who was the rim protector for the Hawkeyes, standing at 7-foot-1. Now Fran McCaffery and his staff have zero 7-footers to deploy on defense.
Most would think that is a problem. They've brought in a few freshmen with length and bulk but they top out around anywhere from 6-foot-8 to 6-foot-9. They are more athletic than Woodbury but lack his pure height and have not been introduced to the physicality and toughness of the Big Ten conference just yet.
We may have that reluctance and hesitation about their defensive ability but it is not shared by head coach Fran McCaffery. He has a strong belief that this team will be able to take away the post for the opponents, and possibly be even more effective at it than they were a season ago when they had a 7-footer in the lineup.
"While we don't have a 7-foot-1 center, we have way more length and size than we had last year," McCaffery explained. "When you look at the physical makeup of our team in terms of strength and length, we're in a much better position this year to defend in the post than we were last year. Everything kind of fell on (Adam Woodbury), and he was spectacular, except for one or two occasions when he got in foul trouble."
At Media Day, Hawkeye Insider uncovered that Iowa plans to use true freshmen Cordell Pemsl and Tyler Cook to defend the five (center position). Though it's a tall task for first year players, and they don't have incredible height, their length and bulk is probably superior to what Iowa had in the paint a year ago. They also have more weapons to defend with in the paint whereas last year there were times Nicholas Baer and Dom Uhl were asked to body up the opponent's biggest player.
"The goal right now is that the coaches see (Tyler Cook) and I going up against the fives (on defense)," freshman forward Cordell Pemsl noted. "We're the biggest bodies on the floor. We're going to what we can to keep everyone out of the paint. It gives guys like Ahmad (Wagner) who played receiver in high school the opportunity to guard an explosive three or even a two instead of having to guard someone bigger. The same goes for Dom Uhl. Bringing us in helped those guys out a lot."
Pemsl is currently at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds while Cook is listed at 6-foot-9 and 253 pounds. The freshman Cook comes in with just a bit more hype than Pemsl but is working to stay grounded at the same time.
"So far from what the coaches have told me, I have the green light," he admitted to Scout at Iowa Basketball Media Day. "I have to take that with a grain of salt, though. I can't be going crazy."
Cook also will share responsibility of defending the paint this season but he's fine with wherever he plays. The versatility to his game allows the Hawkeyes to play around a little bit, especially on offense.
"I can play the three or the four or the five," Cook said. "I can do them all. With the offense, we're really not stressing over the numbers. Everyone plays their own position. We're all interchangeable."
McCaffery has a lot of plans for Cook, who he described as having the highest ceiling of potential of any player he's brought into Iowa. He'll use the freshman star in a lot of different ways.
"You know, he'll line up in the forward position," he explained about Cook. "But you'll also see him bring it down. You'll see him post-up. You'll see him shoot threes, attack the rim, playing ball-screen action, and that's what I told him when we recruited him, that we'll utilize him that way."
"He has typicall been a prototype 4-man with that body, and he can do that," McCaffery added about his star youngster. "The key for us and the key for him is going to be making sure that while he's dribbling the ball and shooting threes, he still gets after it on the glass and is up around 10 rebounds a game, which is not easy."
While McCaffery never said Pemsl had the potential to be a star like he did Cook, he's still very excited about the other true freshman that will be providing the defense in the interior and in the paint.
"He's been really impressive," McCaffery described about what he's seen from Pemsl so far. "What you saw (in the Prime Time League) is pretty much what we've seen in practices in June, July, August, and now. I mean, he's a guy that has real good feel for how to play the game, and when you're 6-foot-8 and 250, and you know how to play, you can dribble, pass and shoot, you know how to post-up, you know how to use angles, that's a guy who can really help you, and I'm really excited about him."
While Woodbury is a loss no matter how you spin it, there's a lot of optimism surrounding Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl from within to fill the void.