IOWA CITY — They are 13 names.
Puzzle pieces, really.
Snap five of them together, see what kind of lineup you can build.
Take one piece away, put another on, see what the puzzle looks like.
Every combination you can think of, it’s probably going to happen.
Here’s a better test — take all 13 names, put them in a hat. Blindly draw out five.
And then see how long into the season before that combination plays together.
It’s Fran McCaffery’s challenge this season as Iowa’s basketball coach, and he will not be denied a chance to make it work.
Take 13 players — the 12 scholarship players and McCaffery’s walk-on son, Connor — and give them all playing time, find a way to fit all of them into 200 minutes each night.
Most coaches like an eight-man, maybe a nine-man, rotation.
If McCaffery can play more, he will.
This experiment started last season, when he had most of these pieces.
Ten players got at least one start. Ten players played an average of double-digit minutes. Six played in every game.
It was mix-and-match. Some combinations worked. Others, not so much.
Occasionally, McCaffery would lament after the game that a certain player — it was always a different name — didn’t get more minutes.
On a gloomy afternoon in June, McCaffery was about to go through all of his pieces for an interview on the upcoming season.
He was asked about his lament, how many times he thought someone should have played more. It was much worse than anyone knew.
“Every game,” McCaffery said.
And then he paused.
“And it will be worse this year.”
The foundation for this laboratory was built throughout the 2016-17 season.
Then came Indiana, Feb. 21, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes had lost three consecutive games, six of their last nine. A season was fading.
The starting lineup that night was Ahmad Wagner and Tyler Cook at the two forward positions, and a guard court of Peter Jok, Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss.
Two minutes and 10 seconds off the clock, and Indiana had a 9-0 lead.
Five starters, out. In — Christian Williams and Brady Ellingson at two guard spots, a frontcourt of Dom Uhl, Nicholas Baer and Cordell Pemsl.
One minute, 10 seconds later, a bad pass by Uhl. He’s out, senior Dale Jones — who had been injured for most of the season, came in.
Twenty-five seconds later, a foul on Pemsl. He’s out, forward Ryan Kriener was in.
Three minutes, 45 seconds. Twelve players. The substitutions were ripe with fury — McCaffery angrily pointing at the next man in, and then letting whoever came out suffer wrath.
“We kind of got the hint after that,” Bohannon said.
The Hawkeyes won 96-90 in overtime.
Jok, who would go on to lead the Big Ten in scoring last season, scored 35 points.
But some of the biggest plays that night came from Kriener. He played 18 minutes — he had played just 27 in the five games before that — and had three blocked shots.
McCaffery remembered that game in the summer.
“We don’t win that game without him,” McCaffery said.
That night, it was clear — McCaffery will look for an answer, and cut as deep as he can to get it.
“One thing I really like about Coach McCaffery is he’s not afraid to go with some unorthodox lineups, if it works,” Baer said.
“Here’s the thing,” Wagner said. “Coach McCaffery has his plan, and he’s going to execute his plan. I have all the confidence in him.”
You want minutes with these Hawkeyes? You have to go and get them.
Freshman Luka Garza is a 6-11 forward/center who can shoot threes, score inside, rebound, and block shots.
In Iowa’s second exhibition of this season, against Belmont Abbey, Garza had a double-double in scoring and rebounding … at halftime.
But he discovered something while working out with his new teammates over the summer, playing against them in the Prime Time League and practicing for the Hawkeyes’ European trip — this wasn’t going to be easy.
“I can’t get an off day,” Garza said, “because everybody is so good.”
The best way to get a chunk of the 200 minutes is to play well.
“It’s just brought on competition,” Cook said. “Yeah, it’s great. Practice is incredible. We’re all fighting for spots. You kind of forget in practice that you’re all on the same team.”
“It definitely makes you work harder,” Wagner said. “It puts you more in the gym on your own time. That helps us out in the long run.”
It’s about equality, McCaffery said. The summer, the European trip, the fall practices — everyone was going to get a chance.
“Well, it's not going to be easy,” McCaffery said. “There's no question about that. So you know, you just try to institute a sense of fairness the best way that you can. You try to identify who have been the guys that have elevated themselves to the point where you consider them to be starters, and where do you want to go from there.
“A lot of times you need size coming off the bench, you need guards, whatever. But sometimes you want offense. Sometimes you want to go defense off the bench. I think we have the ability when we go to the bench to go either way. We have size, we have depth in the backcourt, we have length, and we have guys that can score coming off the bench. And that's typically the biggest problem you have. When you go to your bench you don't have guys that can consistently score the ball, and your team goes down when those guys come in. And that's not the case at all with our team. We are equally good with whoever we bring off the bench, and I think that's exciting. I have complete confidence in those guys, and they know that I'm going to try to do the best job I can to distribute playing time accordingly.”
“Whenever Coach splits up the teams, they’re going to be even,” Kriener said. “You can’t complain that you’ve got someone on your team, you can’t think a team is unfair. Because everything is even.”
“It drives everyone,” Bohannon said. “Beyond measure.”
Probably the easiest thing to pick is the starting lineup, and even then, the options are many.
Bohannon and Cook will be in there. They were both on the Big Ten’s all-freshman team, Cook was second on the team in scoring while Bohannon was third, and they had 28 starts last season.
Moss will be in there — an ankle injury that he suffered in Iowa’s first exhibition game in October may limit him for a while — because he started 28 games last season and the Hawkeyes need a shooter to replace Jok.
Garza started both exhibitions, and he seems a perfect fit with Cook inside.
And then it gets tricky.
There’s Baer, who was the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year last season. He has always been his best off the bench — he did have 10 starts last season.
“I’d prefer to start,” Baer said. “I’d like to try that out.”
Baer started Iowa’s first exhibition game, came off the bench in the second.
“Does he start, do we keep him in the sixth-man role?” McCaffery said. “That means we'd have another starter, and who's the other starter after that? And then Baer would be sixth if he doesn't start, and we'll go from there.”
So what do you do for another frontcourt starter?
Maybe Wagner, who had 18 starts last season. Maybe Pemsl, who averaged 19.3 minutes last season but is healthy now after surgery to repair the torn groin muscles that bothered him all of last season.
“Do I have something in mind? Probably,” McCaffery said at the Hawkeyes’ media day in early October. “But I think we're only two weeks in. I think we have to give everybody a chance to kind of establish themselves. We'll identify who the five are, and then six, seven, eight is typically where you go from there, and then nine, 10, 11.
“But even with this team, that could change.”
McCaffery is entering his 22nd season as a head coach, with a challenge he has never faced to this magnitude.
“It’s really hard, for a variety of reasons,” said McCaffery, who coached at Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro, and Siena before coming to Iowa. “Certainly at the mid-major level, you’re never going to be like that. We’ve had some deep clubs here. A couple of years ago, we pretty much had two of everything. This team has more interesting parts when you look at it.
“We have versatility at every position, every guy. What you’ll see is, a lot of times — and this happened a lot last year — we’ll go on a run and you say, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting lineup that’s out there.’ That lineup happened to get flow going and play well together. What always impressed me was the other guys. Whoever wasn’t in was supporting the other guys. Whoever came in picked us up.”
“He plays us all in different positions, bring different groups together,” Wagner said. “We all bring something different to the table.
“Whatever is needed for that night is what Coach is going to put on the court. As long as we play to our capabilities, we’ll be fine.”
“We’re working through it,” Bohannon said. “That’s going to happen to any team going through what we’re going to go through this season. We have to find a way to fit it all together.
“There are a lot of guys who can play. There are guys who will take another guy’s spot. You can’t take that personally. You just have to take that as motivation.”
Exhibition games are about seeing what works.
McCaffery played his 12 main players — Moss was out with his injury — in 16 different combinations in the 96-64 win over Belmont Abbey on Nov. 4. Wagner started, and played just eight first-half minutes. Bohannon didn’t score, and had five assists and four rebounds.
The pieces were in front of McCaffery in the summer. Now he looks at every combination, every player. Who fits where, and why, on this night, and why not on the next night.
“They’ll just have to battle,” he said, “and then see what happens when the games start.”
Go back to media day, when McCaffery handled one of the questions about his rotation.
“I don't think I've ever really tried to get 13 guys in,” he said. “It's typically been 10 or 11, so it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.”
On this night, eight days before the season opener, McCaffery had his answer.
At least two hundred minutes of game time every night are out there.
There was a defiance in McCaffery's response. This was going to work.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of good players,” McCaffery said, “and I’m going to play them all.”