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Iowa hoops practicing at high level ahead of European trip

Hawkeyes to play 4 games in 3 countries next week, practices in preparation have been intense

IOWA CITY — The chance to do game preparation in July isn’t all that common for college basketball teams, so Coach Fran McCaffery and the rest of Iowa’s men’s team have savored the now eight practices they’ve had in getting ready for their trip to Europe.

With two more to go before the team flies out Sunday, all involved have said the intensity has been that of regular season practices.

Sophomore Ryan Kriener called last year’s summer workouts “lax” compared to this.

The Hawkeyes have 11 guys returning who played last year and two more in Jack Nunge and Luka Garza who will get minutes. With that much talent vying for a finite amount of playing time, things can get heated.

They like it that way.

“It’s been very intense; very competitive,” Kriener said. “I think it’s going to have a lot of value. Last year, we really didn’t get intense until we lost our first couple games. We were pretty lax last year. I think now, as young guys, that we really get it that you have to value every day.

“If you’re not coming out playing with an edge, you might as well not be playing at all. I think we would’ve gotten to this point before the season, but I don’t know if it would’ve been this early (without the trip).”

Iowa will play four games in three countries during the European trip. The games begin Tuesday in Germany against the German All-Stars, followed by Aug. 10 against the Swiss All-Stars, Aug. 12 against the Milan All-Stars and wraps up Aug. 14 against the Vicenza All-Stars in Italy.

Trips like this one obviously serve multiple functions, on and off the court.

McCaffery said Wednesday his plan is to give “a completely fair dispersal of playing time,” and “not get into, ‘This is my starting lineup, this is my next three; this is my next three.’” He said there’s been no real separation yet among groups or individual players that would be helpful for him in terms of a rotation yet. In fact, he said, “it’s probably gotten worse from that standpoint,” because of how well he sees his players performing.

Off the court, it’s a chance to travel to places most have never been. In fact, a good portion of the team has never left the country at all. Kriener and Tyler Cook both talked about relishing the chance to go visit a different part of the world with friends, as compared to maybe family.

McCaffery said every other time he’s gone on one of these trips, it’s been with a veteran group as “sort of the culmination of you’re sort of bringing a group along.” But even if this team is as cohesive as they say they are — dating back to last year and their consistent refrains of getting along so well — a trip like this can only strengthen that.

“My experience in the past has been the teams that have had this opportunity have always gelled and played well the following year,” McCaffery said. “That’s probably as important a component of this opportunity as anything, maybe more important.

“I think they feel like we all do, that this is an unbelievable opportunity and they’re excited about it. I think they’re excited about doing it with each other, which is more important.”

This summer has been busy for the whole team. All but Cordell Pemsl (injury) and Connor McCaffery (baseball) played in the Prime Time League, and of course the aforementioned practices.

McCaffery said Wednesday Nicholas Baer is playing “on a whole other level,” and “could very easily be our starting three-man,” when the season rolls around. He highlighted Isaiah Moss taking another step, Brady Ellingson shooting lights out and Christian Williams looking better. He said Pemsl has looked as good, if not better, than he did since last year in his return from summer rehab of his sports hernia.

There’s versatility in the roster, with Ahmad Wagner, Dom Uhl and Nunge also able to step out and play on the perimeter with effectiveness. Then there’s always Tyler Cook, who has more freedom to roam and use a wider swath of his talents as well.

The addition of Nunge and Garza has helped expedite the sense of urgency for performance. Cook pointed that out Wednesday as a tremendous benefit. A trip to Europe to play in games with more structure and competitiveness than existed in the PTL doesn’t hurt, either.

Whatever the reason(s), the Hawkeyes are already on all eight cylinders.

“The thing that’s impressed me so far is the young guys,” Cook said. “They’re so much smarter when it comes to absorbing the details of the game than we were as freshmen. I think their transitions to being able to play are going to be seamless.

“The last few days have been really good from (an intensity) standpoint. The fact that we’re able to get at that point now, in the summer time, so far from the season, is going to serve us so much better. That we already have that competitiveness, especially in the young guys, is awesome.”

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