IOWA CITY — Eric May, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe have combined for 160 starts in their Iowa careers, yet none of them will open a game for the foreseeable future.
The upperclassmen bring tangible qualities to the basketball court — they average a combined 18.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game. But it’s their intangibles that likely will determine Iowa’s place in the Big Ten universe this season.
So far, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery appreciates how the veteran trio have bought in to their situation. With three freshmen starting, it takes chemistry, leadership and a team-first mentality to prevent division on the roster.
“If you look at three freshmen in the starting lineup and say, ‘Boy, that’s great,’” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “But, as you know, it could not be great if the upperclassmen don’t buy in. It could be an absolute disaster.
“We have great chemistry on this team, we have great respect for one another, we pull for one another and really makes it pleasurable for me to coach in that environment.”
McCabe, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, started 30 games last year at center and the first seven this year. He started slow but was shifted to a reserve role after Iowa lost games against Wichita State and Virginia Tech. Iowa then installed Anthony Clemmons at point guard and moved three positions in the process. Freshman point Mike Gesell went to off-guard, while junior Devyn Marble moved to the wing. Sophomore Aaron White, who started at power forward last year but played wing in the first seven games, changed back to the four. McCabe was out.
“We came off two straight losses and stuff wasn’t going our way,” McCabe said. “You kind of know in the season that any player could start — Eric, Mel, whatever. Sapp’s (Clemmons) now starting which is great for us; he’s playing real well. Great energy. Just any time you come off the bench, you just play how you’ve been playing. Just play hard, play with energy. Play with passion and any time coach calls your name, you’re ready to go.”
McCaffery inauspiciously made the moves in practice, except with McCabe.
“I brought him in, I spoke to him, I felt like I owed him that to him,” McCaffery said. “I wanted to hear if he had any reservation with that. But Zach McCabe is all in. He comes off the bench, he starts, whatever I need him to do, he’s going to try to help our team win. It speaks to his character.”
May, the team captain and only senior, has 69 career starts and opened the team’s exhibition. He started 48 games in two of Iowa’s losingest teams in history, including a school record 22 losses as a freshman. Those seasons gave him perspective that winning trumps personal accolades.
“I think we understand the common goal of winning games,” said May, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward. “Nobody’s getting caught up in stats. As long as we’re taking care of business at the end of the game, that’s the main goal of this team.
“We’ve experienced not making it to the postseason. We understand sacrifices have to be made. The ultimate goal is getting there and winning as many games as possible.”
Basabe, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, started the first 52 games of his career and was a member of the Big Ten’s all-freshman team. He slumped last year but ranks now third in rebounding, fourth in scoring and fourth in minutes off the bench this year.
Basabe also has helped other players, like Clemmons, learn the offense.
“Guys like that, they’re making sacrifices,” Clemmons said. “Melsahn is a great mentor on the floor and off the floor. Whenever any of us have questions or anything about how we’re playing, he’s always there to give us advice.”
McCaffery’s communication with the players has helped ease the transition, May said.
“I think Coach is making our roles clear, and I think that’s why there isn’t as much of a people getting upset,” May said. “People know where they sit.”
“With us veteran players, it’s more team-oriented than any other place,” McCabe said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and we know as a team that to be able to accomplish a goal, which is the NCAA tournament, that sometimes you have to sacrifice some things for the team.”