By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Fran McCaffery only makes a starting lineup change when it’s necessary.
It worked last season, when the Iowa coach shifted his lineup to add guard Tony Perkins. The Hawkeyes went 12 of their next 14 games after the change, including four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament.
The starters McCaffery chose at the start of this season — Perkins, Payton Sandfort, Kris Murray, Filip Rebraca and Patrick McCaffery — stayed together through the first six games. But after the Hawkeyes lost 79-66 to TCU in the Emerald Coast Classic tournament last Sunday, Fran McCaffery decided to change the lineup, bringing in Ahron Ulis, who had been playing well off the bench, and bringing Sandfort off the bench.
The new lineup was unveiled in Tuesday’s 81-65 win over Georgia Tech. But after the game, McCaffery admitted some qualms about the change.
The goal, he said, was to help Sandfort. Sandfort started the season strong, hitting 12 of his 21 shots in wins over Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina A&T. But he had gone 8-of-28 in the next four games, including 1-of-12 in 3-pointers.
Sandfort had just five points in the win over Georgia Tech coming off the bench, but took eight shots. That, McCaffery said, was a good sign.
“I took Payton Sandfort out of the starting lineup, and I hate doing that after a loss because I never want the message to be, ‘Oh, let’s blame it on Payton, we’re taking him out,’” McCaffery said. “That’s not what it was. I thought it would really help him, and he came in firing, which is what I want him to do, and he was moving without the ball.”
Sandfort played a season-low 14 minutes, but McCaffery took the blame for that.
“I needed to get him more minutes, and that’s on me,” he said. “I’ll get him more minutes the next game.”
McCaffery, like most coaches, will tell you that the starting lineup isn’t as important as who finishes a game. But it is important for teams, because it establishes who has earned a right to have their names called at the beginning of the game.
Iowa women’s coach Lisa Bluder has used the same starting lineup for all nine games this season, and all are experienced players — junior guard Caitlin Clark and seniors Monika Czinano, Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock. Not coincidentally, the five lead the team in minutes played.
Western Illinois men’s coach Rob Jeter has used basically the same lineup through the Leathernecks’ first eight games. The only time he made a change was in the 70-37 loss at Central Florida, when guard Trenton Massner was injured.
Western Illinois women’s coach JD Gravina, though, has experimented with different starting lineups all season. Guard Elizabeth Lutz and center Alissa Dins are the only players to start every game. Eight of Gravina’s 11 players have started at least one game.
Gravina said the competition among the players to prove themselves can be a detriment.
“They just don’t feel like we’re in a flow and just playing basketball,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘I’ve got to hit shots so I can get to play more and get to start,’ and that’s a hard mentality to fight.”
It might be time, Gravina said, to find a consistent starting five.
“I look through our lineup, and it’s like on any given day, anyone in our top 10 or 11 — our top 10 for sure — can be one of our top two or three players and anyone could be our bottom two or three players,” he said. “I do think it’s taken a toll on this team, just changing up the lineup so much that we haven’t gotten into a rhythm. So I think we’re going to have to find a solution. I just don’t know what it is.”
Photo: Iowa’s Payton Sandfort chases a loose ball in a game against Omaha earlier this season. (Keith Gillett/Icon SportsWire)