Jarrod Uthoff and others are fired up after a 76-59 rout in East Lansing. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Before this season, even Fran McCaffery wondered aloud about how he would coach this Iowa basketball team.
“One of the most unique teams I've had in in all my years in coaching,” he opened at Big Ten Conference media days in Chicago back in October.
A group of battle-tested veterans were joining six newcomers plus two more redshirt freshmen. How would McCaffery get them to mix?
So far, McCaffery’s 20th season as a head coach at the Division I level is shaping up to be his finest.
Raise your hand if you ever thought that’d be written after Iowa lost to Division II Augustana of South Dakota in a November exhibition.
McCaffery may have delivered the biggest of his 109 wins in six years at Iowa with a 76-59 beatdown of No. 4 Michigan State on Thursday night. And he did it at the Breslin Center, site of one of his most infamous moments as the Hawkeyes' head coach. In 2012, he slammed a chair here and drew national headlines. Thursday, he broke an 18-game program drought in East Lansing.
In doing so, Iowa — which last year won its first NCAA Tournament game in 14 seasons — is poised to take yet another step forward.
Asked afterward about his role in contributing to Iowa’s 13-3 record — including a 4-0 start in Big Ten Conference play, which last happened three coaches and 16 years ago — McCaffery didn’t take the opportunity to boast. He certainly could have, given that Iowa minutes earlier completed a sweep of nemesis Michigan State by a combined margin of 30 points in two games over 17 days.
“I don’t think of the game that way. We’re just constantly trying to push the right buttons with who we have,” McCaffery said. “I think we have a good feel for what we have on our team in terms of talent, versatility, character, toughness. Who’s going to perform under pressure in this environment and be able to play through a mistake and remember the game plan?”
The consensus before the season was that Iowa was an NCAA Tournament bubble team. Now the 16th-ranked Hawkeyes are poised for another jump in the polls, especially if they can dispatch a challenging Sunday game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Iowa’s entire coaching staff deserves credit. After the game, Peter Jok praised the hands-on work of lead assistant Kirk Speraw. It was Speraw who orchestrated the game plan for both Michigan State wins.
Jok said he spent extra time with Speraw studying film, looking for ways he could break free to deliver his smooth jump shot. It paid off. The junior scored a game-high 23 points, including 19 in the dominating first half, to help Iowa keep the Breslin crowd subdued throughout Thursday’s game.
“I watched film with Coach Kirk. I just tried to figure out other ways I could score. They were on me like crazy in the first game,” Jok said. “I just played with my pace. I didn’t try to force anything or let them get in my skin.”
That, in a nutshell, is why this Iowa team has been so good of late during a six-game winning streak. Everyone stays within their roles. Even the star, Jarrod Uthoff, is a team-first guy. A dependable bench has emerged.
What a brilliant move by McCaffery to put sophomore Dom Uhl at the “5” position before the season. Iowa needed a backup to Adam Woodbury after the graduation of Gabe Olaseni, and Uhl has gone from swingman forward to versatile big man.
He’s deftly distributed the minutes between senior guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons at the point. Uthoff has been nearly unstoppable in playing mostly the “4” after Iowa's No. 2 all-time leading scorer Aaron White held that role last year.
Jarrod Uthoff speaks following the Hawkeyes' 76-59 win at Michigan State.
The discovery and development of redshirt freshman walk-on Nicholas Baer as the team’s No. 2 guy off the bench is a testament to sound coaching across the board from McCaffery, Speraw, Sherm Dillard and Andrew Francis.
McCaffery also showed personal in-season growth Thursday, giving true freshmen Ahmad Wagner and Christian Williams some key minutes. McCaffery regretted not playing Wagner during a second-half meltdown loss against Iowa State on Dec. 10. Iowa hasn’t lost since.
The Iowa guard and Lansing native beats his former prep teammates at the Breslin Center. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
There’s a long way to go. We’re only 22 percent through the Big Ten gauntlet.
But this team is built in the right way — with defined roles, selflessness, character and experience — to avoid the pratfalls of the 2013-14 squad that fell apart after reaching No. 10 in the national rankings.
“We trust our guys. We put them in positions where they can be successful. We don’t ask them to do more than that,” McCaffery said. “Typically they come through for us. We have, I think, a collective desire to win as opposed to anything personal. As a coach, that’s all you ever want.”