Inside Iowa's rise from 14-19 team to NCAA Tournament berth

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Iowa men’s basketball team only made it one day into March last season. But that was the day that made this season possible.

The Hawkeyes, riding their first two-game winning streak of the Big Ten Conference season, put up a fight but lost 77-71 in overtime against Michigan on March 1, 2018. That bounced them from the Big Ten Tournament. That left them with a 14-19 record.

Luka Garza, then the team’s freshman center, said the postgame locker room was an odd mixture of anger, regret and optimism.

“It was just one of those moments where you hit bottom and you want to make sure next year you’re going out in a better way and having more success,” Garza said.

“Coach (Fran McCaffery) told us after the game, he was proud of our progress that weekend and what we could turn into next year. … It wasn’t something that needed to be said as much as you needed to feel what was in that locker room. You could tell that there was a shifted attitude.”

Twelve months later, the Hawkeyes are about to take the court for their most meaningful game in three seasons — a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati at Nationwide Arena at 11:15 a.m. Friday (CBS). Iowa is 22-11, an eight-win improvement from last year. And counting.

An inside look at how the Hawkeyes got here:

Iowa basketball players Jordan Bohannon (from left), Luka Garza, Tyler Cook and Connor McCaffery say there is a better connection on the team this season. It has shown in the win-loss record. The Hawkeyes are 22-11 entering NCAA Tournament play, an improvement of eight wins from a year ago.

Jordan Bohannon: 'There could have been a lot of people parting ways'

Junior point guard Jordan Bohannon said the team flew back to Iowa after the Michigan loss and the players were in the gym the very next day. That told him all he needed to know.

“There could have been a lot of people parting ways, honestly, if it was another team,” Bohannon said. “We really went to work. And that was the hardest we worked since we got here. I’m not saying we didn’t work hard before that, but we just ramped it up another level and I think that has shown a lot that we’re a totally different team. We’re well-conditioned. We’re physical. You’re not going to see a lot of teams that are going to outwork us.”

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Junior center Ryan Kriener recalled a film session on the first day of spring workouts that included some frank words from the coaching staff.

“We talked about how things were going to be ran different,” Kriener said. “A lot greater emphasis on defense. Making a better mental effort all the time.

Iowa was 19-15 in 2016-17, when Bohannon, Kriener, Tyler Cook, Maishe Dailey and Isaiah Moss were freshmen. That team made it to the NIT and had everyone returning except star guard Peter Jok.

The Hawkeyes assumed success was going to come naturally last season, Bohannon said. Reality set in quickly, with back-to-back November losses to Louisiana and South Dakota State. The Hawkeyes dropped their first three games in December, their first three in January, their first six in February. You get the picture: It was bleak.

“Not to say that the expectations coming into our sophomore year raised our egos a little bit,” Bohannon said, “but I think having a season like that and going through adversity and seeing what the dark kind of feels like, it makes you want to work even harder.”

Sherman Dillard: 'If you practice hard, you'll be able to play hard'

Assistant coach Sherman Dillard said McCaffery’s veteran staff re-evaluated everything in the offseason. They knew where to start: Iowa ranked 242nd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to That’s a staggeringly bad look for a power-conference team.

The coaching staff examined what drills they were using, how long practices would last, the schemes they would employ. Spring workouts were more intense, Dillard said. There were more competitive defensive drills pitting a team in gold against a team in black. Getting stops was the goal.

“We tried to build a better defensive culture if we could,” Dillard said. “We made some steps in the right direction there. We’re still not where we need to be.”

The Hawkeyes rank 115th in defensive efficiency this season.

Beyond that, Dillard said, the coaches just wanted to see a tougher team emerge. They emphasized rebounding and getting the ball into the post. Iowa is outrebounding opponents by 1.2 per game this season and is plus-5.8 per contest in free throw attempts.

“If you practice hard, you’ll be able to play hard,” Dillard said. “We challenged them a little bit in the weight room because we weren’t as strong and tough as we needed to be. I thought we saw a little movement in that regard. We’re not where we need to be.”

Tyler Cook: 'You can tell the energy and the aura in a room when you walk into it'

Connor McCaffery had a unique view of things. The backup point guard is also the son of the head coach. He said he didn’t notice a shift in his father’s demeanor after his first losing season in seven years. He found that comforting. There was no panic, just resolve.

“I think last year everyone saw we were talented. We were just not connected in some ways,” Connor McCaffery said.

McCaffery also plays baseball at Iowa. So he was away from the basketball team for the first 10 days of spring workouts. When he returned, he noticed a change right away.

“The defensive intensity was just way different than it had been, than I remembered it,” McCaffery said. “It wasn’t even that we were that good at defense yet. But the attention to detail and ‘want-to’ was there more. It was just more of a focus in everything we did. And everyone was locked in.”

Cook experienced a similar revelation. He spent time after the season being evaluated by NBA teams, pondering an early exit for a pro career. It wasn’t until May 30 that he decided to remain a Hawkeye.

“The first workout we had when I got back to campus, you could just feel the energy. And I guess the mindset of all of the guys was just different,” Cook said.

“It’s kind of hard to explain. You can tell the energy and the aura in a room when you walk into it. Just the intensity. Each and every guy brought their best, whether it was on-the-court workouts, in the weight room, conditioning. Everybody just busted their butts without somebody having to say anything. That’s when I knew that we had the chance to be special.”

Isaiah Moss: 'If you put the hard work in, you get the results'

Intense offseason workouts and a stated commitment to better defense are all well and good. But Dillard wanted to see it play out in games before believing it. So did Moss.

That’s why Iowa’s trip to Madison Square Garden in November was so important. The Hawkeyes not only beat Oregon and Connecticut to win the 2K Classic Tournament, they manhandled them. It was the surest sign that this season was indeed not going to be a repeat of the last.

“We knew it was real,” Moss said of the offseason labor, “but we saw it actually work in our favor when the season progressed and we were winning games. That’s when it was like, ‘If you put the hard work in, you get the results.’”

Iowa went 11-0 in the non-conference, the first undefeated mark in 32 years. But the season hasn’t been all rosy. The Hawkeyes dropped their first three Big Ten games. They enter the NCAA Tournament with five losses in their past six.

Dillard said Iowa’s response to the first stretch of bad play gives him hope that the team can come out of its current slide. The Hawkeyes won five league games in a row after that 0-3 beginning.

“You don’t get in the boxing ring thinking you’re never going to get hit,” Dillard said. “All of a sudden we get in conference play and we’re 0-3, and it didn’t shake us. We continued to work. Continued to build our confidence. We pushed them, held them accountable.

“We were able to fight back, and that’s probably the most marked difference in this team than last year is we could take that punch. We threw in the towel too soon last year.”