Leistikow: Don't sleep on McCaffery's Hawkeyes — 'They want to be great'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

I’m guilty of it. Chances are, if you follow Iowa basketball closely, so are you.

You look at the young Hawkeyes roster and think something like: “You know what? This team could be really good in 2020.”

Even the team’s point guard, Jordan Bohannon, has playfully tweeted that the Hawkeyes will be playing in the Final Four that year.

But here’s the mistake we all might be making: Who’s to say this team couldn’t be really good … this coming season?

Fran McCaffery owns a 388-278 career record in 21 seasons as a coach. He can't remember any team like this coming Hawkeye group that has 13 guys that deserve to play.

That was the feel I got this week in an extended conversation with Fran McCaffery.

“A lot of people look at it as a program. This team is only going to be together one time. This group,” McCaffery says. “And so it’s incumbent upon me to maximize what this team does in the next year."

As we wheeled around the Wakonda Club in Des Moines on a golf cart, the Iowa coach spoke about the state of his program entering Year 8, how he’s going to juggle eight big men that all deserve to play, and even his on-court temperament.

A big summer

The Prime Time League got under way this week. And after one game, the question is already brewing: How on earth can all these forwards play?

McCaffery says incoming 6-foot-11 freshmen Luka Garza and Jack Nunge will play. They combined for 76 points Sunday in their PTL debuts.

It’s easy to forget about Ryan Kriener, too, but the sneaky-effective 6-9 post seems poised for a sophomore splash. Add those three to last year’s regular forwards — Ahmad Wagner, Nicholas Baer, Dom Uhl, Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl — and it’s got to be one of the most jam-packed frontcourts in college basketball.

“Fortunately, they’re all versatile,” McCaffery says. “We’ve got some guys that can stretch the floor. We’ve got some power guys. They all can score. They can all dribble it and pass it. We’ll just try to institute the best case of fairness possible.”

Time will help sort out McCaffery's conundrum.

An undervalued piece to the 2017-18 puzzle is this summer’s foreign trip. College hoops programs are allowed one of these every four years, and it’s that time again for the Hawkeyes. They’ll be in Switzerland, Italy and Germany from Aug. 6-17. They'll play four games and, most importantly, gear up for them with 10 extra NCAA-permitted practices totaling 30 hours.

“The thing that you have to guard against,” McCaffery says, “is you can’t go overboard.”

That’s a very important lesson to remember, given what happened after the last foreign tour. Iowa’s 2013-14 season — like this one, on the heels of a young team’s NIT appearance — began like gangbusters. Those Hawkeyes rose to No. 10 in the national polls by mid-January. But they wore down, losing seven of their final eight games. 

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Finding motivation

McCaffery acknowledges the outside perception that he blows his top all the time. ESPN and other national-media outlets jump at the chance to criticize him whenever he has what have been called “Wrath of Fran” moments. On Twitter, the handle @FransRedFace has more than 14,000 followers. 

The inside perception, though, is he’s a players’ coach, someone who always has their backs.

“I don’t (yell) that much, really. There’s no place for it,” McCaffery says. “You’re supposed to coach ’em up, develop confidence. You don’t develop confidence by constantly yelling. I want them to know that I believe in them. The only way they’re going to trust themselves is to know that I believe in them.”

During last season's 19-15 campaign, it was thought that with such a deep roster returning, there would be several transfers. Yet the only player to leave the program was reserve Dale Jones, who elected to play his sixth season at North Dakota. 

The young guys, even the ones that didn’t play a ton, are sticking with McCaffery.

“There’s an atmosphere that they’re comfortable in, they enjoy,” McCaffery says. “We have an atmosphere in practice where we teach, we coach, we develop.

“If they’re sideways, why are they sideways? Are they not playing well? Are they a little bit injured? Or, are they not capable of giving the effort that they’re capable of giving? If that’s the case, then we’re going to get on them, you know?

“If you’re consistent in how you coach everybody, none of them look at you funny.”

This 2017-18 Hawkeye team isn’t one that would seem to need a lot of vocal motivation. It’s a driven group.

But rest assured, some "Wrath" will come.

“The key is to recruit guys who come to practice and want to get better and want to work hard,” McCaffery says. “I shouldn’t have to play games to motivate them.

“The turning over trash cans and stuff like that, it’s foolish. It just doesn’t do any good. Once or twice a year, I go off; they know it’s coming. They know. They know we’re not where we need to be right now. Especially if you have guys like Aaron White, Devyn Marble, Nicholas Baer, Tyler Cook — those are character guys.”

Ways to win now 

Getting back to the earlier theme of this column: Rather than focus on what could happen in the future, McCaffery — as he should be — is laser-focused on 2017-18. His players are, too. It’s not like Bohannon, Cook, Pemsl and others are just biding their time until a senior breakthrough.

“I don’t say, ‘If we do this, this and this, then two years from now, we’re going to be better for it.’ No," McCaffery says. "I’m going to try to win every game this year. I’m going to try to win every game next year. Two years from now, we’ll see what happens.”

It can be analyzed for months whether Iowa has the right pieces to contend for its first Big Ten Conference regular-season championship since 1978-79.

Can Bohannon be a premier point guard? Can Cook take a giant next step? Can Isaiah Moss show consistency and soften the loss of Peter Jok? Can Pemsl knock down the 17-footer to complement his near-the-rim proficiency?

Those questions will be answered in time.

But it’s June, so let’s examine what we've seen.

These guys work really hard. They've shown high levels of chemistry and potential. And, by all accounts, they’re good people. Garza and Nunge will fit right in.

“I don’t have any guys that I say, ‘Oh, he’s a challenge.’ Every guy on that team is a character guy,” McCaffery says. “They want to be great. They want to be great teammates. And they want to win. Yeah, they all want some level of personal satisfaction or recognition. It’s only natural. But they’re all smart enough to know that if they do what they’re supposed to do, then that’ll come.”

I finished our day on the golf course asking McCaffery about whether he felt pressure, be it externally or internally.

The man who has taken four schools to the NCAA Tournament and is entering his 22nd year as a Division I head coach unequivocally does not.

“Some things are in your control. Some things are not within your control,” says McCaffery, who needs 12 wins to reach 400 for his career. “All you can do is surround yourself with a great staff, recruit talented players with character, and go play the schedule you have."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.