Iowa basketball: Fran McCaffery talks recruiting, grad transfers and Tyler Cook

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There is a level of perspective to be had when talking about a recreational game while at a cancer-awareness fundraiser.

Fran McCaffery certainly has proper perspective and priorities.

The Iowa men’s basketball coach lost both his parents to cancer. His wife, Margaret, was recently named to the American Cancer Society Board of Directors. Their middle son, Patrick, was diagnosed at age 13 with thyroid cancer. (He’s healthy now and doing well.) And the couple has raised more than $1.3 million in the fight against cancer.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, center, cannot discuss unsigned recruits with media but clearly has made Betterdorf point guard D.J. Carton a high priority.

At Friday night’s Coaches vs. Cancer event at Hy-Vee’s West Des Moines headquarters, Fran McCaffery revisited a story you may have heard before — but it’s worth repeating.

McCaffery talked of learning about his son’s tumor in March of 2014 while on the way to a road game at Michigan State, with his Hawkeyes needing a win to help their NCAA Tournament cause.

Imagine hearing that, then forging ahead with your work day.

Iowa would lose to the Spartans, 86-76.

But that’s not what McCaffery remembers about that Thursday night in East Lansing, Michigan.

“I probably coached that game as calm as I’ve ever coached a game in my life,” McCaffery recalled Friday. “Big game, on the road, ESPN, find out your son has a thyroid tumor on the way to the game. It just changes your perspective.”

At the same time, McCaffery is the head spokesman of a basketball team that is coming off a disappointing 14-19 season. A fan base wants changes and answers.

So, he fielded basketball questions, too, with a few media members prior to the event, which featured all the Big Four men’s coaches and their wives. Some takeaways:

He would like to give Ahmad Wagner a big hug.

McCaffery is thrilled that Wagner, who played basketball for him at Iowa the past three years, is chasing a new dream. Wagner this week announced he would join the Kentucky football program.

“He is without question one of my favorite people I’ve come across in this business,” McCaffery said of the respected, humble native of Yellow Springs, Ohio.

McCaffery reminded us Friday that Wagner signed his national letter of intent in basketball before his football stock began to swell.

“So he just honored his commitment. That’s just who he is. That’s who his family is,” McCaffery said. “I think he’s going to be really, really good (in football). I’ll be following him closely. I hope to see him in the NFL.”

Iowa fans seem to be rooting for Wagner to succeed, even though many of them wanted him to play football for the Hawkeyes.

But never say never. You might see him again. There are many bowl matchups that pit a team from the Big Ten Conference versus the Southeastern Conference. That’d be one cool story line if the Hawkeyes faced Kentucky in a bowl game in 2019 …

He can’t say it, but D.J. Carton remains THE highest recruiting priority.

Coaches are not allowed to discuss unsigned high school prospects publicly. So in recruiting, actions often speak louder than words.

McCaffery was the only head coach to spend two entire days watching Bettendorf Class of 2019 point guard D.J. Carton at a recent tournament near Minneapolis. Carton’s stock has exploded, and Iowa, Iowa State, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State appear to be strong contenders.

I asked McCaffery whether it was common for him to spend two full days watching one prospect when there are so many prospects playing during a precious open recruiting period.

“It is,” he said, “when that person’s a priority.”

In other words ...

D.J., you’re wanted badly at Iowa (which you already know).

Fans, the Hawkeye staff is doing all it possibly can to make Carton a Hawkeye.

Stay tuned.

Getting a grad transfer to Iowa isn’t as easy as you’d think.

There are very stringent people and policies at Iowa, as there probably should be everywhere, about whether to accept graduate transfers that want to play sports.

As McCaffery put it: “We’re not a place that’s set up to sort of just 'ball' for a couple months, then just take off and not really have any intention of finishing. So, we have to look at serious students that want to come.

“And then you have to be respectful of the guys you have. Because if you bring a grad transfer in, he’s got to play. Otherwise, you shouldn’t bring him in.”

McCaffery feels good about his returning players, whether Tyler Cook (more on him in 20 seconds) comes back for his junior year or not. I think it’s very, very unlikely that McCaffery brings on a grad transfer — even though it has a scholarship opening and he said he's open to it.

And that could be a good thing for those (like me) who would like to see McCaffery thin down his rotation anyway.

Giddy-up. Tyler Cook’s six-workout NBA tour is about to begin.

The sophomore forward’s first of six NBA workouts is with Oklahoma City this weekend. That info is new this week. And six workouts is an impressive number.

That’s six chances for one team to tell Cook, “We’ll give you a five-figure salary and a chance to make the NBA team.”

Cook wasn’t among those invited to the NBA scouting combine, so he remains an extreme long shot to appear on many draft boards. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t turn pro anyway, if he receives acceptable assurances during this pre-draft process.

We’ll know one way or another in less than four weeks; Cook (like all underclassmen who haven’t hired agents) must withdraw his name by May 30 to retain his college eligibility.

“He deserves that opportunity. He’s excited about it,” McCaffery said of his leading scorer last season. “He’s really in great shape and ready for it.”

There’s a new buzz word surrounding the 2018-19 Hawkeyes.


(Note: I'm all for it.)

“They don’t want to go through what we went through last year,” McCaffery said about that tied-for-11th-place Big Ten season that everyone would like to forget. “They know that change is necessary. And we’re going to make changes as a staff; they’re going to make changes as players.”

Making change has begun most notably this offseason with a rigorous weight-training plan. Players are bulking up, hoping the extra pounds of muscle help them hold up to the 20-game Big Ten grind.

“They’re getting after it. They’re connected off the court. Physically, they’re challenging themselves,” McCaffery said. “I think we’ll be bigger and stronger.”

Better connected. Bigger. Stronger. Those are all things that can help a team play better defense.

And if the Hawkeyes are actually on their way to improved defending … then everyone would agree: The offseason is off to a positive start.

Clarification: An earlier version of the story identified five schools as D.J. Carton's top five. Those schools are heavily recruiting Carton, but he has not indicated a top five.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.