Leistikow: Is the Fran fade real? McCaffery's teams have mixed track record down stretch

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s a myth that all of Fran McCaffery’s Iowa teams fade down the stretch of a basketball season.

Only some of them do.

Therein lies the justified concern and curiosity among Hawkeye fans about whether the 2018-19 team will join the dubious history of McCaffery-era teams that started with a flash and ended with a fizzle.

They feel like they’ve seen this movie before.

The McCaffery Era, now in Year 9, has been difficult to quantify. It’s far better than the Todd Lickliter years, that’s for certain. The program has even reached extreme, albeit temporary, heights.

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The 2013-14 Hawkeyes were a top-10-team in January, and still a top-15 team deep into February.

The 2015-16 team swept Purdue and Michigan State and reached No. 3 in the national rankings after a 10-1 Big Ten Conference start.

Yet both of those teams experienced inexplicable free falls.

Seven losses in the last eight games of 2014. Six losses out of eight entering the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

With so much scarring disappointment, though, it’s easy to forget that some of McCaffery’s most better Iowa teams gained steam down the stretch, too.

In fact, as I broke down McCaffery’s Big Ten track record at Iowa (73-81 overall), his teams have actually been better in the second half than the first. Iowa was 32-40 in the first halves of the schedules in McCaffery’s first eight years, and 36-36 in the second.

The 2012-13 Hawkeyes were a strong defensive team that suffered a slew of heartbreaking losses. But they captured six of their last eight Big Ten games and gained widespread fan optimism with a run to the NIT championship game.

McCaffery’s 2014-15 team, riding Aaron White’s magnificent play down the stretch, went from a middling 15-10 to winning its final six regular-season games, then delivered a 31-point rout in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

And in 2016-17, the freshman years of current juniors Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook, the Hawkeyes picked off Maryland and Wisconsin on the road as part of a four-game win streak to end the regular season. That spurt only offered an NIT bid, but hope for the years ahead came alongside it.

It’s worth noting, though, that of McCaffery’s four teams that have finished with an above-.500 second-half Big Ten record, only one reached the NCAA Tournament.

And that brings us to this Iowa team. What will come of the 16-3 start that included the program’s first undefeated nonconference season (11-0) in 32 years?

We’re at the halfway point of the Big Ten slate, with No. 25 Iowa (16-5 overall after consecutive losses to Michigan State and Minnesota) at 5-5 in the first year of 20-game conference schedules.

If you just landed here from Mars, you’d look at this Iowa résumé and probably think, “Hmmm. Pretty good team.” Indeed, it’s a solid position. If the NCAA NET rankings are to be trusted, Iowa (at No. 27 through Tuesday’s games) would be tracking toward a No. 7 seed at the NCAA Tournament.

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On Twitter, I posted a question asking your favorite McCaffery-era team. The dozens of answers were wide-ranging and, thus, quite revealing — that maybe, for many fans, there hasn't been a special one yet.

With that in mind, this Hawkeye team has a chance to break the mold, and be remembered as something special. That’s not to say Iowa must reach the Final Four to be deemed a resounding success. But the first Saturday appearance in the Big Ten Tournament under McCaffery would be nice; as would the program’s first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years.

Basically, it would be a welcomed step forward to see the third McCaffery team to start 16-4 become the first to finish with a flurry. With overall solid play in their first 21 games — and a respectable first half of a rugged Big Ten schedule — the Hawkeyes are well-positioned to do something special.

Friday night, there's a perfect opportunity to make a splash. Fifth-ranked Michigan (20-1, 9-1) is coming to play in what's already a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. After that, Iowa has a trip to Indiana (which had lost six straight entering Wednesday) followed by a the friendliest four-game stretch on this year's Big Ten schedule (vs. Northwestern, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland, vs. Indiana).

These Hawkeyes don’t have to be bound by history.

But the next six weeks will tell us whether they’ll repeat it.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa’s Big Ten finishes by year under Fran McCaffery

2010-11 — 4-14 (10th): 1-8 first half, 3-6 second half. Ended regular season with upset of No. 6 Purdue.

2011-12 — 8-10 (7th): 3-6 first half, 5-4 second half. Highlight for NIT team was a season sweep of Wisconsin.

2012-13 — 9-9 (6th): 3-6 first half, 6-3 second half. Won six of last eight in a year filled with close losses.

2013-14 — 9-9 (6th): 6-3 first half, 3-6 second half. Reached a top-10 ranking and 8-4 Big Ten mark, but unraveled.

2014-15 — 12-6 (T-3rd): 5-4 first half, 7-2 second half. Won final six regular-season games, gave McCaffery his first of two NCAA wins at Iowa.

2015-16 — 12-6 (T-3rd): 8-1 first half, 4-5 second half. Got to No. 3 national ranking and 10-1 in the Big Ten before losing five of six.

2016-17 — 10-8 (T-5th): 4-5 first half, 6-3 second half. Four-game win streak to end the regular season, fell just short of NCAA bid.

2017-18 — 4-14 (T-11th): 2-7 first half, 2-7 second half. Experienced a six-game losing streak from Feb. 3-21.