Leistikow: A productive basketball offseason for the McCafferys

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

By the time Iowa basketball players can resume voluntary workouts on campus June 15, it will have been more than three months since they were together and staggered in downtown Indianapolis — upon hearing the news that the Big Ten Conference tournament and all NCAA championships were canceled.

Yet even in the ensuing isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, two Hawkeye teammates and their head coach were able to practice together whenever they pleased.

Connor and Patrick McCaffery joke, though, that their father, Fran, was hardly barking orders and overseeing drills at the indoor court in their North Liberty home.

“He’s not really a whistle type of guy,” Patrick chuckles. “… Usually my dad kind of serves as a rebounder. A lot of time it’s just us, the ball and the basket. Just working on ourselves, thinking about different situations.”

Move past the disappointment from Iowa’s basketball season ending prematurely (players were confident they could reach the program’s first Sweet 16 in 21 years) and a cancellation double whammy for Connor (a left-handed power hitter for Rick Heller’s Iowa baseball team), and this has been a pretty good offseason to be a McCaffery.

Patrick (left) and Connor McCaffery to date have only been able to play two college games together. They figure to both be instrumental to the 2020-21 Hawkeyes' plans.

Patrick recently learned he would retain four years of eligibility, his hardship waiver approved by the Big Ten Conference after playing just two games as a freshman.

Connor has served as one of the four team captains and been able to devote more attention to basketball than usual this time of year.

And the good news keeps coming for Fran, 61, who is likely to be greeted by the highest expectations of his 11 years at Iowa with the news that Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon are returning, and with optimism that reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza will come back for his senior year, too.

“He’s pretty mellow. He always says, 'Never get too high, never get too low,'" Connor says. “I would say he’s probably a little more excited than he lets on.”

It’s a unique situation, for sure, that 25% of Iowa’s projected top eight for next season lives with the head coach. Their home court, the McCaffery brothers say, is about one-third regulation size — it's big enough to shoot college 3-pointers, but it doesn't quite have the ceiling height for NBA triples.

During this time of pseudo-quarantine, personal health milestones have been marked for 6-foot-9 Patrick. His past battle with thyroid cancer (and ongoing medications he needs to take) have contributed to struggles to gain weight, but he crossed the 200-pound mark for the first time.

Patrick says simply he doesn’t like to eat, but is reminded often by his father that he needs to. Amusingly, Patrick credits takeout burritos from Panchero’s Mexican Grill for providing some of the added girth.

But he’s also filled out in his upper body. Strength coach Bill Maxwell delivered weights and a lifting program for the McCafferys. Patrick's weight has increased from 176 (at his Iowa arrival in June 2019) to about 205 now.

All those positive steps, though, haven’t solved a fatigue issue that could affect how many minutes a night Patrick can give the Hawkeyes. An August bout with mononucleosis didn’t help his body, which was already struggling to recover from workouts. He says during one stretch, all he could do was practice basketball, complete academic work and sleep.

“I think the fatigue is something I’ll have to deal with the rest of my life,” he says. “I don’t think that’ll fully go away. As far as the (added) strength, I can feel it in my shot. … I’m able to move back pretty effortlessly.

“Also, just being able to avoid getting knocked off my spots. I’m a guy that likes to drive to the basket, so just being able to hold my ground … is something that’ll make a lot of difference for me, too.”

Connor, who is entering his redshirt junior season for the Hawkeyes, has been intentionally getting bigger, too. He’s increased his weight from about 205 to 217. Even though he played a lot of point guard last season, with Bohannon missing Iowa’s final 20 games, college basketball’s national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio has an eye on playing more at the “4” spot in 2020-21.

The beauty about Connor, though, is he can play anywhere he's needed. Plus, he brings toughness that was evident throughout the Hawkeyes' 20-11 team. Those intangibles have drawn appreciation that took time to earn, a byproduct of having the last name of McCaffery.

“Fans were definitely way too harsh at him at first,” Patrick says of his older brother, who will turn 22 in July. “But the more he was out there and able to impact the game in terms of (being) a winner, getting people in the right spots (and) being a very versatile defender ... people were able to see that.”

If you’re wondering about Connor’s baseball career, it’s hardly on the shelf. He had batting-cage access during the past few months, too, and is hopeful to play in the Iowa Valley summer league.

But basketball — and knowing what’s possible for the Hawkeyes next season — is top of mind right now for a fan base that has had lots of downtime to dream.

The players feel that, too. During our interview, Patrick even said the phrase “national champions” — as in that’s the mentality Iowa players felt they needed during this offseason apart from one another.

They embrace high expectations.

Connor McCaffery in 2019-20 was the only player in Division I college basketball with more than 120 assists and less than 30 turnovers.

“We’re a group that doesn’t take anything for granted, and I think that’s where our competitiveness and our fire comes from,” Connor says. “That’s what people will see next season.”

The McCaffery brothers spoke optimistically that Garza, who is enduring three-a-day workouts in Washington, D.C., will return to Iowa. But it was announced Thursday by the NCAA that undecided players such as Garza have until Aug. 3 (or 10 days after the NBA Combine, whichever is sooner) to withdraw from the draft, now scheduled for Oct. 15.

A possible starting five of Bohannon, CJ Fredrick, Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery and Garza could be reunited for the first time since Iowa overpowered Iowa State 84-68 on Dec. 13.

That was a clinic of Hawkeye basketball in Ames, and Bohannon was far from full strength and Garza had still not fully exploded onto the national scene.

“The Iowa State game, that was about as fun of a game as you could possibly have,” Connor says. “The way everybody played together, I thought that was a pretty good description of what we can look forward to. That game wasn’t even close, really.

“Having us all coming back, plus adding Jack Nunge, Patrick, the freshmen and Joe Toussaint, it’s going to be really fun to see.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.