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Leistikow: 5 reasons this has become Fran McCaffery's best 3-point shooting team at Iowa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — There are many reasons that this is Iowa’s best 3-point shooting team of the Fran McCaffery era and, perhaps eventually, the best in school history.

Let us count the ways.

No. 1: Let’s begin with Luka Garza, a very good place to start for any Iowa basketball conversation.

Garza is the 6-foot-11 all-American center who ranks first out of 357 Division I teams in scoring at 27.6 points a game. The next-closest Power Six player averages 22.4 points. Garza is a scoring machine, and his presence near the basket attracts collapsing defenses … and leaves other Hawkeyes with more space to operate behind the 3-point line.

But Garza’s own deep shooting has been instrumental in Iowa’s 3-point accuracy being up nearly 5% over a year ago (39.3% now, 34.7% then). Garza shot 35.8% from 3 last season; he’s sizzling with 48.9% accuracy during Iowa’s 11-2 start (22-for-45).

"Last year, there were stretches that I shot the ball at a really, really high level and there were other games I didn’t shoot it as well,” Garza said. “I'm just trying to be more consistent."

Excellent outside shooters like Joe Wieskamp, right, are getting more space from 3-point range thanks to a variety of factors this season.

No. 2: Iowa can almost always put a lineup on the floor of four or five excellent 3-point shooters.

A big piece of the puzzle is Bohannon, who played just 10 games last season before having a second hip surgery. After a rusty start, the school’s all-time leader (by a mile) with 320 3-pointers is heating up — having converted 19 of 30 from deep (63.3%) during Iowa’s four-game winning streak.

“Last year, at certain points — with injuries or whatever — we didn't have as many shooters on the floor as we do this year,” Garza said. “It's really nice to have those guys back.”

CJ Fredrick, who led the Big Ten Conference in 3-point shooting a year ago but missed several games with various injuries, is Iowa’s most accurate regular marksman despite a recent slump. He’s converted 23 of 45 shots from 3 (51.1%). Iowa’s starting lineup boasts Bohannon (40.3% for his career), Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp (who’s hitting at a 40.7% rate) and Garza. Although fifth starter Connor McCaffery isn’t known for his 3-point prowess, he is an excellent facilitator for the other four.

When Connor was injured at Rutgers, his father went with a lineup of five 3-point shooters — the aforementioned four plus freshman Keegan Murray (42.1%, 8-for-19) — down the stretch. That group clicked wonderfully in a comeback win

“When you have multiple guys shooting 40-plus percent from 3-point range, on top of Luka being able to step out and shoot at that high number,” Bohannon said, “I think that just creates so much problems for the other team to try to guard us.”

MORE:Return of brash Bohannon a welcome sight for Hawkeyes

No. 3: Iowa’s motion offense is difficult for opposing defenses to scout.

The Hawkeyes have always been a high-scoring team under Fran McCaffery, but this year has reached a new level. Iowa’s scoring average of 91.9 points is first in the Big Ten by a wide margin (Illinois' 83.3 is next) and dwarfs last season’s 77.7.

This veteran group has a better understanding of court spacing. McCaffery’s motion offense relies on players making instinctual moves to get open, and that means having a better feel for the game. That experience is paying off. Iowa ranks No. 1 in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.11 — a huge increase over last year’s 1.43).

“We don’t really run many sets. We just run motion, and you can’t really scout when you’re playing against a motion offense,” Bohannon said. “That’s what is really special about us, is we’re locked into this offense and willing to keep passing up good shots to get great shots.”

No. 4: Fran McCaffery thinks it’s a ball-movement thing, a depth thing … and a recruiting thing.

This is the type of roster that the Iowa coach has long desired — in which almost anyone he puts out there can connect from distance. Murray, Patrick McCaffery and big man Jack Nunge can stretch the floor off the bench. Fran McCaffery is also confident that freshmen Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins will show their 3-point ability when their time comes.

McCaffery’s early teams at Iowa had Matt Gatens and … not much else. Josh Oglesby was his next touted shooter, but his career was up and down. Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury were very good players, but neither was known for 3-point shooting. McCaffery’s first consistently pure 3-point shooter was Peter Jok, and that’s paved the way for Bohannon, Fredrick, Wieskamp and Garza, who are all on the same team for this one full season.

McCaffery deserves credit for finding and landing out-of-staters Fredrick (from Cincinnati) and Garza (from Washington, D.C.); they’ve helped extend the Hawkeyes’ collective range and make the offense more efficient. Iowa is No. 2 nationally (to Gonzaga) in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense.

“I think moving forward, most coaches are going to try to recruit as many 3-point shooters as possible. When you think about the return on investment per possession, it makes a lot of sense,” McCaffery said. “If you're going to the analytics side of things, shooting 3s (is good) — provided they're open shots and you've moved it and you've made the defense work and you don't constantly settle.

“But having multiple weapons and not having the other team be able to focus on one or two guys is really helpful.”

Jordan Bohannon's confidence has grown with a 19-for-30 stretch from 3 over his last four games.

No. 5: Confidence is key. And that starts at the top.

Garza applauds his head coach’s trust in players, explaining that they’re given the green light constantly. Recently, when Bohannon was going through a shooting slump, McCaffery called him into his offense and — rather than try to get his senior to be more selective with his shot — encouraged Bohannon to regain his swagger by taking more shots.

“If you're missing, Coach is going to keep coming to you,” Garza said. “He knows that it’s going to drop. For us, that’s a big thing. If you’re playing in an offense where you have the green light to shoot the open jumper, your confidence is so different. Some guys in other programs may be afraid to take shots or whatever. But the way coach McCaffrey coaches us, it allows us to have confidence every time we step into a jumper.”

So … let’s look at a few more numbers and what’s possible for this team.

Iowa (11-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten) easily leads the conference in 3-pointers, with 10.5 makes per game. The Hawkeyes have a tougher time winning when they struggle to hit their 3s; they went 4-for-22 in the loss to Gonzaga and 10-for-30 in the overtime loss at Minnesota.

On Sunday (11 a.m., CBS), Iowa faces a Northwestern team at Welsh-Ryan Arena that allowed the Hawkeyes 11-for-26 success on 3s (42.3%) on Dec. 29. With each game, this Iowa team is trying to make history. The school record for 3-point percentage was in 1983, the first year of the college 3-point line, and that Lute Olson-coached team attempted just 105 3s (and made 44, for 41.9%). The Hawkeyes’ current success rate from 3 (39.3%, on 26.6 attempts per game) would be the program’s highest since the 1997-98 season (40.1%), when Kent McCausland was raining in long balls.

But remember: Before the 2019-20 season, the NCAA moved the 3-point line to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches — back from 20-9. So, these Hawkeyes are rippling the nets from further back at a better clip than any Hawkeye team in more than two decades.

And there are a lot of good, aforementioned reasons to think that'll continue.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

3-point shooting percentage by year, under Fran McCaffery

Here is the yearly 3-point rate, with regulars listed who attempted at least 2.0 3-pointers per game. (*—through 13 games)

2020-21* — .393 (CJ Fredrick .511, Luka Garza .489, Joe Wieskamp .407, Jordan Bohannon .396)

2019-20 — .347 (Fredrick .461, Garza .358, Wieskamp .347, Bohannon .328)

2018-19 — .358 (Wieskamp .424, Isaiah Moss .421, Bohannon .383, Nicholas Baer .381, Garza .292)

2017-18 — .375 (Bohannon .430, Maishe Dailey .389, Moss .386, Baer .307)

2016-17 — .379 (Brady Ellingson .471, Bohannon .416, Baer .397, Peter Jok .380, Moss .358)

2015-16 — .374 (Jok .402, Baer .394, Jarrod Uthoff .382, Anthony Clemmons .310)

2014-15 — .333 (Uthoff .372, Jok .343, Josh Oglesby .292)

2013-14 — .350 (Oglesby .403, Devyn Marble .349, Zach McCabe .341, Mike Gesell .315)

2012-13 — .305 (Marble .327, McCabe .320, Gesell .317, Oglesby .269)

2011-12 — .373 (Matt Gatens .410, Oglesby .372)

2010-11 — .314 (Eric May .394, Gatens .331, McCabe .286, Bryce Cartwright .275)