Leistikow: Case is building for Iowa's Fran McCaffery as Big Ten coach of the year

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — The last time Iowa was home to the Big Ten Conference’s coach of the year in men’s basketball, Dr. Tom Davis was leading the Hawkeyes to a 30-win season in 1987.

After 35 years, is Fran McCaffery poised to end that drought?

The Hawkeyes’ 12th-year head coach certainly should be in the discussion, the latest success being an 88-78 victory Friday night at Nebraska.

Of the program’s four consecutive 20-win seasons, this was certainly the most improbable after Iowa lost national player of the year Luka Garza and outstanding wing Joe Wieskamp to the NBA.

“Absolutely he should,” McCaffery’s son, Connor, said from Pinnacle Bank Arena. “What were we picked (in the Big Ten)? Tenth? Ninth? I saw us 11th in a poll. Nobody thought we were going to be any good.”

The Hawkeyes (20-8) entered Saturday in a tie for fifth in the Big Ten standings at 10-7 with Rutgers. Two other teams — Michigan and Michigan State — were 9-7. It’s not often a team barely in the upper division of the league warrants coach-of-the-year stature. However, the buttons that McCaffery has pushed to get Iowa to the cusp of an NCAA Tournament bid make him a viable candidate.

Let’s look at some of the reasons McCaffery has a shot.

The Keegan Murray factor.

McCaffery deserves a ton of credit for not only developing Murray into a national player of the year candidate but for discovering him (and twin brother Kris) to begin with.

Almost nobody wanted the Murrays, their only other Division I scholarship offer being from Western Illinois. Murray has gone from sixth man a year ago to a superstar. On Friday, Murray was scoring 15 points with 11 rebounds in front of 25 NBA scouts. How McCaffery has been able to replace a superstar like Garza with a potential top-10 NBA Draft pick has been an impressive feat.

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Iowa 12th-year basketball coach Fran McCaffery has pushed a lot of the right buttons this season. The Hawkeyes love his fierce nature and his dedication to his players.

He can point to a major lineup adjustment.

First of all, McCaffery’s push to re-recruit Jordan Bohannon for a sixth season was a master stroke after CJ Fredrick bolted for Kentucky last April. But what he did with Bohannon after Iowa’s 4-6 Big Ten start has turned the tide of the season.

Iowa is 6-1 since switching Bohannon back to his original position of point guard. In McCaffery’s 12 years at Iowa, he’s rarely made starting lineup changes for performance reasons. But after a double-overtime loss at Penn State on Jan. 31, he wanted Bohannon (0-for-7 in that game) to rediscover his offensive mojo while also realizing Bohannon’s pace-pushing and intelligent approach would get Murray more space and touches. The ball was getting too stuck at times with Joe Toussaint and Ahron Ulis at the point.

All six of Iowa’s wins since the change have come by double figures. And maybe most impressive, McCaffery has kept Toussaint (who was benched after 41 career starts) and Ulis engaged with important roles. On Tuesday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo marveled how McCaffery was able to keep everyone happy and keep them playing hard as minutes are sometimes reduced.

After watching his team get drubbed in Iowa City, 86-60, Izzo added his two cents: McCaffery deserves to be the Big Ten coach of the year.

There’s been in-season development, improvement.

Tony Perkins, who was inserted in the starting lineup as the off guard to complement Bohannon at the point, exploded for a career-high 20 points at Nebraska on 8-for-10 shooting. Nebraska certainly couldn’t have seen that coming. That was the first time a non-Murray has led Iowa in scoring since Bohannon on Dec. 9 at Iowa State.

“Any night, you don’t know who’s going to (step up),” McCaffery said. “… That says a lot about our team.”

And how about Kris Murray?

The twin brother of Keegan scored all 12 of his points in the second half Friday, seven of them coming in an 11-0 run as Iowa turned a tense 58-56 game into a 69-56 lead. Kris praised his head coach for giving him the constant green light, even when he's struggling.

"Coach McCaffery gives me a lot of confidence," he said, "to just go out and play and not drop my head.”

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He’s finding the hot hands, including with son Connor.

More than any year I can remember of McCaffery’s 12, he’s been completely in tune with who’s hot on a given night and who’s not. On Friday, Connor McCaffery got more action at the small forward than starter Patrick. The fifth-year senior canned three 3-pointers in the first half to keep Iowa within striking distance, as Nebraska was uncharacteristically sharp offensively (topping 50% shooting for the first time in Big Ten play all season).

Connor started the season 4-for-25 from 3-point range (16%) but is a scorching 11-for-17 since (64.7%). He has made his last six 3s. The head coach deserves credit for getting his guys, oldest son included, peaking down the stretch. 

“He’s a kind of guy that he does so many things to help you win,” Fran McCaffery said of Connor, who has the option to return for a sixth season but hadn't decided if he would go through Senior Day ceremonies Monday vs. Northwestern. “Now if he’s making 3s, that’s a game-changer for everybody."

McCaffery corrected a major deficiency.

After a 7-0 start, including a one-point win at Virginia, Iowa got demolished on the glass — a 42-30 rebound deficit at Purdue, 52-23 vs. Illinois, 50-32 at Iowa State. Not surprisingly, Iowa lost all three games. A month later, it got outrebounded at Wisconsin, 43-26.

Now? Rebounding for the undersized Hawkeyes has become a strength. Some of the upgrade is due to Kris Murray playing more minutes. Graduate transfer Filip Rebraca has embraced his role of grinding on the glass. Every guard has been convinced to be more willing rebounders than they were in December.

Iowa has collected double-digit offensive rebounds in each of the last six games — including 12 Friday — and improved to 17-0 when outrebounding opponents. Iowa’s improvement in that area has been so significant that Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg considered it the biggest key in his preparations.

“When you give them that many extra chances,” Hoiberg noted, “they’re going to sting you because of how high powered their offense is.”

Iowa is exceeding expectations.

Look around the league. Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State were expected to be very good. But neither Matt Painter, Brad Underwood or Chris Holtmann are separating from the pack to be a slam-dunk coach-of-the-year favorite.

Some of the predicted top dogs — Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana — have fallen to the middle of the pack or worse.

The Hawkeyes were picked ninth in the preseason media poll. At 20 wins already and with a top-20 rating in KenPom.com and the NCAA NET, they’re among the most surprising teams in the conference. Winning at least two of the final three games would be important to give McCaffery a chance.

“We’re putting it together," Kris Murray said. "We’re peaking at the right time.”

Who is McCaffery’s primary competition?

How Wisconsin finishes is a big factor. The Badgers entered Saturday tied for the Big Ten lead at 13-4. But Greg Gard’s role in escalating the postgame fracas with Michigan last week could sour some voters. We’ll see. If Wisconsin finishes third or fourth and Iowa is in fifth with surging momentum, McCaffery will get some votes.

Rutgers’ Steve Pikiell also should be considered. The Scarlet Knights have pulled off some impressive wins and defended their home court to become an upper-division Big Ten team, outpacing a lot of storied programs. Pikiell also owns a head-to-head win over McCaffery, albeit a controversial one.

For voters who just look at record vs. expectations, Gard probably gets the nod over McCaffery. But looking deeper, the Hawkeyes’ coach has actively made his team better every step of the way. He has Iowa well-positioned for the NCAA Tournament — something few thought possible before the season. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi pegged Iowa as a No. 6 seed before Friday’s win.

“I think he should win it,” Perkins said. “He calls good plays. Got us 20 wins. Got us in the tournament.”

A win against Northwestern on Monday would clinch an above-.500 mark in Big Ten play. That would seemingly solidify Iowa’s Big Dance plans, something that Fran McCaffery said Bohannon and son Connor vehemently believed was possible before the season began.

“Everybody expects a big dip when you lose the national player of the year and another NBA player," he said. "... And these guys said, ‘No, we’ll be fine.'"

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa guard Tony Perkins, right, had his finest game as a Hawkeye on Friday at Nebraska. He scored a career-high 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery questions a call during Friday's Big Ten Conference game at Nebraska. The Hawkeyes won 88-78.