McCaffery praises Hawkeye squad's close-knit character

Rick Brown

SEATTLE – Fran McCaffery finished his 19th season as a Division I head basketball coach Sunday.

And that 19th team will forever hold a special place in McCaffery's heart.

"This was as together a team as I've ever had, as far as loving each other and respecting each other and coming to work with a professional attitude," the Iowa coach said after a season-ending 87-68 loss to Gonzaga in a round-of-32 NCAA Tournament game.

Iowa finished the season 22-12, winning seven of its last nine games. One of those victories, over Davidson on Friday, was the program's first NCAA victory since 2001.

"This group loves each other," said McCaffery, one of 12 coaches to take four different schools to the NCAA Tournament. "They respect and care for each other. And that's evident when you watched them on the court, and watched them on this journey."

It was a journey that wasn't always smooth.

"We had some bumps in the road that we had to endure, and I thought that made this one a little more unique," McCaffery said.

The key moment came in a four-day swing in mid-February, when the Hawkeyes lost to Minnesota at home and at Northwestern in overtime. Iowa's Big Ten record fell to 6-6. Doubters became a dime a dozen from where McCaffery stood.

"We lost two games in a row," McCaffery said. "We lost an overtime game on the road in the Big Ten. You would have thought we lost by 20."

Iowa rebounded and won its final six regular-season games.

"It takes tremendous confidence and belief in one another to turn around and go win six games in a row in this league," McCaffery said. "Really hard to do. You don't do that without unbelievable character in that locker room. I'll be honest with you. That's not coaching. That is character and belief in each other and leadership. Leadership that started with our senior class."

Seniors Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby played on teams that went to postseason play four consecutive seasons — two NIT's two NCAAs. The Hawkeyes won 20 or more games the past three seasons, something that hasn't happened since a five-in-a-row stretch ending in 1998-99.

That final leg of that journey was with a team that McCaffery will have nothing but fond memories of.

McCaffery has coached teams that won regular-season or conference tournament titles at Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro and Siena. Each one of them had special qualities that McCaffery will never forget.

And you can add the 2014-15 Iowa team to that list.

"This team, without question, is the most together group I've ever had," McCaffery said.