Iowa hoops takeaways: The Fran/Connor dynamic, freshmen impress

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The juggling act Connor McCaffery knew he would face in trying to play two Division I college sports hit a breaking point earlier this summer.

In one stretch of daylight, he lifted weights, practiced with the Iowa baseball and basketball teams, then put on his high school baseball uniform for an Iowa City West doubleheader.

“That day,” McCaffery said Wednesday, “it was a little too much.”

He didn’t try that again. And he won’t have to. The 6-foot-5 son of Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery is a full-fledged college student-athlete now.

Iowa incoming freshman Connor McCaffery takes the ball down court during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.

And, although his first-year focus is on baseball — he’s redshirting in hoops — Connor will get to play real basketball games for the Hawkeyes on their upcoming European Trip.

The team leaves Sunday, with four games scheduled in three countries.

It’ll be the first chance for Connor to officially compete for the team he spent so much time watching up-close as a kid.

“I’m really looking forward to it. That was a big reason why my dad wanted me to come on this trip,” Connor said. “This is going to be one of the only times I’m going to play (basketball) in the next year or two.”

It’ll be the first time Fran has coached his oldest son since Connor was in fourth grade (and younger son Patrick was in second) back in Albany, N.Y., when Fran coached at Siena.

Connor doesn’t remember a lot about what it was like to play for his dad.

But he does remember this ...

“I remember he benched me a couple times,” he said with a grin.

Did he yell at you?

“A little bit. Only when I deserved it.”

The father-son dynamic is something Fran knew was coming, of course. He asked some of his Division I peers — like Creighton's Greg McDermott and Michigan's John Beilein — what it was like to coach their sons.

Neither Connor nor Fran thinks it’ll be a big deal.

“It's easy. Because like everybody else, if I need to say something to him, I say it,” Fran said. “ … I don't treat them any differently. He's pretty smart, so he's not a big mistake guy.”

Father and son — and baseball coach Rick Heller — are working together to make the two-sport venture work, but it's an inexact science.

Because West High’s baseball team went to the state semifinals, Connor wasn’t able to practice with the Iowa team as much as it prepares for the World University Games in Taiwan. He won’t make that trip.

But once the fall semester hits, he’ll be fully immersed in baseball while getting to as much basketball as he can. Connor comes to the reigning Big Ten Conference Baseball Tournament champions as a power-hitting left-hander, whose best position growing up was first base.

Iowa’s first baseman last season, power-hitting Jake Adams, turned pro after being drafted in the sixth round by the Houston Astros.

“I want to come in and compete for a starting spot,” Connor said.

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Freshmen get rave reviews

Fran McCaffery has no plans to redshirt Iowa's two other incoming freshmen, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge. Seven official practices into their Hawkeye careers, the 6-foot-11 towers were getting high praise from their new coach.

Nunge and Garza were the top two scorers in the summer Prime Time League, with Nunge's team winning the championship.

"The beauty of their games is more in the fact that normally you recruit a 6-11 guy who is long, (and) you're throwing ball to him on the block," McCaffery said. "You're almost better throwing the ball to those guys on the 3-point line. They can both pass. They can both make 3s. They both can make plays off the dribble, either for themselves or for their teammates. They're both willing passers.

"Luka had a day a couple days ago where he was the dominant player in the paint. Just scored at will. I don't know what his numbers were, but seemed like he scored about 90 percent of the time he got the ball."

Watch out for Baer

Asked about how Iowa will replace the scoring from first-team all-Big Ten guard Peter Jok, the first name McCaffery mentioned was the conference's reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

"Nicholas Baer's playing on a whole other level (than) when he came off the bench," McCaffery said. "He could very easily be our starting '3' man. Isaiah Moss is, as you would have expected, taking another step. Brady Ellingson hasn't missed a shot in about three weeks. That's always a good sign. Christian Williams ... last week was the best I've seen him, ever. So I'm not really worried about it."

In one PTL game this summer, Baer registered 43 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. 

"Strength-wise, I've put on some weight. That's really been a big difference," Baer said. "But I think more so, it's my offensive game, just overall. The dribble-jumpers, being more consistent from 3, while still maintaining what I've done energy-wise to be successful."

Getting a grip

The Hawkeyes have spent the past two months trying to get used to the European basketball, which is smoother and heavier than the American version. It also has a white stripe down the middle.

Fran McCaffery said it reminds him of the ball he used when playing in the 1970s.

“It's funny. Some of the guys really like it and some of the guys don't,” McCaffery said.

Point guard Jordan Bohannon was asked which camp he falls into.

“I know if I say one way, my family is going to get mad at me because they don’t want me making excuses for using a ball if I play bad,” the Linn-Mar graduate responded with a sly smile. “So I’m going to say I like the ball for now.”

Hawk Central's Mark Emmert contributed to this report.