Fran McCaffery embraces 'challenge of profession' in trying to turn Iowa's season around

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery expected the film from his Iowa basketball team’s latest loss to reveal a lack of effort by his players.

After all, the Hawkeyes trailed Purdue by 37 points early in the second half of an 87-64 defeat Saturday.

But McCaffery told reporters Monday his team was playing hard despite the score.

“We were a little bit late sometimes, and a few times it was a breakdown in execution,” McCaffery said. “Could we be more physical at times? Absolutely. I thought more so in the Rutgers game (an 80-64 loss Wednesday) than Saturday.

“When you talk about competing in the physical, aggressive, intensity side. None of that matters if it’s not coupled with the intellect side. You need both.”

Iowa head basketball coach Fran McCaffrey, right, reacts to a foul call in the second half against Purdue at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, January 20, 2018.

Playing tough and smart basketball will be Iowa’s challenge when it hosts Wisconsin at 6 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2). The Hawkeyes (10-11, 1-7 Big Ten Conference) have made a habit of falling into deep holes early. Only once have they fully responded, in an overtime win at last-place Illinois on Jan. 11.

McCaffery knows it’s his job to try to help his team out of its funk, and there are just 10 regular-season games left to turn things around.

“You want your players to have success, and they’re relying on me and my staff to do that. In many ways, it’s the fun of the job, it’s the challenge of this profession to do that,” he said.

“I’ve had teams like this before, and it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to get so frustrated that you become too negative. But at the same time, you have to be realistic and honest, and that’s with each other. That’s the players and coaches. The worst thing you can do is try to assess blame everywhere.”

The Hawkeyes have been vulnerable on defense, ranking 223rd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted statistical measurements. That is the lowest of any major-college team. Big Ten opponents are making 50 percent of their shots against Iowa and are averaging 84.5 points per game.

The Badgers (10-10, 3-4) are struggling as well this season, with just one road victory (at Penn State on Dec. 4). Wisconsin is averaging only 68.4 points per game but has one of the nation’s best players in junior center Ethan Happ.

Happ is averaging 16.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists to lead the Badgers in all three categories.

“He’s a guard that plays center,” McCaffery said of the 6-foot-10 Happ. “He’s one of the more impactful players in college basketball right now.”

Iowa will be without sophomore center Ryan Kriener again Tuesday. He suffered a second concussion this season in the Rutgers game and didn’t play Saturday.

Hawkeye post players Tyler Cook, Luka Garza and Cordell Pemsl will be called on to tangle with Happ.

On the perimeter, McCaffery indicated he might start using Dom Uhl more after playing his lone senior 8 minutes against Purdue. Uhl had two points, two rebounds and an assist in his most extensive action of the Big Ten season.

“That’s tremendous value,” McCaffery said of adding the 6-9 post player to a thin rotation at guard. “He’s a really smart player, so that will give us a little bit of depth going forward.”

McCaffery praised Uhl’s passing and his ability to defend perimeter players.

Junior guard Brady Ellingson also came off the bench to have one of his most productive games of the season against Purdue, scoring nine points in 14 minutes. Those upperclassmen had been having subpar years and could give the Hawkeyes a big lift.

“If you’re losing, you want to improve in everything,” McCaffery said. “When your team gets beat, you analyze every aspect of the game and try to improve in every area.”