Fran McCaffery unplugged: In-depth with the Hawkeyes coach on what derailed Iowa's season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery’s 21st season as a college head basketball coach was one of his worst.

His Iowa Hawkeyes were repeatedly punished for poor defensive play, finishing 14-19 and 4-14 in Big Ten Conference play.

What went wrong? And how much of the blame does McCaffery feel he should personally shoulder?

Feb 14, 2018; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery (R) talks to guard Maishe Dailey (1) during the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Des Moines Register asked the Iowa coach these questions and more during a 30-minute interview in his Carver-Hawkeye Arena office Wednesday, six weeks after the conclusion of his eighth season at the helm of the Hawkeyes.

“I feel terrible that I wasn’t able to push some different buttons to make the necessary changes. Because I thought I had a team of guys that were really good,” McCaffery said in analyzing his coaching performance.

“It’s different if your guys are fighting you. You’re never going to turn the corner if you don’t get buy-in. So I thought we had that. And I thought you saw a real improvement toward the end of the season (Iowa won two of its last three games, including pushing eventual national runner-up Michigan to overtime). But there were times I thought that, ‘Boy, we had some great individual performances and just didn’t win.’”

Previously:Here's Fran McCaffery's plans for his two open scholarships

In the first segment of a two-part question-and-answer session, McCaffery talks about his first losing season in seven years and how the defense in particular needs to improve. Answers have been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.

DMR: Let’s revisit the last season. The focus was always on defense when talking about that team’s deficiencies. Was that fair?

Fran McCaffery: I think it’s fair because I think if you look at our offensive numbers: pretty impressive when you’re talking about four double-figure scorers (Tyler Cook 15.3, Jordan Bohannon 13.5, Luka Garza 12.1, Isaiah Moss 11.1), 48 percent from the field, 38 from 3, 70 from the line, plus-five on the glass and a really large assist-turnover ratio to the good (602:441). Those numbers typically equate to more wins. So now you have to evaluate, where are the corrections that need to be made? OK, it was defense. OK, specifically what? Was it transition defense? Was it ball-screen defense? Was it on-the-ball? Were we not in the gaps? Were we not helping on penetration? We didn’t rotate after the help? Or is it a combination of all of those factors that eventually led to a team shooting a high number? I think as you analyze a season, you’re looking at all of those factors defensively, and then you’re looking at the intangibles which the numbers don’t show you. You’ve got to watch the film and evaluate that.

DMR: What did you put a finger on there in terms of defense when you looked at it overall? Was it everything?

FM: It was a little bit of everything. I think that’s a fair statement. But I think it was our help and our rotations. Because that’s going to be in transition. It’s going to be on ball screens. It’s going to be if they’re running sets. It’s going to be if they’re running a motion offense. And for that matter, it’s going to be if you’re in a zone. Because you’ve got to rotate out of a zone, now it’s a little bit different in terms of slides and angles. But you’ve got to react to ball movement, people movement, overloads, and we were a little bit slow in those areas when we needed to be quicker and more efficient. And we were good at times. I think that’s the other side of it is, you’d watch segments and it would be near perfection. Well, it needs to be like that all the time, not just in certain stretches of games. … Because I think for the most part the guys were pretty locked in to scouting report information. Who are the 3-point shooters? Who are the drivers? Who are the post-up guys? It wasn’t like you watched the film and said: Did this guy even read the scouting report? It wasn’t like that at all. These guys know. They’re smart. They’re conscientious. Maybe they were a little bit late or they didn’t see it quickly enough. But it wasn’t because they didn’t know. I didn’t think that was the case at all.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a play during the Hawkeyes' game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.

DMR: So do you need to change the way you teach it?

FM: The bottom line is there has to be change. So if it’s how we teach it, what drills we do, what we emphasize. Some teams keep everything to one side. Are we forcing one side or are we playing straight up? Are we in the gaps? Are we denying the next pass? Those kinds of things are philosophical and some coaches will be like: ‘This is what we do. This is what we’ve always done. And this is what works.’ But sometimes you adjust based on personnel. Sometimes you adjust because it just might work better for this group. We’ve always played ball screens a certain way. We’ve always had success with it. Well, it wasn’t as successful last year, so maybe we’ll play ball screens differently. A lot of teams will play ball screens multiple ways. Sometimes they’ll do it multiple ways in the same game. I always thought that was kind of confusing. Because it’s one thing for the guy guarding the ballhandler and the guy guarding the picker. But all five guys have to be working completely in unison on ball-screen defense. So if you change that three or four times in the same game, you’re requiring a lot of cohesion to take place. And that’s the basic premise on offense is, somebody’s going to break down somewhere.

DMR: Looking back at your career record, you hit a bump at North Carolina-Greensboro, too, where you had a bad year (7-22 in 2002-03). Was it similar to this? Is there anything you can draw on from that experience to help you through this?

FM: No, that was way worse. It was way worse. I should say it was way worse in some ways and better in others. So that sounds kinds of ridiculous, but … That team, we lost 22 games. That team was 20 baskets from 20 wins. So that was probably more frustrating because we lost a lot of one-, two-, three-point games. This (Iowa) team had way more talent and essentially that group had already won 19 games. Yes, maybe we underestimated the loss of the leading scorer in the league (Peter Jok). I think maybe sometimes you take a guy like Pete for granted. But it’s not every year you have a guy that leads the Big Ten in scoring. We haven’t had too many of them. When you have a guy like that, they just get you buckets at times. You know, you don’t have those scoring droughts. Sometimes they’ll blow a game open all by themselves. Pete did that three or four times his last year. It put a lot more pressure on Bohannon. … I think if you look at last year’s team, whereas we felt like 3-point shooting would be a major, major plus. It really wasn’t. Bohannon was great. Isaiah was solid. But after that, really didn’t have a lot of 3-point shooting going on. And I think in today’s game, it’s absolutely critical.

PART II: The Hawkeyes enter the offseason with leading scorer Tyler Cook’s future uncertain and a big-name recruit in Joe Wieskamp coming in. McCaffery talks about Cook’s NBA decision, Wieskamp’s expected role, how he’s handling coaching his son, Connor, and more. Find it in Sunday's Register or later today online.