With health issues behind him, Connor McCaffery begins dual-sport endeavor at Iowa

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) runs a drill during men's basketball practice following media day on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As a line of questioning jumped back and forth between both sports he’s trying to play, Connor McCaffery paused briefly after one inquiry about team success.

“Wait, was that a baseball question — or basketball?” he asked. “That was a baseball question, OK.”

After a tumultuous first year marred by health issues and injury, McCaffery’s two-sport plan has officially rebooted at Iowa. His basketball-baseball ambition has been well-documented since McCaffery first announced his dual intentions in April 2017. But these next six months will finally see it play out in real time.

It’s an intriguing proposition. Flawless time management and constant self-discipline will ultimately dictate success, but McCaffery is ready to consume the challenge.   

“I’m comfortable going right from one sport to the other and having to adapt quickly,” the Iowa redshirt freshman said. “I’ve done it before. Obviously with this kind of pitching throughout a Big Ten season — (and the conference’s challenges on the basketball side) — it’s going to be different and harder, 100 percent.”

“But I’m excited.”  

Much of that anticipation stems from a lost freshman season that, for many reasons, never had a stable itinerary.

The original deal of redshirting in basketball and playing baseball was scrapped once backup point guard Christian Williams transferred right before last year. But McCaffery’s run of maladies — an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy — reduced his first year to four games, 53 minutes and eight points.        

With those health concerns subsided, a chance for athletic prominence on two different spectrums lies ahead. McCaffery is expected to carry sizable roles in both basketball and baseball. Everyone is ready to see the plans lift off the ground.     

“I think we felt like, you know at some point, Connor is going to be better,” Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery said at Monday’s media day. “It was going to take longer than we had all hoped. It was unfortunate — the timing of it all — but I felt pretty confident that he would eventually feel better. He put all the weight back on and he's feeling really good right now.”

The spring and summer was a nice warmup for what’s ahead. Connor told the Register in early April that his health was back 100 percent. The ensuing months were spent catching up baseball-wise in a redshirt role.  

Whether it was practice, lifting, hitting sessions or whatever else, the 6-foot-6 outfielder was a full participant with Rick Heller’s squad. He didn’t see any action or travel, but McCaffery dressed for every home game. He then sprinkled in basketball work whenever possible.

Baseball re-calibration continued this summer, as McCaffery played a full slate with the Red Top Toppers in the Iowa Valley League. While not college baseball’s most prestigious offseason setup, the league gave McCaffery weeks of live at-bats he hadn’t seen since his Iowa City West tenure ended a year prior.          

Comfort at the plate only continued as the fall wore on. McCaffery went 6-for-8 with a double, two steals and four RBIs in Iowa’s win over Southeastern Community College on Sept. 20. He also played all 12 innings in right field.

Iowa basketball practice officially started Oct. 1, and McCaffery has been juggling both in the two weeks of organized overlap. But he’ll shift back to basketball full-time once the Hawkeyes’ Black and Gold World Series concludes this week. That will stand until whenever Iowa is eliminated in March or April.

Productively handling the time between now and then is where this setup will thrive or crumble. McCaffery must grind through the basketball season, likely playing anywhere from 15-20 minutes a night as Iowa’s top point guard relief option. He’ll be instrumental in spelling Jordan Bohannon and allowing the Hawkeyes’ top shooter to spend more time off the ball.

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery poses for a photo during Hawkeye media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

But McCaffery must also keep his swing sharp during the same time. Individual work dominates the winter until practice resumes in January, but things aren’t as structured as the fall. Discipline, attitude and motivation will prove vital during this time if McCaffery is to make a seamless transition.

He won’t get the same build-up his baseball teammates will. In the month leading up to Iowa’s Feb. 15 season-opener against George Mason, intersquad scrimmages and live at-bats are paramount for hitters rounding into shape. McCaffery will get none of that. He’ll be trying to help guide Iowa through another treacherous Big Ten slate.

On top of that, McCaffery will likely be at least a month behind on games once he finally switches over to baseball. Eight of the last 10 Iowa basketball seasons have ended anywhere between March 10 and March 22. Heller’s squad will be nearing conference play around then.

How soon will McCaffery be able to join a lineup that could need his services?  

“I think the hardest thing for me will be staying on top of my live at-bats once the season starts for baseball, because those are hard,” McCaffery said. “Those are hard to get. I think that’ll definitely be the thing that I’ll have to adjust with. My (baseball) teammates are getting live at-bats, preparing for the season, jumping right into games — and I’m still here (at basketball).

“So I think that’ll be the toughest thing because you can do all the tee work, front toss, soft toss you want — but you need to be tuned into live at-bats when it comes to being ready for the games. I plan on being able to do that. I plan on doing that. And I’m going to do things that make it to where I succeed when it comes to that.”

Basketball and baseball isn’t the most common dual-sport combination, but there are a select few who’ve done both. Recently, Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton pulled it off with four strong years under Mike Brey and three seasons as a Fighting Irish pitcher. Mark Hendrickson did the same in the early 90s, staring in both at Washington State. Other noteworthy baseball-basketball crossovers include Chris Young (Princeton), Kenny Lofton (Arizona) and Tony Gwynn (San Diego State).          

Those are upper-echelon examples, and no one is suggesting McCaffery is that caliber of athlete. But there’s justifiable excitement in how this is going to play out.          

“It’s something I’m capable of doing,” McCaffery said.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.