From baseball to basketball, Connor McCaffery's sports worlds collide in high-profile week

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Connor McCaffery has been a part of the NCAA Tournament since he was 9 years old. He remembers stretching and going through layup drills with Siena players in Tampa, Florida, back in 2008, when his father’s college basketball team was about to play Vanderbilt in the first round.

“I was trying to do as much as I could,” McCaffery recalled Thursday, grinning at the thought of his attempts as a boy to be involved in the spectacle of March Madness.

Now, you could say McCaffery is being involved … and then some. This has been one crazy week for the oldest son of Iowa men’s hoops coach Fran McCaffery. Not only is Connor about to play in his first NCAA Tournament, but just days ago, he made his first official start in college baseball.

Connor McCaffery struck out in his first official Iowa at-bat Saturday, but has since gone 4-for-7 with two doubles and two walks for Rick Heller's squad.

In fact, his worlds collided so directly that as baseball coach Rick Heller summoned Connor to the dugout to tell him he would start in left field Sunday night against Cal-State Northridge … the NCAA Selection Show revealed that Iowa would be playing as a No. 10 seed in Friday’s basketball tournament opener against No. 7 Cincinnati (11:15 a.m. CT, CBS).

His baseball teammates scurried out of the clubhouse to tell him.

While his basketball teammates were across the street at Carver-Hawkeye Arena doing interviews about their NCAA draw, Connor went 3-for-4 with two doubles in a 3-1 baseball win. He started again Tuesday and batted cleanup in a 7-2 win against Simpson.

In his young baseball career, he’s batting .500 (4-for-8) with two walks and a stolen base — quite impressive, considering he’s barely seen any live pitching all spring.

“We got up after we lost to Michigan (at the Big Ten Tournament) on Friday night,” Fran McCaffery said Thursday, “and I didn't really know that he was going to jump in the car and head up and play on Saturday. We got back in time to see him. He played Saturday. Then he played a doubleheader Sunday. Then he played Tuesday.

“I was really impressed that he was able to do that. But probably more so that he was Academic All-Big Ten while doing all of that. So just couldn't be more proud of him.”

It helps the scheduling that Iowa students are on spring break this week. But what makes Connor’s double-sport exploits so remarkable is that he's been through the rigors of two sports and hasn’t missed much practice for either team all while managing to stay healthy.

"I'm sore," he said, "but I'm not hurt."

Heller said the fact that Connor completed the full fall season and swings the bat in the cage almost every morning gives him confidence he can plug him into his lineup. Connor missed Wednesday's baseball game as the basketball team traveled here.

“Now I’ve been just totally focused on basketball,” he said. “Full practice yesterday, and we’ll go out there and get some shots today — I’m feeling good.”

Connor is a power-hitting left-hander, a high commodity in baseball. That’s where he has his most professional upside. Because of his age (he’ll be 21 in July), he’s eligible for the MLB Draft this summer. But his main role this week is being an influential backup guard against Cincinnati. McCaffery (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) is averaging 19 minutes a game off the bench; he tied a career high with eight assists in the Big Ten Tournament opener against Illinois.

His baseball teammates are opening Big Ten play with a three-game series this weekend in Bloomington, Indiana. If the Hawkeyes lose in basketball Friday, he’ll probably hop in a car with Mom and be available for Heller on Saturday. If the Hawkeyes beat Cincinnati in hoops, they'll face the Tennessee-Colgate winner here Sunday.

“Coach (Heller) actually put me on the roster,” Connor said. “He texted me and said, ‘Hopefully you can’t make it. But if you can, I put you on the roster’ — it’s only about 3 hours away.”

Connor, though, quickly added: “We don’t want to talk about that. Obviously, we plan on winning.”