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How Fran McCaffery has taken a depleted Hawkeye team to unexpected heights

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery’s 10th season as Iowa’s men’s basketball coach has produced his most remarkable team.

In the most competitive league in the nation, with a roster in constant flux, the Hawkeyes have kept their focus. And kept winning.

There are three games remaining in the regular season, starting with No. 14 Penn State (21-7, 11-6 Big Ten Conference) coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a sold-out game that will tip at 11 a.m. Saturday and be shown on the Big Ten Network.

McCaffery’s No. 17 Hawkeyes (19-9, 10-7) will be awaiting the challenge, as they have throughout a season in which they’ve exceeded all expectations and have assured themselves a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

“I’ve just been impressed with how they’ve been able to overcome. They didn’t go in the sink,” former Northwestern star and current BTN analyst Shon Morris said.

“They’ve overachieved. Fran has to be one of the front-runners for Big Ten coach of the year.”

It’s hard to argue against this has been McCaffery’s finest coaching job at Iowa. It started after a gloomy spring that saw Tyler Cook (14.5 points per game) depart to the professional ranks, Isaiah Moss (9.2) transfer to Kansas and Jordan Bohannon (11.6) announce he was undergoing hip surgery that would put his 2019-20 season in jeopardy.

The Hawkeyes were picked to finish a middling eighth in the 14-team Big Ten in a preseason media poll. McCaffery pounced.

“I think he did a good job of pointing that out,” Fran’s son, Connor, said slyly. “I know a lot of people didn’t expect us to be where we are.”

Fran McCaffery lost three starters from last year's Iowa basketball team, and then another from this year's. Still, he has No. 17 Iowa sitting at 19-9 with six wins over ranked opponents.

The message remained the same even after Iowa lost starting power forward Jack Nunge to knee surgery. Bohannon did end up shutting things down after playing in 10 games. Starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick has missed time with three separate injuries.

Still, Iowa has six victories over ranked opponents this season, the most of any McCaffery team. Iowa has lost back-to-back games only once, and never three in a row.

The Hawkeyes rank sixth in the nation, and first in the Big Ten, in offensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. They are 90th on the defensive end, their best mark in four seasons.

And, for the first time, Iowa has produced a legitimate contender for national player of the year in junior center Luka Garza, who is averaging 23.6 points and 9 .6 rebounds per game.

Give McCaffery some credit for all of this.

His boss, athletic director Gary Barta, sure does.

“He knows his players. He cares so much about them that he spends so much time with them,” Barta said of McCaffery, who is signed through the 2023 season. “He knows what gives us the best chance to succeed.”

A calmer coach who is getting his Hawkeyes to play tough

A hallmark of this year’s Iowa team has been its mental toughness. It was apparent in wins at Syracuse and Iowa State, and in a trio of home victories over Big Ten opponents that required second-half comebacks.

Connor McCaffery, who leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.54-to-1, said that’s been a result of his father’s insistence that his players not make excuses for poor play, and not dwell on who is missing from the lineup, but rather rally around those who are on the court.

“They out-toughed Illinois,” Morris said of a 72-65 Iowa home win on Feb. 2. “They’ve come together, especially on the defensive end of the floor. They’re not stellar defensively, but they’re a lot better. Because of that, they’ve increased their margin for error.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood noted the same thing, saying McCaffery should be getting more notice nationally for the job he’s done. Underwood even said that this year’s Hawkeye team is better than the one that went 23-12 a year ago and nearly made the Sweet 16 — with a group that included Cook, Moss and Bohannon.

“Fran’s a tough son of a gun. It’s a mindset,” Underwood said. “He’s got his kids believing, and that’s 99 percent of the battle today in college coaching is getting your team to believe in you and take on some of your characteristics.”

McCaffery, who has a well-established reputation for being quick-tempered, has also been noticeably calmer in the huddles during timeouts much of this season. His anger can still flare, as evidenced by the three technical fouls he’s received.

But he’s not as quick to rip into his players.

He acknowledged as much after Iowa’s most lopsided loss of the season, a 104-68 drubbing at Purdue that immediately followed the inspiring home win over Illinois.

“It’s like you play poorly, and the coach’s responsibility is to go in and turn over every chair and scream at everybody. Somehow, that is miraculously going to change what just happened,” McCaffery told reporters.

“I think we all have to be more professional than that.”

It may help that he has his son on the court for 30-plus minutes per game. Connor, a sophomore, has proven that he can direct his teammates to the proper spots on the floor while playing every position from point guard to power forward.

“I think he’s been a little bit more trusting of us,” Connor McCaffery said. “We have a more veteran group, a group that knows what we need to do and maybe he doesn’t need to approach us the same way as he has in the past, younger groups that don’t know what’s going on. We haven’t had as many mess-ups on the floor this year, because I think we’re all pretty good at knowing what we need to do.”

Putting his trust in Garza and a smile on his face

Nothing has elevated this group of Hawkeyes more than Garza's play.

It was McCaffery who first saw something in the then-chubby post player out of Washington, D.C., five years ago. Iowa became Garza’s first major-college suitor. Garza never forgot that, signing on with McCaffery even after he slimmed down and started attracting more attention from power schools.

In Garza’s first two seasons, he was a dependable, sometimes explosive, starting center alongside the more gifted Cook. He averaged 13.1 points per game a year ago.

His third year has been a charm.

McCaffery decided to run his offense through Garza, not sophomore wing player Joe Wieskamp, who is averaging 14.5 points as a solid second option. He has stuck with that plan, even as opposing defenses unsuccessfully try every approach to contain Garza.

Garza has scored 20 or more points in 13 consecutive games because McCaffery has made him a moving target. He can score on the low block, on the baseline, from 15 feet at either elbow, or from the 3-point arc. Garza can excel with his back to the basket or facing up. His footwork is impeccable. He is on the verge of having the single greatest season of any Hawkeye men’s player ever, with 661 points and counting.

McCaffery gives all the praise to Garza.

“He knows I have 100% confidence in him,” McCaffery said. “I think the freedom we give him is good.”

But Garza’s father, Frank, knows better. He works with his son throughout the offseason. He appreciates what McCaffery and his staff have done from there.

“People are getting to see what a master Fran is as a playmaker, as a guy that knows how to put the pieces on the chessboard,” Frank Garza said.

“I’m just so happy about that, because there’s a lot of coaching going on, and not everyone wants to acknowledge that.”

Fans have been quick to fall in love with Luka Garza, not only for the skill he possesses but the obvious joy he brings to the court. Fredrick, another player McCaffery recruited when few other big schools were interested, has also been a hit in his Hawkeye debut, sinking big shots and displaying a big attitude.

But there are certain segments of the Iowa fan base who never seem to want to give McCaffery his due. Ten years is a long time to be a head coach at one school, and the Hawkeyes still have not reached that elusive Sweet 16 since Tom Davis brought them there in 1999. McCaffery’s public persona is Philadelphia gruff, not Iowa nice. It was only a year ago that he was suspended for two games after haranguing a referee.

But there was a scene outside of Iowa’s locker room after an 85-80 home win over Rutgers on Jan. 22 that may be telling. The players had entered in jubilation, and McCaffery was prepared to follow. A young fan approached, asking for a picture with the Hawkeye coach.

McCaffery bent down and crouched beside him for a quick pose and a smile. The smile was still there as he opened the door to join his team.

Maybe there is something magical happening with this year’s Hawkeyes. And maybe McCaffery’s ability, at age 60, to adapt on the fly while keeping his players grounded, is the biggest reason.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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