Iowa men eager to prove they're Final Four contenders by playing top competition

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Entering his second decade as Iowa’s men’s basketball coach, Fran McCaffery has a team that is in the preseason national spotlight for the first time.

McCaffery let it be known at a Monday news conference that he believes the buzz is deserved, and that neither he nor his Hawkeye players are going to try to tamp it down.

Iowa is ranked fifth in the inaugural Associated Press poll, the first time a McCaffery team has been in the top 25 before a season tips off.

McCaffery was so convinced that his Hawkeyes are ready for prime time that he scheduled a Dec. 19 matchup with Gonzaga, the preseason No. 1 team, in Sioux Falls, S.D. That replaces Iowa’s original opponent, Oregon State, who had to back out over uncertainty of whether the Pac-12 Conference would even be playing games in December during the coronavirus pandemic. That challenge is a major upgrade for a Hawkeye team begging to be tested in front of a national audience.

There is little chance that McCaffery would have lined up a No. 1 team in the country for an early-season game in years when his team was young or in transition. This year? Bring it on.

The game will be broadcast nationally on CBS, the coach pointed out more than once.

“I always say to have a good team, you've got to go play people, and that's what we're doing,” McCaffery said.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery speaks to reporters during Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball media day, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at the Feller Club Room of Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa’s complete schedule has not yet been released, but it will also include home matchups with North Carolina and Iowa State. The season is likely to begin Nov. 25 in Iowa City with a four-team tournament of some sort.

McCaffery said his team, led by the reigning Big Ten player of the year in Luka Garza, is aiming for a Final Four berth and is eager to take on elite competition anytime, anywhere in order to show that that is a reasonable goal.

EARLIER:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

“I just think it's foolish to kind of create any kind of guise that … we're not going to be as good,” McCaffery said. “We have a good basketball team. We have really good players. We have character on this team.

“At the end of the day, that's what they signed up for. You come to the Big Ten, you want to take on the big boys. … You embrace it and you enjoy it. You don't run from it.”

A season without fans shouldn't faze a veteran Hawkeye team

McCaffery said it will be a “goofy” season because of the uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19. He is ready for some games to get canceled.

And he’s also trying to get his Hawkeyes ready for life in empty or sparsely filled arenas. The Hawkeyes are even having a scrimmage Saturday that will serve as a dress rehearsal for what the winter will be like in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with referees and spread-out seating on the sidelines and even some piped-in crowd noise.

 “Hopefully, being a veteran group, we'll be better capable of handling that,” McCaffery said of the absence of fans.

“I think this group in particular has what it takes to play with what would be certainly a non-traditional atmosphere.”

Garza is a senior center. Jack Nunge and Connor McCaffery are also in their fourth seasons as Hawkeyes. Guard Jordan Bohannon is in his fifth. Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick are entering their third year.

More:Jack Nunge, CJ Fredrick added muscle together — now they could start together for Iowa

McCaffery pointed out that the group would have been able to handle life on the road under normal circumstances. But not having to stare down raucous crowds at places such as Michigan State, Maryland or Purdue certainly will help Iowa’s cause this season.

Yes, defense is a concern. But here's why McCaffery thinks it will be improved

Every prediction for the Hawkeyes is going to be tempered by some version of … “But that’s assuming their defense is markedly improved.”

Scoring points has never been a problem under McCaffery and won’t be this year, when Iowa could boast the nation’s top offense.

McCaffery again pointed out his team’s defensive woes last year — when the Hawkeyes allowed 72.3 points per game and lost five contests in which they gave up 89 or more — was partially because of a lack of depth. Bohannon and Nunge both missed the bulk of that 20-11 campaign after surgeries.

“I think we'll be able to have fresh legs on the floor more regularly,” McCaffery said.

“We have a lot of ways to keep pressure on the other team's defense, but hopefully sustain effort and pressure on the other team's offense, and ultimately I think we have a really good rebounding team.”

In talking about his team’s length and depth, particularly on the wings, McCaffery mentioned four true freshmen, plus the return of his son, Patrick, from an illness that limited him to two games in his rookie year. But there’s no way all five of them are going to join a seven-man rotation that has proven itself in Big Ten play. It will be interesting to see which one or two of those players can help the Hawkeyes defend better.

Patrick McCaffery bulks up in effort to defend 'killer' opposing small forwards

Patrick McCaffery, a 6-foot-9 forward who is exceptional in transition offense, has added 15 pounds and is up to 205 now.

The Iowa City West graduate missed a practice recently with a pulled muscle, his father said. The good news there is that there’s now muscle to pull, because Patrick McCaffery will need that in order to hold up on the defensive end against major-college competition. At 182 pounds in high school, he was able to get by on defense primarily because of his height.

Not at this level.

PROFILE:Iowa recruit Patrick McCaffery hones his elite offensive skills as he prepares to join his dad

“He's fighting for traffic rebounds. He's sliding his feet really well, keeping guys in front of him, fighting through screens,” Fran McCaffery said.

“If you're playing the 3 spot in our league, you're playing a guy who's a killer. I don't care who we play. That guy is a killer. So he's going to get screened and they're going to run stuff for that guy, so you can't fall asleep. You've got to get back and guard.”

If Patrick McCaffery can handle that end of the court, look out, Iowa fans. He would add an offensive dimension that the Hawkeyes haven’t had in recent years with his ability to get to the rim on the break, or pull up for 3-pointers that he’s tall enough to launch over any perimeter defender.

An even better Luka Garza? McCaffery says you're about to see it

Finally, it would be an oversight not to include an item about Garza, even though so much has already been written about the preseason favorite for national player of the year. Garza showed last year that he will not have an “off” night, putting up 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game despite constant attention.

McCaffery said his star player, who turned down a chance to play professionally in order to aim for a national championship here, will be even better, if that’s possible.

“It's impossible to work any harder,” McCaffery said. “... His feel for low-post play is unmatched. Defensively, I think you saw a dramatic improvement from his sophomore year to his junior year. I think he could improve there even more.

“He was a factor defensively in ball screens. He was a factor defensively on the glass in terms of being a rim protector. He really shot it well last year from 3-point range (35.8%). I think you'll see that improve, as well. He's really shooting with great confidence. He's shooting a lot more from 3-point range.

“So I think you'll see a better player, just because he's worked that much harder since the season ended because he was in the gym, even though it was hard to find gyms. … He was on vacation, he's doing sprints on the beach. The guy is just relentless, and that's why he's great.”

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