Hawkeye guard Connor McCaffery surprises Spartans with 3-point barrage

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Connor McCaffery remembered looking up at the scoreboard during his first game at the Breslin Center and seeing his Iowa basketball team down by 30 points as Michigan State alley-ooped its crowd into a frenzy.

It was memorable because of how unenjoyable the moment was.

McCaffery has a more enjoyable memory now.

On Saturday, his 16th-ranked Hawkeyes strode into an empty gymnasium and planted a black-and-gold flag, pulverizing the Spartans 88-58. Tom Izzo has coached Michigan State for 26 seasons; he has never suffered a more lopsided home loss.

“We just wanted to step on their throat,” McCaffery said.

It was McCaffery’s scoring output that may have been the most surprising part of what Iowa accomplished. The junior moved from power forward to shooting guard in the starting lineup, to replace the injured CJ Fredrick.

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Often in McCaffery’s career, that has meant putting “shooting” in quote marks. He was averaging 3.5 points per game on 29% 3-point shooting entering this game. In the Hawkeyes’ 84-78 win against Michigan State on Feb. 2, McCaffery missed all four of his 3-point attempts and scored only two points in 18 minutes.

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery flexes toward his teammates during the second half of an 88-58 win at Michigan State on Saturday. McCaffery scored 16 points, including a career-high four 3-pointers, in an aggressive offensive performance.

He knew the Spartan game plan would be to once again to socially distance from him at the 3-point arc, hoping he would launch, while giving an overabundance of attention to Iowa center Luka Garza down low.

“The first time we played them, I sucked. I let them get away with sagging off of me. I was terrible in every way,” McCaffery said. “I just wanted to come out and be aggressive.”

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It didn’t start out so well. McCaffery missed his first two 3-pointers Saturday, although Garza rebounded one and turned that into three points nevertheless.

McCaffery kept shooting. He made his next four from the arc. He slipped to the rim from the left baseline for a couple of backdoor layups. His 3-pointers, a career-high, plus a pair from freshman forward Keegan Murray changed the complexion of the game. No longer could Michigan State choose to defend only a select few Hawkeyes; in this game, they all were threats.

“Most of the time, I shy away (from shooting) and try to do more distributing. But when (Fredrick) is out of the lineup, I know that I have to be more aggressive. And some games that doesn’t come naturally. But I wanted to make it a focus,” McCaffery said.

“People always tweet at me: ‘You can’t shoot. You can’t score. You’re worthless on offense.’ Well, actually I just don’t shoot a lot. It’s different when you shoot two or three shots than when you get to shoot eight or nine times,” he said.

After each made 3-pointer, McCaffery put a fist to his chest and glanced at the Spartan bench. He said he did so subconsciously, and never said a word, as a way to pump himself up, to keep that confidence flowing.

The entire Hawkeyes team felt it. Iowa had lost 21 of its previous 22 games here. By early in the second half, this one was over as well, just not in the way it usually is.

“When you’re making 3s and you’re getting stops, it opens driving lanes. It opens post feeds. It opens opportunities to get to the free-throw line. It changes everything,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team sank 13 of them Saturday. “I think it really changed how our team performed offensively throughout the game.”

Garza is the nation’s leading scorer at 24.5 points per game. Connor McCaffery is perennially atop the list when it comes to assist-to-turnover ratio. Garza found McCaffery for his first two baskets Saturday. He ended up with eight points, half of McCaffery’s total. But Garza had three assists to McCaffery’s one.

It was that kind of game. The Hawkeyes were having fun in the Breslin Center for a change.

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“I’m sure that wasn’t in their scouting report: ‘Worry about Luka dropping dimes to Connor.’ I’m sure it was the other way around,” McCaffery said with a laugh.

It was an easy laugh. Just like his baskets Saturday.

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.