Iowa men's basketball reflects on senior class before final home game against Northwestern
Every senior night is emotional for a head coach. But Monday night's ceremony against Northwestern will mean a little more to Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
McCaffery's son Connor, Austin Ash and Jordan Bohannon are Iowa's three seniors participating. Connor still hasn't made a final decision about returning to Iowa for a potential sixth season next year but is going through the ceremony in case he does decide to move on.
"That decision will be down the line," Fran McCaffery said. "It'll be dependent on his health and I think he's still thinking about baseball. That's been really hard, he hasn't been able to do anything. He would normally be hitting throughout but because of his arm (injury) he hasn't been able to do that. He has a lot to think about."
The McCaffery family has a long-standing relationship with the Ash and Bohannon families, setting up a special pregame ceremony.
"They grew up together, those guys," Fran McCaffery said. "I think they were in sixth grade hoping one day to become a Hawk. Obviously it's a little more emotional for me when your son is involved. It's something that we try to do the best we can to recognize what they've meant to this institution and our program."
Bohannon, a sixth-year senior, headlines this senior class and will graduate one of the most accomplished athletes in Iowa basketball history. He's the school's all-time leader in games played (171), three-pointers (431) and assists (687).
Connor McCaffery has been both a multi-year starter and most recently a key bench piece for the Hawkeyes. He and Bohannon have experienced hip surgeries among other injuries. Despite that, they've continued to battle back and at times play through those injuries.
"Those setbacks don't outweigh the feeling of winning on the road or seeing your name on 'Selection Sunday," Connor McCaffery said.
Austin Ash's contributions won't show statistically, but within the program, he's as valued as anyone. A year ago, Ash was a walk-on exploring other options in the transfer portal, but he returned to Iowa on scholarship.
His playing time is minimal but that's a byproduct of how deep this year's team is, not an indictment on his skill, his coach said.
"Quite honestly he deserves to play more," Fran McCaffery said. "His professionalism every day, he's the leader of the scout team and he's ready whenever I call his number. I just appreciate who he is and just having him around is something that everyone feels good about. He'll really be missed and I mean that sincerely."
With regard to this season, Fran McCaffery sees the seniors' biggest impact as bringing along a younger team. Prior to this season, only a handful of players had played in front of fans. Many, including sophomore star Keegan Murray, had to step into bigger roles. Now, with three regular season games remaining, Iowa has 20 wins and is in play to finish in the top five in the Big Ten standings this year.
"We've had so many guys epitomize what young players are in this league and what they can be," Connor McCaffery said. "And we've had ups and downs. In our last game (sophomore Tony Perkins) had a career-high 20 points with four games to go and he's played really well but there's also games where young guys don't get into the flow as much and that's how it is for everybody.
"When you're younger there are more games where it takes a little more to get into it. It could be more physical, there could be a veteran that gets you into foul trouble by doing something you haven't seen before. As the season's gone on we've had certain guys learn and progress and we're playing well right now and it's showing."
A look at Monday's Northwestern game
Iowa (20-8, 10-7), which holds a 6-1 record in February, host Northwestern (13-14, 6-12) on Monday night. Fran McCaffery isn't letting the Wildcats' record define them as eight of their losses have come by eight points or less, including six in Big Ten play.
"I've been impressed with them," Fran McCaffery said. "They've got a lot of weapons, it's hard to guard. They've won some big games, they won at Michigan State without their leading scorer (Pete Nance). They've lost some really tough ones where they've been right there. They could easily be in the hunt (for the NCAA Tournament) if the ball bounces their way a couple of times."
Northwestern's main strength offensively mirrors Iowa's: ball movement and taking care of the ball. Iowa leads the Big Ten in turnover margin (+5.36) and assist/turnover ratio (1.81), while Northwestern is second in both categories (+4.44, 1.66).
Sophomore Tony Perkins said on Sunday that pressuring the ball will be critical to forcing Northwestern into uncharacteristic turnovers. Monday's game is also the start of a crucial week for Iowa with three games including two road contests at Michigan and Illinois.
There's an outside chance that Iowa (with some help) can play its way into a double-bye in the Big Ten conference tournament. But that starts from within, and Perkins said the team is prioritizing consistency down the stretch.
"We're playing good defense now but we have to do it for a full 40 minutes," Perkins said. "Continue to move the ball and rebound offensively and defensively and just pick up where we're slacking at."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.