Leistikow: Why an Iowa basketball win against Duke would be historic for Fran McCaffery

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

NEW YORK − As a native of Philadelphia who lived and breathed basketball, Fran McCaffery has often been asked whether he has any special memories as a youth of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

A natural question, considering (as McCaffery put it) Philadelphia is closer to New York (94 miles apart) than Iowa City is to Des Moines. But McCaffery’s response to that query leading up to Iowa’s Tuesday game versus Duke in The Garden was rather amusing.

“If you grew up in Philadelphia, Madison Square Garden doesn't have any significance. Like, I grew up going to the Palestra and the Spectrum,” McCaffery said. “I grew up watching Doctor J and Wilt Chamberlain and Doug Collins (of the Philadelphia 76ers). I wasn't watching Walt Frazier and Willis Reed (of the New York Knicks). I had no interest in going to the Garden. We didn’t like the Knicks. And that's just the way it is."

McCaffery is a Philly guy. And Philly guys don't love New York, plain and simple.

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Still, McCaffery has reverence for the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” He played there as a college player at Pennsylvania and has coached there many times, including a 4-4 record as Iowa’s head coach.

In 2013, he took the Hawkeyes to the NIT Final Four, where they beat Maryland before losing to Baylor in the title game.

Two seasons later, Aaron White-led Iowa lost to Texas and then Syracuse in the 2014 2K Classic.

In 2018, the Big Ten Tournament was staged in MSG and 12th-seeded Iowa (in a down year) beat Illinois before falling in overtime to a Michigan team that didn’t lose again until the NCAA title game.

And the following November, Luka Garza and Tyler Cook led Iowa past Oregon and then Connecticut in an impressive showing to win the 2K Classic.

Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since a 2K Classic championship early in the 2018-19 season. He is 499-340 in 27 years as a Division I head coach.

Could Duke be Fran McCaffery's 500th win?

McCaffery’s Hawkeyes haven’t been back since. Iowa’s 13th-year head coach was a little bit reflective leading up to this 8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN-televised showdown against one of college basketball’s bluebloods as part of the Jimmy V Classic, because he has 499 wins as a Division I head coach. One more and he’ll reach the 500 mark.

That milestone triggered McCaffery to share a story about his first coaching job, when then-Penn coach Craig Littlepage hired him on a volunteer basis to coach the junior-varsity team. He recalled 5-6 hour practice days for no pay, but it was a great opportunity to develop his coaching chops. He went from there to Lehigh as an assistant coach and took over that Division I head job in 1984 at age 25. McCaffery won 49 games at Lehigh over three years; 90 wins at UNC-Greensboro over five; 112 at Siena over five; and now 248 at Iowa, which puts him 22 shy of passing Tom Davis (269) as the Hawkeyes’ all-time leader in wins. McCaffery has taken all four schools he's led to the NCAA Tournament. An 11-year stint as an assistant coach at Notre Dame was sandwiched between the Lehigh and Greensboro stops.

“You pay your dues and hope that one day to have an opportunity to become a full-time coach, to become a head coach,” McCaffery, 63, said. “And I think some of the great wins and some of tough losses, some of the struggles.”

The potential 500th win, he said, is “just indicative of the great opportunities that I've had. I have really been blessed. I've worked for great athletic directors everywhere I've been. I've had tremendous players. I've had awesome coaches on my staff.”

Interestingly, McCaffery has faced Duke only once in 27 years as a head coach. That was a 98-44 loss while at UNC-Greensboro in 2004. He faced the Blue Devils five times as a player and beat them once.

What a nice moment it could be if No. 500 could come against Duke. Iowa has met Duke eight times in its basketball history and won just once, in 1994 at a neutral site in Hawaii.

More:Iowa basketball faces off with No. 16 Duke. Here's how you can watch the Hawkeyes' game

Duke could be a challenge ahead of Iowa-Iowa State matchup

But the challenge is steep. On paper, this looks like a tough matchup for the 6-1 Hawkeyes.

While Iowa has a strong group of small-forward types led by Kris Murray, its lack of proven big men could be a problem against certain teams. The Hawkeyes’ biggest regular is 6-foot-9, 233-pound Filip Rebraca. Meanwhile, Duke will throw waves of size at the Hawkeyes. Seven-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski, a player McCaffery recruited hard, has been Duke’s best player. He has scored in double figures every game this year.

“A lottery pick,” McCaffery said.

The Blue Devils (8-2, their only losses to Kansas and Purdue) also start 7-1 freshman Derrick Lively and have a good mix of veterans, too, including a player Iowa is very familiar with in Illinois graduate transfer Jacob Grandison.

“It's a talented team. They have a lot of size. They have depth. They have athleticism,” McCaffery said. “It’ll be a very difficult challenge for us but one we're excited for.”

Nonetheless, this is a game Iowa wanted. A chance at a signature program win is there. McCaffery got the call that there was an opportunity to face Duke on this date, paired with an Illinois-Texas matchup (which starts at 6 p.m. CT Tuesday to kick off the Jimmy V double-header).

“Ironically, we had one game left to schedule,” McCaffery said. “So, we had to look at the dates and (asked), ‘Can we do it?’”

The main issue was that Iowa is scheduled to host Iowa State on Thursday. But despite the travel and having less than 48 hours between games, McCaffery felt it was a no-brainer, especially with a veteran roster.

“It would have been easy to say no and play somebody else that we felt pretty strongly we would beat and stay rested for the Iowa State game,” McCaffery said. “But opportunities like this, I think you have to take advantage of.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.