In sixth season, Iowa basketball's Connor McCaffery's impact is felt throughout program

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Looking back, Iowa basketball senior Connor McCaffery admits that he wasn't in the best headspace last spring.

The Hawkeye men's basketball team, coming off a Big Ten Tournament championship, was stunned by Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that abruptly ended a historic season. McCaffery knew he had one final season of eligibility left, but he had serious doubts.

"I was down after the Richmond game," McCaffery said. "That was as bad of a point as I've ever been. I was not in a good place mentally. I did not want to come back and there was a lot of stuff going on."

What happened next was what he described as a "flip switch". Those feelings faded over time and he announced that he would return for his sixth season during the team's awards banquet in April. Several months later, that decision is paying off for McCaffery and Iowa. It could be one of the main reasons why the No. 24 Hawkeyes (6-1) are in Big Ten contention again this season.

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McCaffery's last game against Georgia Tech was one of the more notable of his career, posting a double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and shooting 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. His overall statistics don't jump off the page, nor have they during his career, but his impact, particularly on defense, cannot be understated. And in his sixth season, he's regarded as one of, if not the central voice of the team.

"He's the glue guy to our team," said forward Kris Murray. "He's a guy that everyone feels comfortable with on the court, a guy who makes the right play all the time. He's unselfish and just wants to win games."

McCaffery's offseason was notable because it was the first where he was only invested in basketball. He's split time between basketball and baseball since 2017, all while dealing with injuries along the way. He's not big on working out, he prefers playing pickup games, which he did almost every day leading up to the season. Continued on-court reps with a growing confidence in his jump shot have led to an early 60% success rate from long range.

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"It's definitely a mindset thing," McCaffery said. "The coaches are telling me to be more aggressive, that we need shooting and we've got to make shots and I've made my shots. I'm feeling really good in practice."

But undeniably, McCaffery's best assets are his knowledge and experience. When he's not playing or watching film inside of Iowa's facility, he's at home watching college or pro games. If it's the NBA, he regularly records plays teams run that he thinks Iowa could implement. Then he sends them to anybody on the coaching staff who will respond.

"I send (Iowa head coach and Connor's father Fran McCaffery) plays all the time," McCaffery said. "He's probably annoyed. But if he doesn't respond, I'll send it to (the assistant coaches). But yeah, we've put some stuff in."

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) is shooting 60% from 3-point range through seven games this season.

His experience is especially valuable as a member of Iowa's second unit. After starting from 2019-2021, McCaffery's moved to a utility role off of the bench that could see him as the primary ball handler or in the frontcourt. Fran McCaffery stated this season that Connor takes pride in leading that group. This year's bench is particularly young, with true freshmen Dasonte Bowen and Josh Dix among the players in rotation.

Through seven games, bench production is one of the team's question marks. The Hawkeyes are entering a crucial stretch, beginning with Tuesday night's game against No. 15 Duke followed by games against No. 20 Iowa State and Wisconsin. The bench will need to play their part in order for Iowa to win, and McCaffery will be the heart of it.

"You're in a different role and you're helping those guys along," Connor McCaffery said. "And also being that spark off the bench, that's something that I feel like I can bring: tenacity and energy. Those are the guys that are annoying on the other team that do that do that kind of stuff. I want to be that annoying guy (for Iowa)."

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Early in the season, his decision to return is paying dividends for Iowa. Whether a fixture on the second unit or playing crucial minutes down the stretch with the starters, his influence is felt throughout the team. The Hawkeyes are relying on him to continue being an X-factor as their most critical stretch to date this season begins.

"He's the leader of this team," Fran McCaffery said. "When he talks, people listen whether it's in practice, on the bus, in the locker room on the bench. It doesn't really matter if he starts or not, he's going to affect the game in a positive way. He's going to settle guys down if they're struggling or if we're sped up. He really makes sure that we continue to play at our pace."