IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa opens its 2016-17 basketball season at 8:35 p.m. Friday against Kennesaw State.
But the 2017-18 season (and beyond) got much-deserved focus Wednesday, with highly recruited big man Luka Garza officially signing on with Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes.
The Iowa coach expects his big men to handle the ball and run the floor.
The first one McCaffery, 57, threw out there was a guy from his era: former Boston Celtics great and Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
"Up and unders and jump hooks and those kinds of moves," McCaffery said in the first chance he had to publicly comment on Garza, a 6-foot-10, 230-pound center from Washington, D.C. "You don't see a lot of that anymore. He's effective.
“And that's (rare) when you get a guy who is 6-10 and a 7-3 wing span and can stretch the floor and play smash mouth inside.
“When you watch him run, he doesn't look like he's running well, except he's always down the floor faster than everybody else. Because he runs as hard as he possibly can every time. That's a gift. That's special.”
Garza is one of three players who will complete McCaffery’s Class of 2017, which is one of his best in seven years (ranked No. 34 nationally in Rivals.com’s team rankings), but the only one to sign so far.
Rivals three-star forward Jack Nunge (6-9, 185) is expected to send in his signed national letter of intent Thursday, and point guard Connor McCaffery (6-5, 195) is “not in any rush” to sign, his father said.
Connor McCaffery is rated by Rivals as a four-star recruit and No. 110 nationally; three-star Garza is ranked No. 134 and was the coach’s biggest catch — choosing the Hawkeyes over scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Louisville, Indiana, local school Georgetown and many others.
The key, Fran McCaffery said, was relationships. As was the case when Iowa landed top-100 forward Tyler Cook in the Class of 2016, Sherman Dillard was the lead recruiter for Garza.
Basketball coach Fran McCaffery talks about how difficult it is to pick a starting lineup.
In both cases, the Hawkeyes were one of the first schools to knock on the recruit’s door.
“It's very important, because most players that you recruit are relationship people,” McCaffery said. “You know the parents, the prospect … and it gives them an opportunity to study your program.
“So the more that they get to know us, the more willing they are to come and pull the trigger. We'll keep trying to do it that way.”
Cook remembers Garza making an impression during his official visit to Iowa City in early September. Garza committed that night, announcing his intent during the Iowa-Iowa State football game.
“He’s good,” Cook said. “He’s a monster already on the boards. He can shoot the ball. He can dribble. … He’ll be really good for us when he gets here.”
Baer: Instant energy
One of many reasons sophomore forward Nicholas Baer has earned a spot in McCaffery’s starting lineup? He’s conditioned for starter’s minutes.
Even though Baer’s style of play — scrappy, tough, versatile — makes him a prototypical sixth man, he’ll make his first career start in Iowa’s season opener.
“He deserves to be in there,” McCaffery said. “He does too many good things at both ends.”
The former walk-on from Bettendorf played 25 minutes in the Hawkeyes’ exhibition win against Division II Regis University, registering a complete stat line: 9 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, two steals.
A year ago, he ran out of gas at times.
“I feel like my stamina has increased since last season,” Baer said. “I think that was evident in the exhibition we had, and it will be evident as the season progresses.”
McCaffery will start Baer, Cook, Christian Williams, Peter Jok and Dom Uhl on Friday.
Maybe no redshirts
If McCaffery is going to bank a year of eligibility for one of his five scholarship freshmen via redshirt, he’s got to decide soon.
“Had a lot of thoughts, had a lot of discussion. We haven't decided to do that, quite honestly,” McCaffery said. “I don’t have much more time.”
Cook and point guard Jordan Bohannon are definitely in the mix, and it would seem forward Cordell Pemsl (six points, six rebounds in 14 minutes vs. Regis) is, too. And McCaffery has spoken highly of 6-9 Ryan Kriener’s rebounding.
That would leave the most likely redshirt candidate as 6-6, 183 swing guard Maishe Dailey, who had five points in 10 minutes against Regis.
Last year, McCaffery redshirted two freshmen — Brandon Hutton (who transferred) and Isaiah Moss.
This year? Asked if it’s possible nobody would redshirt, McCaffery replied: “It's very possible, yes.”
McCaffery said Kriener, who did not play against Regis because of a minor ankle injury, would practice Thursday.
“I think he’ll be ready to go in the game,” the coach said.
Guard Brady Ellingson, who also missed the exhibition, should be good to go, too.
But the status of backup forward Dale Jones is uncertain. The fifth-year junior had knee surgery in December, and McCaffery said it was swelling up this week.
“That may be ongoing throughout the whole season,” McCaffery said. “I hope not, because he really hasn't had any swelling, but he did the last couple days. So we're going to be protective of him; we'll see how that works out when the game comes.”