Growing up in Chicago, Brandon Hutton had a perception of the Iowa men’s basketball program that left much to be desired.
But then he saw up close what Fran McCaffery was doing to change that.
“The common view of Iowa in Chicago usually focuses on the style of play,” Hutton said. “When they think about the University of Iowa, they usually vision a systematic, half-court, Caucasian team. Chicago prospects come from a cultural of run and full-court trap.
“I had the same vision of the "systematic, half-court play in Iowa until I saw Fran McCaffery’s plan of changing the culture within the University of Iowa basketball program.”
The 6-foot-6 Hutton, who attends De La Salle High School in Chicago, was the first player to commit to Iowa’s 2015 recruiting class on March 9, 2014. The class has since grown to five recruits, including 6-5 Isaiah Moss, who also calls Chicago home and attends perennial power Simeon High School.
What started for Hutton as an unofficial visit to Iowa in March of his junior year became a life-changing experience. Stereotypes were crushed and replaced by dreams.
“When I came down there on my first unofficial visit, I saw Coach Fran coaching with passion for the game and steering away from the half-court identity team,” Hutton said. “Once he told me where I’ll fit in his program, I knew right there and then Iowa is where I wanted to attend.”
It’s still too early to know if Chicago will continue to fill McCaffery’s recruiting needs on a regular basis. But to have two players from Chicago in the same recruiting class is significant for the Iowa program. It rarely has happened over the past two decades despite Iowa City’s proximity to Chicago, roughly a four-hour drive.
“I think you want to be able to go everywhere,” said McCaffery, who has led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons. “Obviously, Chicago, because of the proximity and because it’s a big city with a lot of talent, it’s critical. It’s important.
“But we wouldn’t go take a kid out of Chicago in lieu of taking a kid from Des Moines if we thought the kid from Des Moines was better.”
Location often plays a role in a recruit picking a certain school. The belief is that the closer to home, the better.
That’s why Chicago is such an obvious recruiting territory for most Big Ten teams. It’s conveniently located and within a reasonable driving distance.
However, Hutton said there is a flipside to that way of thinking with some recruits in Chicago.
“From a Chicago perspective, Iowa is viewed to be too close to home,” Hutton said. “This is usually the first thing someone would say about Iowa. Then it’s followed up with a question asking, what’s out there to do? Isn’t it just land and cornfields"?
When it comes to basketball recruiting, Chicago is the gift that keeps on giving with a never-ending pipeline of Division I talent. The Windy City has helped to fuel Big Ten teams for decades, producing star players such as former Indiana guard Isiah Thomas, former Michigan forward Cazzie Russell and former Iowa point guard Ronnie Lester among countless others.
Lester was instrumental in helping Lute Olson rebuild the Iowa program in the late 1970s. Olson made Chicago a recruiting priority and he benefited from it. The Hawkeyes advanced to the NCAA Final Four in 1980 with a backcourt that featured Lester and fellow Chicago native Kenny Arnold.
Former Iowa coaches George Raveling and Tom Davis also had some recruiting success in Chicago, but the pipeline started to close during Steve Alford’s eight-year run from 1999-2007 and then almost shut down entirely under Todd Lickliter.
Iowa’s reputation in Chicago suffered when star guard Tony Freeman transferred from Iowa to Southern Illinois after his junior season in 2008, which also was Lickliter’s first season as head coach. Freeman left Iowa despite leading the team in scoring and despite only having one season of eligibility remaining.
Freeman left because he felt that Lickliter wanted his own players. Freeman was recruited to Iowa by the previous coaching staff and he had a playing style that clashed with Lickliter’s desire to play at a slower and more deliberate pace.
The perception was that Lickliter drove Freeman away and that caused resentment in Chicago and it had a negative impact on recruiting.
“I think initially it may have hurt to a degree,” Freeman said. “Especially around the time the staff that coached me was there.”
Freeman, who currently lives in Chicago, is impressed with Iowa’s resurgence under McCaffery. The program was in shambles when McCaffery replaced Lickliter in March 2010, but it’s hard to tell now with Iowa having won at least 20 games in each of the past three seasons.
Iowa also won an NCAA Tournament game this past season for the first time since 2001.
“Despite my misfortunes with the staff, this would not depict my overall experience at Iowa,” Freeman said. “The support systems outside of the staff were great, first-class people.
“They have a new staff now and the coach seems very genuine and it’s very obvious that his players are responding to him.”
Nick Rakocevic, a 6-9 high school junior forward, is part of the next wave of talent from the Chicago area. Rakocevic attends perennial power St. Joseph’s High School in the Chicago suburb of Westchester. Among its graduates include Isiah Thomas and Tony Freeman.
Iowa is one of several schools that Rakocevic, a four-star recruit, is considering, along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue and Virginia.
The fact that Hutton and Moss already have signed with Iowa could help with Rakocevic’s recruitment.
“Iowa got two huge pickups with Isaiah Moss and Brandon Hutton,” Rakocevic said. “I have played against them and with them. They are both great teammates and even better players. They are both at the elite level and I think they will have great success at Iowa.”
Rakocevic is also familiar with Freeman’s success as a player.
“Tony Freeman was a stud,” Rakocevic said.
Freeman’s advice to any recruit is to weigh your options and do what’s best for your situation on and off the court. His decision to leave Iowa was strictly a basketball decision caused by a difference in philosophy with the head coach.
Freeman speaks fondly about the rest of his experience at Iowa.
“Iowa for me was an amazing place to be whether I was an athlete there or not,” Freeman said.
As for Hutton, he has big plans for his time at Iowa. He believes in McCaffery and already has seen enough improvement to know that Iowa’s perception will continue to change for the better.
“I want to be a part of making history in Iowa,” Hutton said. “The Hawkeyes made another NCAA appearance this year and advanced to the second round. I know that Isaiah Moss and I will be a major impact on the Hawkeye basketball team advancing even further in the NCAA tourney.
“We will bring an up tempo defensive identity, right along with that our hard work and offensive games will speak loudly as well. We will bring more attention to Iowa for future Chicago recruits.”