IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery is now 4-for-4 when it comes to rebuilding Division I men’s basketball programs.
The same Iowa program that was a Big Ten bottom-feeder when McCaffery was hired six years ago is now tied for first place in the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll.
The same Iowa program that used to play homes game in a half-empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena is now having sellouts again.
The Iowa program joins Siena, North Carolina-Greensboro and Lehigh as programs that McCaffery has successfully rebuilt.
He has Iowa in its best position to win a Big Ten regular-season title in maybe 30 years. The Hawkeyes are 17-4 overall and tied with Indiana for first place in the Big Ten at 8-1 heading into Wednesday’s game against Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
So many things have had to happen, or not happen, for Iowa to achieve this level of success under McCaffery. His star players have stayed healthy for the most part and there haven’t been many distractions off the court.
McCaffery, who is in his sixth season as head coach, has provided a stable environment in which to improve.
It would be impossible to list all the key factors that have helped McCaffery rebuild the Iowa program. But here are six player-related cases listed in chronological order from which McCaffery and the program have greatly benefited.
1. Having Matt Gatens already on board: Every coach faced with a rebuilding project needs a proven scorer to help lead the way during the tough early times. The 6-foot-5 Gatens filled that need during McCaffery’s first two seasons on the job when talent was scarce.
Gatens was a junior with two years of starting experience under his belt when McCaffery took over in 2010. Gatens averaged 12.6 points per game as a junior and 15.2 points as a senior.
The Hawkeyes increased their win total from 11 games in Gatens’ junior season to 18 in his senior season. The former Iowa City High star led Iowa in scoring in seven consecutive games as a senior, scored at least 20 points in nine games as a senior and posted back-to-back career highs against Indiana (30) and Wisconsin (33) as a senior.
Gatens also became a defensive stopper as a senior. He made second-team all-Big Ten as a senior and led Iowa to the National Invitation Tournament.
2. Convinced Devyn Marble to be a Hawkeye again: Todd Lickliter didn’t do much good for the Iowa program, especially as a recruiter. But he thought enough of Devyn Marble to offer him a scholarship and then get him to commit.
Lickliter never had the chance to coach Marble, though, because Lickliter was fired in March 2010 after just three seasons on the job.
Marble was a high senior at the time, so it was up to McCaffery to convince Marble that Iowa still was his best option. The 6-6 Marble liked McCaffery’s sales pitch and then reaffirmed his commitment to Iowa.
Marble would go on to have a standout career at Iowa, earning first-team all-Big Ten accolades as a senior in 2014. Devyn and his father, the late Roy Marble Sr., are considered one of the best father-son combinations in Big Ten history. Roy Marble played small forward at Iowa from 1985-89.
He and Devyn both were selected in the NBA draft, Roy Sr., taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round in 1989, while Devyn was selected by the Orlando Magic in the second round in 2014.
3. Believed in Aaron White when others didn’t: Aaron White is what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz would call a story.
Ferentz often uses the word story to describe when one of his players exceeds expectations in college after flying under the recruiting radar.
White certainly fit that description as a Hawkeye.
McCaffery was one of few coaches from a power five conference that paid much attention to White as a high school player in Ohio. The 6-9 White ultimately picked Iowa over mid-major Duquesne. He then went on to achieve stardom at Iowa, making first-team all-Big Ten as a senior last season.
Iowa played in a postseason tournament in each of White’s four seasons in the program, including the NCAA Tournament as a junior and senior.
The Washington Wizards selected White in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft. He is currently playing overseas in order to improve his chance of making an NBA roster.
4. Landed Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell: Location certainly was key in McCaffery landing both of these standout recruits. The 7-1 Woodbury grew up in Sioux City cheering for the Hawkeyes, while Gesell grew up on the other side of the Missouri River in South Sioux City, Neb.
McCaffery worked tirelessly in pursuit of both players. The competition for Woodbury was as tough as it gets with virtually all of the blueblood programs wanting him. Woodbury ultimately picked Iowa over North Carolina and did so at a time when the Iowa program was in the early stages of rebuilding under McCaffery.
Woodbury and the 6-1 Gesell have started 125 and 118 games, respectively, for Iowa. They have played in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and are poised to make it three in a row. They also helped Iowa finish runner-up to Baylor in the National Invitation Tournament as a freshmen in 2013.
5. Added Jarrod Uthoff to the roster: It’s no wonder why former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan made such a fuss when the 6-9 Uthoff decided to transfer from Wisconsin to Iowa after his freshman season in 2011. Ryan knew that he was losing a player with star potential to a border rival.
Uthoff is arguably the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year and has a chance to make first-team All-America, thanks partly to Iowa’s success. He has a rare combination of skills for somebody his size, including the ability to make 3-point shots and the ability to block shots.
Uthoff has scored at least 20 points in five of the last seven games and in 11 games overall this season. The Cedar Rapids native also scored 30 points in the first half against Iowa State in December.
6. Stuck with Peter Jok: Unlike most of the Division I coaches who bailed on Jok after he injured his knee in high school, McCaffery stayed loyal and is now being rewarded for it.
McCaffery believed in Jok, even after Jok’s knee took nearly two years to heal. McCaffery could’ve pulled his scholarship offer, but he kept his word and now looks like a geniusThe 6-6 Jok has gone from being an inconsistent role player in his first two seasons to one of the Big Ten’s top scorers and perimeter threats.
Jok has scored in double figures in nine of the last 10 games. He also leads Iowa with 48 3-point baskets and with 29 steals.