By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery has had better teams at Iowa than his current team.
He has had teams with more size, more depth and lots more experience than his current team, which faces Penn State in the regular-season finale on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But you could argue he hasn’t had a more resilient team than his current squad, or one that shoots better.
Those two things have fueled the surging Hawkeyes perhaps more than anything else this season.
A team that barely two weeks ago appeared on the verge of collapse is now thriving with a three-game winning streak and with hope and optimism heading into the postseason.
Beat the Nittany Lions and Iowa would move a step closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble, which seemed virtually impossible after the loss to Illinois on Feb. 18.
A victory also would send one of the greatest shooters in the history of the Iowa program out in style.
Senior Peter Jok will make his final regular-season appearance as a Hawkeye on Sunday. He and oft-injured forward Dale Jones both are expected to be honored before the game. Jones has one season of eligibility remaining, but it’s uncertain if he will return next season.
Jok sort of symbolizes the team for which he plays.
The hardships in his life left him no other choice but to be resilient. And when it comes to shooting, the 6-foot-6 Jok has few equals.
His accuracy combined with McCaffery’s willingness to let his best shooters take shots that maybe some other coaches would prohibit has made Jok a potent offensive weapon.
The former West Des Moines Valley star leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 20.1 per-game average. Jok and freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon also lead Iowa with 71 3-point baskets.
“He makes my job a lot easier because defenses have to pay so much attention to him,” Bohannon said of Jok. “He makes it easier for us to spread the floor and get open looks.”
There will be plenty of time to look back at Jok’s rise as a Hawkeye, but now isn't the time, not with more games still left to be played.
Jok still has a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive season. That would put him in a select group with former Hawkeyes such as Bob Hansen, B.J. Armstrong and Roy Marble.
“Let’s see what happens in the next couple weeks and then we’ll look back,” McCaffery said. “This is a group that makes you want to come to work every day. That says a lot about who they are.”
Jok is living the American dream as a student-athlete on scholarship, but his story is rooted in grief and starts in Africa.
It has been well documented how Jok and his family escaped from war-ravaged Sudan. When Peter was three years old, his father was killed as a general for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Peter’s grandfather, the chief of their village, also was killed during the war.
The family eventually fled to Uganda and then Kenya to escape the war. They ultimately joined many other Sudanese refugees in Des Moines in December 2003.
Jok arrived in the United States without knowing any English and without knowing anything about the game of basketball. He was only exposed to soccer while growing up in Africa and didn’t start playing basketball until the fourth grade when he reluctantly agreed to give it a try.
That decision would alter the course of Jok's life.
His AAU coach became his legal guardian and basketball became his passion and his path to college.
Jok is now the elder statesman on an Iowa team that is filled with youth, energy and shooters.
McCaffery was asked after Thursday’s 59-57 victory at Wisconsin what his current team has that allowed it to avoid a late-season swoon, unlike some of his recent teams.
“I think we have more shooters,” McCaffery said. “Those teams were really good. We were big and strong. We were deep. We had a lot of guys that could play.
“But I think this team has a few more weapons from 3-point range, which I think obviously always helps.”
It also helps to make free throws and few do it better than Jok. He has made 145 of 157 free throw attempts this season and is on pace to break Steve Alford's single-season record of 92.1 percent from 1985.
Jok has worked hard to expand his game as a senior. He knew with so many new faces on the team that he had to be more than just a shooter.
“I’ve really focused on being a leader,” Jok said earlier in the season. “I want to lead by example, with my work ethic. I want the young players to understand what it takes to succeed at this level.”
It takes resiliency and shooters, and Iowa has plenty of both.
Penn State vs. Iowa
When: Noon, Sunday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Records: Penn State is 14-16 overall and 6-11 in the Big Ten; Iowa is 17-13 and 9-8.
Series: Iowa holds a 28-15 advantage in the series versus Penn State. The Hawkeyes have won eight of the last 12 meetings. Iowa and Penn State split last season’s two meetings with each team winning on their respective home floors. The Hawkeyes won 73-49 in Iowa City, while the Nittany Lions recorded a narrow 79-75 victory in University Park. Iowa holds a 16-3 advantage in games played at Iowa City, with all 19 meetings taking place in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes have won 14 of the last 15 meetings, including the last 11, in Iowa City. Penn State’s last win (78-73) in Iowa City came in 2001.
Senior Day Ceremony: Iowa will honor seniors Peter Jok and Dale Jones, as well as three student managers, prior to Sunday’s game for “Senior Day”. The first 1,500 fans in attendance will receive a free Peter Jok bobblehead