By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Connor McCaffery represents hope.
He isn’t the cure for what ails his father’s team, but he is a 6-foot-5, highly-intelligent, pass-first combo guard who can provide some much-needed relief for Jordan Bohannon at point guard for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
Fans saw glimpses of that on Sunday as Connor McCaffery made his long-awaited debut during Iowa’s 91-60 victory over Southern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He played 17 minutes, scored five points, had four assists, three rebounds and one steal, the whole time looking and acting as a leader on the court.
Connor McCaffery sort of plays like his father used to play point guard, always with his head up and looking to make the perfect pass. Connor made feeding the post look easy in Sunday’s game. And while that might not seem like a big deal, Iowa’s guards have struggled with that.
“He played the way I know he can play, the way he knows he can play,” Fran McCaffery said of his son. “Physically, he’s still a long way away. He’s really gassed. He doesn’t have his legs underneath him.”
Connor McCaffery missed the first 10 regular-season games while battling the effects of mononucleosis. His team struggled without him, especially in the backcourt where the 6-0 Bohannon is faced with the grueling task of not only playing point guard, but also with trying to be a primary scoring option.
Connor McCaffery had originally planned to redshirt in order to focus on his freshman season with the Iowa baseball team. But those plans were reversed when former backup point guard Christian Williams announced in late October tht he would transfer from Iowa after the first semester.
Fran McCaffery was running out of options at point guard, so Connor would have to play once he was healthy.
That day finally came on Sunday and the offense had more flow and cohesion with Connor McCaffery on the court, partly because he is comfortable with the ball in his hands and is a willing facilitator.
"I'm working to get back and thought it was a good start," Connor McCaffery said.
Connor expected to play a few minutes here and there on Sunday, but he was surprised by how much he played in the second half, which was 12 minutes. He looked exhausted a few times, which is normal for somebody in his physical condition. But he also looked poised as a ball handler and as a leader, two things you want in a point guard.
Connor won’t blow by defenders on offense and will struggle on defense to stay in front of the Big Ten’s quickest point guards
But if that's the price you pay for adding a pass-first guard to the mix, then so be it because Iowa, and especially Bohannon, need all the help they can get.
Iowa is 5-6 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten heading into Saturday’s game against Drake in the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. A fifth nonconference loss would leave Iowa with hardly any margin for error in Big Ten play as it tries to get back to the NCAA Tournament after falling short last season for the first time in three years.
Connor McCaffery was a streaky 3-point shooter for Iowa City West High School, but he will make defenses pay if they don’t respect that part of his game.
But what he does best of all is pass to open teammates, and anticipate the next pass. He might have the best court vision of any player on the Iowa team right now.
Connor’s presence will allow for Bohannon and for Brady Ellingson to play off the ball and get open shots within the flow of the offense. And if they're open, Connor will feed them because that's what he does.
Connor also could team with 6-7 sophomore Maishe Dailey to give Iowa tremendous length in the backcourt.
Connor is almost like having a coach on the floor, but that's not just because his father is the head coach. Connor grew up around the game and has been fascinated with learning as much as he could about the sport that has consumed his father's life.
Connor McCaffery is certainly not the savior, and maybe not the long-term answer at point guard. He also could prove to be a better baseball player for Iowa in the long run.
But the Iowa basketball team is much better with him than without him.
That was obvious just from the 17 minutes Connor played on Sunday.