By Pat Harty
AMES, Iowa – Fran McCaffery had just finished his post-game press conference on Thursday at Hilton Coliseum and was walking back to the Iowa locker room when his boss offered his congratulations.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta put his right arm around McCaffery and gave him a half embrace for a job well done.
McCaffery then put his left arm around Barta as if to say thanks for the support.
The exchange only lasted for just a few seconds, but the memory will last forever because what had occurred at Hilton Coliseum in Ames on Thursday was highly unusual and unexpected, and speaks highly about McCaffery’s job performance so far.
It wasn’t just that Iowa defeated Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum for the first time since 2003, it was how McCaffery’s team did it, leading almost from start to finish, and leading by more than 20 points in both halves.
It was a beat down in every sense of the word, from execution to energy to game plan, Iowa had the edge in all three categories and cruised to an 84-68 victory at a place where the visiting team often unravels down the stretch.
Iowa led Iowa State by 20 points at halftime in 2015 at Hilton Coliseum, but that still wasn’t enough as the Monte Morris-led Cyclones stormed back to win 83-82 as Iowa fell apart down the stretch.
But in Thursday’s game, it never felt like Iowa State had a chance to win after Iowa had bolted to an early 14-4 lead with four different players making 3-point baskets.
So what is it about this Iowa team in season No. 10 under Fran McCaffery that allowed it to withstand the force of Hilton Magic when so many other couldn’t?
“Everyone is just a hard worker and everyone is just tough,” said junior center Luka Garza. “Coach recruits guys like that. Coach recruits tough-minded guys who will just battle through everything and play, and I think everyone on our roster from the top to the bottom is like that. That’s just how we’re built.”
The players, of course, deserve a huge amount of credit for doing what so few other teams have done in the face of Hilton Magic, but so does Fran McCaffery and his assistant coaches.
The win over Iowa State improved Iowa’s record to 8-3 overall, and you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anybody outside of the team’s inner circle, and the always devoted homers, that had Iowa winning eight of its first 11 games, largely because of the schedule.
A 6-5 record, or even 5-6 after 11 games seemed more realistic heading into the season with the three surprise victories having come against Texas Tech in the Las Vega Invitational, against Syracuse on the road in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and against the Cyclones.
Iowa’s next game against Cincinnati on Dec. 21st at the United Center in Chicago will finish what was considered a brutal and potentially hazardous seven-game stretch that includes six games on the road.
But McCaffery’s team has more than held its own with a 4-2 record during this current seven-game stretch, and has done so despite some tough and unusual circumstances.
From Jack Nunge’s season-ending knee injury to Patrick McCaffery’s health issues to the uncertainty surrounding Jordan Bohannon’s playing status, this team has had to navigate through rocky waters and it takes leadership from the top to do that with any level of success.
And don’t forget about the potentially awkward situation with having two sons on the team, including one who starts and plays heavy minutes in 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Connor McCaffery, who is Patrick McCaffery’s older brother, and the oldest of Fran McCaffery's four children.
Some have suggested that Fran McCaffery seems more relaxed and calm this season compared to others when his temper has created problems on and off the court.
That could be due to his team mostly playing well, but maybe Patrick McCaffery's situation has affected his father.
Patrick is suffering from the residual effects from having had a malignant tumor removed from his thyroid when he was 13, so his situation helps to put things in perspective.
Connor McCaffery also has been a pleasant surprise, probably the most improved player on the team behind Garza, of course.
Fran McCaffery deserves credit for how he has used Connor as sort of a point forward.
Fran McCaffery has consistently found ways to take advantage of Connor McCaffery’s strengths, which include his size, vision and versatility, while also limiting the amount of times that Connor’s lack of quickness against smaller guards gets exposed.
It was thought before the season that Connor McCaffery and freshman point guard Joe Toussaint would compete for playing time, and while they do, they also are comfortable and effective playing together, or as part of a three-guard lineup, or even a four-guard lineup.
Connor McCaffery’s size, and his understanding of the game, gives his father flexibility on how to use him on both offense and defense.
One of the concerns with Connor McCaffery is that he is considered suspect as a 3-point shooter, but there are signs that could be changing.
He made a huge trey after Iowa State had the cut the lead to seven points in the second half and his basket triggered a 21-6 scoring run.
Iowa made 10 3-point baskets overall against Iowa State, led by redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick with three.
Bohannon and sophomore Joe Wieskamp made two 3-point baskets apiece against Iowa State, and Wieskamp has combined to make seven treys over the last two games.
Bohannon is also Iowa’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals made, so it’s not as if Connor McCaffery is under tremendous pressure to make threes.
But he still has to show that he can be a threat from 3-point range in order to keep defenses from sagging off him.
“With guys like C.J., Wieskamp, Jordan and Luka all around me, I’m not going to hunt for threes,” Connor McCaffery said. “I’m not going to hunt shots.
“But in that type of situation, I was open, stepped up and banged it and thought that was a pretty big shot.”
Fran McCaffery already faced a difficult situation when the season started due to having to replace All-Big Ten forward Tyler Cook, shooting guard Isaiah Moss and super sub Nicholas Baer. Cook skipped his senior season to enter the 2020 NBA Draft, while Moss now plays for Kansas as a graduate student and Baer used up his eligibility last season.
Cook led Iowa in scoring and rebounding last season, while Moss and Baer also made significant contributions.
But the current team has adjusted well without them, especially on offense, and that couldn't happen without good coaching and leadership.
It is hard to judge this Iowa team moving forward after just 11 games, and without knowing for sure what Bohannon plans to do. He would lose his chance for a medical redshirt if he played in another game this season, and it has been widely assumed that Bohannon would shut it down after the Iowa State game.
He had hip surgery in late May, but now his other hip is reportedly bothering him to where it might require surgery.
Bohannon talked in detail about his decision after Thursday’s game, but shed no light on which way he is leaning.
He could play in up to 10 games in the first semester and still take a medical redshirt. The Iowa State game was Bohannon's 10th game.
“I want to be out there,” Bohannon said. “It’s not like I’m using it as an excuse to try and not play this year. Obviously, we’re playing really good basketball right now and we’ll see how the next couple days go.
“If I come out Wednesday, Thursday after finals and I’m feeling great, there’s a good chance I still might be able to play.”
Bohannon said the fact that Iowa is playing well would factor into his decision. But he also admitted to being sore and to wanting to play a full season with no health issues.
The guess here is that Bohannon ultimately will decide to shut it down, and that Fran McCaffery will react accordingly either way.
Bohannon would obviously be a huge loss because you don’t replace one of the greatest clutch 3-point shooters in Big Ten history.
But his supporting cast in the backcourt has exceeded my expectations, especially the 6-3 Fredrick, who is bigger and more athletic than I expected him to be.
Garza is also playing at an All-America level, while Wieskamp is expanding his game beyond just being a scorer.
All five of Iowa's starters scored in double figures against Iowa State, while senior forward Ryan Kriener came off the bench and scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in 17.29 minutes.
The lightning quick Toussaint also scored six points and had four assists while playing 14.38 minutes off the bench.
There is a lot good things happening with this Iowa team, and the head Hawk, Fran McCaffery, is the one most responsible for making it happen, just like he would be the one most responsible if it weren’t happening.
It goes with the territory for a head coach, and right now, Fran McCaffery’s territory looks better than how it was expected to look after 11 games.