By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Atlanta Tipoff Club announced Friday the 15 late-season candidates for the 2020 Werner Ladder Naismith Coach of the Year, and three are from the Big Ten Conference, but Fran McCaffery isn’t one of them.
No disrespect to the three Big Ten coaches who made the cut, because you could make a strong case for Pat Chambers, Brad Underwood and Steve Pikiell, but you also could make a strong case, or even a stronger case, for McCaffery under the circumstances.
Some will accuse me of just being a Hawkeye homer due to covering the team and being from Iowa.
And maybe there is some truth to that, but it also seems possible to cover a team, and to even be a fan of a team, while also maintaining some objectivity.
The reason I’m saying a strong case could be made for Fran McCaffery is based on facts and circumstances rather than feelings and emotions.
Chambers, Underwood and Pikiell certainly deserve high praise and consideration for individual coaching accolades based on what they’ve accomplished this season at Penn State, Illinois and Rutgers, respectively.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson also made the list, and deservedly so, based on what his team has accomplished.
But if you take into consideration body of work and the circumstances each coach has faced this season, it seems hard to believe that 15 head coaches have out-performed Fran McCaffery this season.
Iowa’s 10th-year head coach has taken a team that was considered an NCAA bubble team at best heading into the season, and that has been without two starters, including record-breaking 3-point shooter Jordan Bohannon for most of the season, and turned it into a team that is now pretty much a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, and that is virtually unbeatable at home where it has a 13-1 record.
Iowa has also been without a third starter, redshirt freshman guard C.J. Fredrick for the last two games, and yet, still won both games against Minnesota on the road and against Ohio State at home.
Fran McCaffery also deserves credit for how he has utilized his son, 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Connor McCaffery, on the court. Fran McCaffery has turned what could’ve been a potentially awkward situation into a strength.
The concern amongst some Hawkeye fans was that Fran McCaffery would basically hand Connor McCaffery the point guard position, and that Connor would struggle with quickness at the point of attack.
But instead, Fran McCaffery has carved out a unique role for his son that allows Connor to take advantage of his size, versatility and intelligence.
Connor McCaffery is a gifted passer who sees the floor well, and who anticipates things happening on the court.
Connor is also big enough to guard multiple positions and versatile enough to play alongside a true point guard such as freshman Joe Toussaint.
The fact that Connor McCaffery has more steals (29) than turnovers (24) this far into the season is a testimony to how well Connor is being coached by his father, and a testimony to Connor’s talent.
Connor McCaffery also leads Iowa with 102 assists and has been described as the glue to the team, the one player who keeps all the pieces connected.
And then, of course, there is Luka Garza’s rise to dominance for which Fran McCaffery also deserves some credit.
Garza has gone from being a good player in his first two seasons to one of the most productive players in program history. The 6-11 junior center is doing things that haven’t been done since the days of Fred Brown and the Six Pack a half-century ago.
Garza has scored at least 20 points in 12 consecutive games, which is the longest streak for a Hawkeye since Fred Brown scored 20 or more in 13 straight games in 1970.
Garza seems the clear choice for Big Ten Player of the Year at this stage due to his individual dominance and because of Iowa’s success.
Fran McCaffery isn’t the clear choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year at this stage, but he seems to be getting overlooked as shown with the Naismith announcement.
It’s also worth noting that Iowa had to replace three of its best players from last season in Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Nicholas Baer.
Combine those losses with the injuries from this season and that’s a lot of obstacles that have stood in the way.
And yet, the team has stayed the course, and has stayed in the upper half of a deep and competitive Big Ten race pretty much from start to finish.
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard also deserves more credit than he gets as the Badgers improved to 10-6 in conference play with a victory over Rutgers on Sunday at home.
But Gard hasn’t had to overcome as many obstacles as Fran McCaffery has this season.
This season could’ve spiraled in the wrong direction once the injuries started to mount, and there could have been a lowering of expectations that would have seemed justifiable under the circumstances.
But instead, Iowa is currently tied for second place in the conference with a 10-6 record and playing for the highest seed possible in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa’s unexpected rise has been a group effort led by a superstar player, and by a coaching staff that keeps pushing the right buttons.
And it all starts with Fran McCaffery, whose performance compares favorably with every coach in the Big Ten whether the Naismith Award thinks so or not.
The same could be said about Lisa Bluder, but she at least made the cut on the women's side as one of 15 late-season candidates.
As good as Fran McCaffery has been this season, Bluder arguably has been better.
The Iowa women’s basketball team was also considered an NCAA bubble team at best heading into the season, and some wondered if Bluder would face a rebuilding project with 2018-19 National Player of the Year Megan Gustafson having graduated.
Bluder also had to replace Hannah Stewart at power forward and Tania Davis at point guard, and that was no easy task considering how much they also contributed to Iowa’s march to the Elite Eight last season.
But remarkably, there hasn’t been a decline from a record standpoint. Iowa currently sits one game behind Maryland in second place in the Big Ten and is in position to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
Bluder won the Naismith Award last season, and deservedly so, but you could argue that she has been even more impressive this season under the circumstances.
Oh, yeah, and the top-ranked Iowa wrestling team has been dominant throughout the season under Tom Brands.
A strong case could be made for all three of Iowa’s head coaches in the winter sports when it comes to individual awards.
It just seems that Fran McCaffery’s performance is being overlooked.
McCaffery's temper has caused problems for him in the past, and it makes you wonder if he gets penalized for it in cases like this, because the facts and the circumstances would suggest that maybe he does.
Naismith Coach of the Year late 2020 Watch List
Patrick Chambers, Penn State
Scott Drw, Baylor
Brian Dutcher, San Diego State
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Anthony Grant, Dayton
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa
LaVell Jordan, Butler
Chris Mack, Louisville
Greg McDermott, Creighton
Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Steve Pikiell, Rutgers,
Brad Underwood, Illinois
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall