By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery hasn’t made a habit of recruiting graduate transfers, and he said it would have to be the right fit for him to even consider that option.
It can be risky bringing in a new player for just one season because it might disrupt the chemistry, on and off the court.
But in the case of Bakari Evelyn, it was well worth the risk, and now it’s easy to see why McCaffery took a chance on Evelyn, who is one of three seniors that will make his final appearance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Tuesday’s game against Purdue.
“I think it starts with the very first phone conversations you have with him,” Fran McCaffery said. “You kind of get a feeling, like this young guy, he gets it. He wanted to play in the Big Ten.
“Then he took his visit, and he fit in immediately. You could see it. The guys really liked him. He liked them, and you could tell it was going to be a great fit.”
The 6-foot-3 Evelyn grew up in Detroit and played his freshman season at Nebraska before transferring to Valparaiso where he played as a sophomore and junior.
When Evelyn decided to pursue a graduate transfer, Iowa stood out to him for a number of reasons, including the up tempo playing style under Fran McCaffery, the chance to play in the Big Ten again, and even the color of Iowa’s uniforms.
“It was a lot of different maybe subtle ques for me,” Evelyn said Monday before practice. “I grew up playing on the Family in Detroit and our colors were black and gold. So I’ve always been black and gold, so that’s one.”
Evelyn also had gotten to know McCaffery and Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard during the recruiting process in high school.
That helped to create a level of comfort that grew even stronger after Evelyn visited Iowa and met the players.
“Then just the team, the guys, I felt like I really connected with them,” Eveyln said. “So I think that all kind of added up to it.”
The fact that McCaffery likes to push the pace on offense made a good thing even better for Evelyn.
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Evelyn said. “To be able to run up and down, we definitely want to push the pace and put points on the board. I think that fits to my style for sure.”
It took Evelyn some time to get adjusted on the court, but he is now playing his best when it matters the most. He provides depth and experience at both guard positions and does whatever Fran McCaffery asks him to do.
Evelyn only made one basket in the 77-68 victory over Penn State this past Saturday, but it was a 3-pointer that gave Iowa a 67-54 lead with 4 minutes, 41 seconds remaining, and that gave fans a sense that victory was about to happen. Evelyn also made all four of his free throw attempts, had four assists, one steal and one rebound while playing 20 minutes off the bench against Penn State.
“Even early in the year when we were moving him around and it probably wasn't the thing that he was excited about, he just accepted it and did whatever we asked him to do to help us win,” Fran McCaffery sad. “That's who he is. And little by little, he's had some great games for us. I mean, just tremendous. And games where he hasn't scored as much, he's been rock solid as a point guard or as a defender.
“He has the ability to play through a mistake, which veteran guys typically do. But he's been a great fit in that locker room, and that's obviously really critical.”
The addition of Evelyn has helped to fill the void left by Jordan Bohannon’s decision to take a medical redshirt this season due to a hip injury.
Iowa also had to replace Isaiah Moss, who transferred to Kansas as a graduate student last summer after having started the last two seasons at shooting guard for the Hawkeyes.
Evelyn knew there would be a chance for playing time at Iowa, and that certainly has been the case, especially after Bohannon shut it down in early December. There have been times this season when Iowa has only had seven recruited scholarship players available, and Evelyn has always been one of the seven.
His experience and versatility have been key to Iowa’s success this season.
The Hawkeyes are 20-9 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten and a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
Evelyn has yet to play in the NCAA Tournament, so this is all kind of new to him and something that he wants to savor.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” Evelyn said. “It’s been a good experience. I definitely have found out a lot about myself, and I’ve improved just as a person more than anything.
“But it doesn’t feel like it’s quite the end just yet, though. I feel like we’ve got a decent amount of games left. So I just want to keep this thing rolling for as long as possible.”
Evelyn's impact goes beyond just statistics. He also has provided veteran leadership, even as a newcomer, and especially in the case of freshman point guard Joe Toussaint.
" He can play both spots, so he can play with Joe Toussaint or he can play the point and somebody else is at the two spot," Fran McCaffery said. "Those guys, they talk a lot on the bench, they talk a lot in between games. He's studied a lot of film.
"Those guys have really, I think, put their arms around him knowing that he's a valuable member of our team, but he's only a freshman, and he's going to make some mistakes. And I think helping him play through those mistakes is what's critical, and I think Joe has done a terrific job of that, and Bakari has been a big part of it."
Eveyln has made new friends at Iowa that he will cherish forever, and vice versa.
“He came here and he was humble and wanted a chance to be a part of something special and he wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament, and he wanted to be ranked” said junior junior center Luka Garza. “There were a lot of things that he hadn’t done in his career that he looked for, and he was all about the team.
“No matter what role he had on the team, he just played hard for the time he got. And, obviously, recently he’s just been really stepping up for us. He’s been huge for us and he’s just made an immediate impact on our program and in the locker room as well. He’s an upstanding guy and everybody is really good friends with him. I’m really, really good friends with him, and I hope he has great night on Senior Night.”