By Pat Harty
INDIANPOLIS – In nearly 30 years of covering the Iowa men’s basketball team, it’s hard to think of a team that had better chemistry and that was more unselfish than the current one.
Lots of factors have contributed to Iowa’s late season surge in which it has won 12 of the last 14 games, including the program’s first Big Ten Tournament title since 2006, but team chemistry might be at the top of a long list.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a team than this group, how they worked, sacrificed and incredible unselfishness,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Sunday’s 75-66 victory over Purdue in the Big Ten Championship game. “But I have to say we played a tremendous team today, incredibly well-coached team who had a great year and anything short of effort that we put forth today we would not have won.
“They were committed to the game plan, they were committed to each other, and there’s no better feeling as a coach than to watch them celebrate the way they would celebrate after the game for the Big Ten championship.”
The Iowa players truly seem to like and care for each other and they all have bought into the team-first mentality, which is so crucial to a team’s success.
Junior point guard Joe Toussaint could have pouted and become a distraction when he lost his starting position in early February after 21 games.
But instead, he embraced his role coming off the bench because that’s what a good teammate does.
A good teammate sacrifices individual goals for the good of the team, and a good teammate is happy when others have success.
A good teammates checks his ego at the door and understands that whatever it takes to win is what matters the most.
The current Iowa team, which will face Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 2:10 p.m. CST in Buffalo, New York, is an example of what happens when a strong culture is established.
Fran McCaffery has built a culture in which sacrificing for the good of the team is an expectation rather than a hope.
Each player has his own individual skill set and personality, but what they all have in common is a genuine love and respect for each other.
Nobody ever complains about playing time, or about not getting enough shots because that would be counter-productive and would go against the culture that Fran McCaffery has built over 12 seasons.
The players accept whatever role they have in each game, and more times than not, they have risen to the occasion when their number is called, as was the case in Sunday’s game.
Connor McCaffery started in each of the past two seasons, but his father asked him to come off the bench this season as a fifth-year senior and Connor McCaffery, much like Toussaint, has embraced the role.
Connor McCaffery also made a crucial 3-point play in the second half to help withstand Purdue’s attempt at making a rally.
It would’ve been easy for the team to unravel and for the players to go in separate directions when Iowa was struggling in conference play with a 4-6 record.
But the players stayed the course and they stayed unified and now they’ve been rewarded with a Big Ten Tournament title and with a spot in the Big Dance.
It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when the players and coaches believe in each other and trust and respect the decisions that are made along the way.
Toussaint only played slightly more than 10 minutes in Sunday’s victory over Purdue, but he made each minute count and he cheered enthusiastically from the bench when he wasn’t playing.
Fran McCaffery used 12 players in Sunday’s game and each one of them helped Iowa prevail in a hostile environment.
Sophomore center Josh Ogundele came off the bench to help offset Purdue’s size and he responded with four critical points.
And the reaction from his teammates when Ogundele scored was beautiful to watch because it was so genuine and sincere.
Freshman guard Payton Sandfort came off the bench and scored 10 points, including back-to-back 3-point baskets when Purdue was trying to rally in the second half.
His baskets were huge because Purdue made an effort to contain point guard Jordan Bohannon on the perimeter, and it worked for the most part as Bohannon only scored seven points.
Bohannon also sat for a long stretch in the second half, but he didn’t seem to care because his teammates were having success, and because he knows the team comes first.
“I go to Payton, he produces,” Fran McCaffery said. “I go to Connor, he produces. I go to Joe, he produces. Go to Josh, he produces. And it doesn’t always happen that way, as you know.”
Sophomore forward Keegan Murray is without question the best player on the team and one of the best players in the country.
He is also considered a potential lottery pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, but he hasn’t let his rapid ascent to stardom affect the way he conducts himself on or off the court.
He plays within the framework of the offense and he plays with passion and pride.
Bohannon decided to return for his sixth season, and his decision could have caused resentment from some of the other guards that have waited for their chance to have a key role.
But the other guards all knew that Bohannon’s experience – he played in his 178th game on Sunday – and his ability to make 3-point baskets would make Iowa a better team.
“It really is a dream,” Bohannon said after Sunday’s victory over Purdue. “This is something individually-wise, obviously, I wanted to do when I came to Iowa City. Everyone on the team was so committed this offseason and we knew that we had something special here. I love these guys, I love Coach. Everything that we have done has been the right way and that’s just what makes it so perfect. Everyone here is committed to doing things the right way.
“And understanding that we had one of the best players in the country, best players to ever go through Iowa to my left and he just stepped up in huge moments throughout the whole season for us to get here. (Keegan Murray) has just been phenomenal all year, stepped into the line up and just gave everything he had these last four games. And I’m just beyond thankful to be in this position.”
The fact that so many of the Iowa players grew up in Iowa also has helped to build team chemistry because they have something in common and because they truly appreciate the chance to be a Hawkeye.
But it takes more than just home-grown talent to win in the Big Ten and Iowa has a nice blend of players from instate, from out of state and from overseas.
Iowa’s starting lineup consists of three native Iowans and Tony Perkins, who is from Indianapolis, and senior forward Filip Rebraca who if from Serbia.
“There’s so many Iowa kids on this team that put their blood, sweat and tears into this jersey,” Bohannon said. “You think about just some of the lineups we had out there at points of this season, especially tonight. There’s four Metro kids out there on top of Tony, hometown kid here. That’s just really special. You don’t see that too many times in college basketball. You have guys that are just committed to a school and continue to work for each other and want the best for everyone out there, you know, if you get subbed out or not. It’s just an honorable team and this is a once-in-a-lifetime team for sure.”
Rebraca played his first three seasons at North Dakota where he averaged in double figures as a scorer and where he would’ve been the star player this season.
But he wanted to play on a bigger stage, so he transferred to Iowa to help fill the massive void left by 2021 National Player of the Year Luka Garza.
Rebraca has had to sacrifice a great deal on offense, but he accepted a lesser role for the good of the team, and now he’s a Big Ten champion and is preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
Iowa was considered a longshot by some to make the NCAA Tournament this season due to having to having to replace so many key players from last season.
But what the doubters failed to realize is how close the Iowa players are on and off the court, and how strong the culture is under Fran McCaffery.
Everyone on the team was so committed this offseason and we knew that we had something special here. I love these guys, I love Coach. Everything that we have done has been the right way and that’s just what makes it so perfect. Everyone here is committed to doing things the right way. And understanding that we had one of the best players in the country, best players to ever go through Iowa to my left and he just stepped up in huge moments throughout the whole season for us to get here. The guy to my right has just been phenomenal all year, stepped into the line up and just gave everything he had these last four games. And I’m just beyond thankful to be in this position.