by Nick Rotunno
The Iowa Hawkeyes have a theme this season, one word to describe their current trajectory and lofty aspirations for the new year:
It’s a good word for the marketing department, short, concise, easy to fit onto the margins of a press release or webpage. It’s also quite accurate.
The Hawkeyes are indeed on the rise, and their recent record proves it. Just four years ago Iowa won a paltry 10 games, but the team has improved every season since.
In ’11-12 the Hawkeyes won 18 games before falling to Oregon in the NIT. They notched 25 victories last season and marched all the way to the NIT championship, where they lost to Baylor.
Now, fresh off a long post-season run and picked by many as a sleeper to contend for the Big Ten title, the Hawks are hunting for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006.
Iowa’s turnaround began on March 29, 2010, when Fran McCaffery replaced Todd Lickliter as head coach of the Hawkeyes. The three-year Lickliter tenure had been rocky—in his final season at the helm, ’09-10, Iowa finished 4-14 in the Big Ten.
McCaffery was a new coach with a very different style. He assembled his staff, hit the recruiting trail and implemented an up-tempo system. Before long Iowa was competing with—and occasionally beating—the best teams in the league.
How did he do it? How could he change a program’s course in just three years?
“In basketball, you get two or three really, really good players and you can make a dramatic change on where you were,” McCaffery said. “Ultimately, you’re going to have to get an entire team of players that have character. If you have that, then you’ve got a chance. We can keep moving forward if we have good people, and we do.”
Iowa men’s basketball occupies a beautiful new suite inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, part of a $47 million renovation and facilities overhaul that was completed in 2011. There’s a bright reception area dressed in black and gold, a long hallway lined with meeting rooms, and down at the corner of the building, with big bright windows overlooking the parking lot and the street below, McCaffery keeps a tidy and spacious office.
This is where the coach goes to work, where he continues the long and stressful process of rebuilding a power-conference program in the middle of Big Ten country, in the middle of corn-and-soybeans America.
It’s also where he does interviews.
Last month, not long after practices got rolling, I talked with McCaffery for about 45 minutes. We discussed this year’s team, the Big Ten conference, the Midwest recruiting scene and the challenges of playing run-and-gun basketball.
“I felt like we needed to play fast,” McCaffery said. “You can’t play fast and play nuts. You’ve gotta play intelligent basketball.”
The Hawkeyes will be a high-scoring team this season, you can count on that. The roster is stocked with talented upperclassmen, including last year’s leading scorer, senior Roy Devyn Marble, who averaged 15 points and four rebounds per game in ’12-13. He’s a creative scorer, good off the bounce, accurate from distance—a multi-skilled player who can manufacture a shot when the clock is winding down.
Junior Aaron White, another key returning player, is a versatile forward and one of the better inside-out threats in the conference. He was second in team scoring last season with just under 13 points per contest. Coming off a stint with the U.S. national program this summer, White is primed for a big season.
Seniors Melsahn Basabe and Pat McCabe bring experience and grit to the Iowa frontcourt, while 6-10 junior Gabriel Olaseni is a shot-blocking specialist (he swatted 36 shots last season) and a solid rebounder.
Then there’s junior Josh Oglesby, the Cedar Rapids, IA, native who’s probably the best three-point shooter on the team. He struggled through a sophomore shooting slump last year, but he’s been working hard on his shot and should be an effective long-range threat this season. The talent is certainly there; in ’11-12 he shot 37 percent from behind the arc (45-121), per hawkeyesports.com.
McCaffery called Devyn Marble, McCabe and Basabe the “cornerstones” of his program, and said those seniors are ready to have the kind of successful season they envisioned when they first stepped on campus.
“We’ve got a lot of different guys that can score,” McCaffery said. “And in this league you’re going to be in close games, I don’t care who you’re playing against. You’ve got to have shot-makers at the end of the game, and you can’t be making mistakes. That’s typically where experience comes in.”
The upperclassmen are the core of this team, but the youngsters aren’t bad, either. Sophomore Mike Gessel is a shifty 6-1 guard from Sioux City, IA, who started 30 games for the Hawks last season. Adam Woodbury, a 7-1 sophomore center, provides a long-armed presence in the low post and is developing an effective offensive repertoire. He’s one of the few players I’ve seen in the college game who can execute a true hook shot.
Newcomers Jared Uthoff, a Wisconsin transfer, and freshman Peter Jok performed superbly on a team trip to Europe in August; they’ve continued their strong play in the early non-conference season. Both players can put the ball in the basket—Uthoff was the 2011 Iowa Mr. Basketball, and Jok was a 2013 Parade All-American at Valley High School in Des Moines.
In the Big Ten, McCaffery said, arguably the toughest conference in the country, a circuit loaded with upper-crust programs like Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin, the good teams don’t intend to fade away and the weaker teams aren’t planning to stay down for long.
“None of those teams that finished above us (last year), they don’t plan on going anywhere,” he said. “When you’re in the best league in the country, it’s much more difficult to go from the bottom to the top.”
And with so many well-known, successful programs to contend with, recruiting in Big Ten country is a difficult business. That’s why, McCaffery said, he needs prospective players to visit Iowa. Once they see the university, the newly-expanded facilities, the fans, it’s a much easier sell. If a kid won’t come out for a visit, forget about it.
“I think the key for us here is getting the prospect on this campus,” McCaffery said. “When they do, it greatly enhances our chances. And sometimes people have a preconceived notion about a place.”
And sometimes, he added, a player you’re recruiting just isn’t interested. If that’s the case, it’s time to pursue somebody else.
“That’s the key to recruiting,” he said. “You’ve gotta know when to move on.”
Not that McCaffery loses very many recruits. Quite the opposite—he’s known as one of the better recruiters in the country, a guy who can pick up kids in his own state but also around the nation. Just look at the Iowa roster—plenty of kids from the Hawkeye State, of course, but also Nebraska, Michigan, Georgia and London, England. He said he prefers it that way; his best teams usually have a mix of Iowa boys and players from elsewhere.
He talked about practices, preparing for high-tempo hoops. Iowa plays fast all the time, not just on game day. The Hawkeyes practice a lot of five-on-five with few stoppages, up and down the court, working the legs and the lungs and the brain at a rapid pace, a tiring pace, so that a player is forced to make a quick decision with the ball in his hands and his muscles in agony. Sure, McCaffery and the staff will blow the whistle and break something down, but it doesn’t happen very often.
Speed, speed, speed. Fast breaks, transition, then a motion offense in the half-court. All at breakneck pace, all by design. Playing fast in the regular season starts with fast play in the pre-season. You have to build the endurance, become accustomed to the pace. And you have to be smart about it.
That’s how it’s been since McCaffery arrived.
“Those guys bought in, they wanted to play that way,” McCaffery said. “This is the way that I coach. And you’ve got to be careful, because you don’t wanna run right into a lopsided defeat. Not only have we established a style of play, but we’ve sort of recruited players that fit that style.”
In general, every one of the Iowa players can handle the ball and run the floor. No one is tied to the low post on every possession, not even the centers. Skilled, mobile big men have become commonplace, McCaffery said. You don’t see many Shaqs or Kareems anymore.
“If you have a lumbering center, teams are just gonna put him in ball screens and spread the floor on you. And he can’t get out and get back and defend and get over and slide. It’s definitely a change in the game.”
Iowa has used that change to its advantage, and the upshot is an exciting style that brings fans to their feet.
The winters are cold in Iowa City; that icy wind blowing off the Iowa River will chill you to the bones. That’s OK, though, because a packed basketball arena is about the warmest place you can be on a Tuesday night in January—the snow swirling outside, the black-and-gold crowd filing into their seats, the sizzling pizza, the ice cream cones, the pep band in all its clamor.
Here’s the thing about Carver-Hawkeye that’s often overlooked: When it’s full, the place is as loud as any gym in the conference. The arena is an oval-shaped bowl that seats 15,500 people. The court is buried well below ground level; spectators enter at the top of the stadium and descend to their seats. During a big game the noise flows down from above, a wave of sound that has no way to escape the building. The student section is big and noisy, too.
And McCaffery’s teams, which play with a little more panache and style than many Iowa teams of the past, are easy to cheer for.
McCaffery has watched the fans return to Carver, felt the excitement building for his team. He’s led the way in many respects, drumming up interest in the program, talking to the fans, asking them to believe in what he’s trying to do. Iowans, he knew, have too much pride in their basketball teams to stay away for long.
And now all that effort is paying off.
“Well it’s been phenomenally rewarding for me, but I felt pretty confident that that would happen,” McCaffery said. “[The fans] might go away, but they don’t want to be away forever. These people understand basketball. We had to do the work, but I felt very confident they would come back.”
According to the Iowa athletic website, home game attendance has increased by 30 percent since 2010. More than 7,000 people showed up for this year’s Black and Gold Blowout, a preseason intra-squad scrimmage, and demand for season tickets has exploded.
Most importantly, Carver is rocking again.
I knew a few things about McCaffery long before I met him in Iowa City.
For instance, I knew that he was very good at winning basketball games. Before coming to Iowa in 2010, he had coached Siena for five years and compiled a win-loss record of 112-51. At UNC-Greensboro he racked up 90 wins over six seasons. And at Lehigh, a program he took over when he was just 26 years old, becoming the youngest DI head coach in the country, McCaffery went 49-39 in three years.
I also knew that he had guided all three of those mid-major programs to the NCAA Tournament, a feat no other coach has achieved. And of course I had already studied his Iowa success, his fast-improving record, the national recognition he’s brought to the program, because I’m an Iowa alumnus and a longtime fan. I’m proud of it, objectivity be damned.
Finally, I thought I knew—not from any personal experience but simply from watching games on TV—that McCaffery could be fiery, intense, impassioned and occasionally eruptive on the sidelines. In my mind these were not flaws in character, not at all—I liked his fire, his obvious competitiveness, and after several depressing seasons of Todd Lickliter slow-ball I thought McCaffery’s up-tempo, guns-blazing brand of hoops was just what the Hawkeyes needed.
But the coach surprised me. His overall demeanor was neither intense nor intimidating, but friendly. And candid. And unexpectedly genuine.
In short, he was one hell of a nice guy.
McCaffery is 54 years old, a bit gray-haired, tall and lean and long-legged. The former Penn point guard still has a ballplayer’s body; he walks quickly, strides down hallways and sidelines. He seems a man of restless energy. On game days he is always sharply dressed, coat and tie, but there’s still a sense of youthfulness about him, as if the age gap between him and his players is more like 10 years than 35.
He’s brought new hope to the Iowa heartland, and among the Hawkeye faithful he’s raised an exciting question: How far can this coach take us?
It could be a question of scheduling. Last season, according to some analysts, Iowa’s strength of schedule was considered too soft for a NCAA Tourney bid, despite the Hawkeyes’ brutal Big Ten slate. This year it’s a different story.
“We felt like we had a team that was ready to be challenged. It’s experienced and deep enough,” McCaffery said. “So let’s go play people. And let’s show the NCAA selection committee that we weren’t afraid to play people.”
The level of competition spikes in late November, when the Hawkeyes host Penn (an 86-55 rout—Ed.) and then travel to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis. They’ll face Xavier in the opening round. On December 3 Iowa takes on Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, on December 7 the Hawkeyes visit Drake, and on December 13 they travel to Ames, IA, for the annual showdown with rival Iowa State.
“The Iowa State game is always going to be a phenomenal game, whether it’s here or there,” McCaffery said.
After the holidays it’s on to the Big Ten schedule. Iowa will play four of the conference powerhouses twice this season: Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. If the Hawkeyes play well in the nonconference season and post a good record in-conference, their strength-of-schedule and RPI should be good enough for an at-large berth in the NCAA tourney. Or, they could just win the Big Ten Tournament and remove all doubt from the equation.
“There’s been a lot of positive talk about this particular team, and I think they welcome that challenge,” McCaffery said. “Now you’ve gotta go out and back it up. And that takes a certain level of maturity.”
Photos courtesy of Iowa Basketball/Darren Miller