Fran-tic Resurgence of Iowa BasketballPosted by Deepak Jayanti on February 3rd, 2012
For the past five seasons, Big Ten fans outside of Iowa looked through schedules in November and were upset if their team only played the Hawkeyes once. They wanted to pick up two easy wins. That won’t happen anymore, not with Fran McCaffery around. McCaffery came to Iowa from the east coast to change the culture around the program and make an immediate impact. Every coach says the right stuff during the introductory news conference but it doesn’t always translate to more wins. In Iowa’s case, however, those wins have come during his second season – already surpassing last year’s overall season total with more than a third of the conference schedule left on the plate. More importantly, the attitude and the brand of the Hawkeye basketball program has changed in 2012. McCaffery is rubbing off on the program and the results show on the court.
The 53-year-old coach keeps it simple but intense. Intense may not begin to describe his behavior during the game or behind closed doors in practice. If you haven’t heard about the best chair-related tirade in the Big Ten since Bobby Knight chucked one across the floor in the ‘80s, you are missing out. During a blowout (down 69-41) at East Lansing against Michigan State, McCaffrey blew a gasket halfway through the second half. In addition to getting a technical, he yelled at his players during the timeout and slammed a chair on the court. As an outsider, there are two aspects of the incident that stick out as positives. Most tirades by a head coach result in the assistants trying to gang-tackle him so he doesn’t get kicked out of the game, but not in this case. Every one of his assistants was just as upset with the pace of the game and their players. The head coach was frustrated with his players because they could not adjust and match the physicality of the Michigan State Bruisers. Neither McCaffery nor his staff will settle for excuses. His intensity is contagious because Iowa may not have the most talented or mature team, but they will play with a chip on their shoulder every single night. Rebuilding teams can’t afford to pity themselves and blame the referees for losses.
In order to make an immediate impact at a program that hasn’t won more than six conference games in three seasons, the coach needs to understand his current team first. McCaffery knows that you don’t need elite talent just to get in shape and hustle on every possession. The team needs conditioning, discipline and determination. His practices upon arrival probably resembled the famous scene from the movie Hoosiers. Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) realizes the lack of depth on the team so his main goal is to get them into shape. When a player complains about the drills, Dale responds – “You are in the Army. You’re in my Army. Everyday between three and five.” Based on McCaffery’s command of the entire program, it doesn’t take a genius to see that his message is heard. The coaching staff hasn’t introduced complicated offensive or defensive systems – the game plans are fairly straightforward. On the court, play a simple but intense brand of basketball. Let’s examine what constitutes Iowa Basketball these days:
- Fast Tempo: “Three yards and a cloud of dust” may be the motto of his Iowa counterpart Kirk Ferentz but Iowa is one of the fastest teams in the conference. The Hawkeyes average about 67 possessions during conference play which is just behind Ohio State. Sprinting up and down the court is a complete turnaround from the grind-it-out style that Todd Lickliter tried to implement unsuccessfully for three seasons. McCaffery recognizes and understands his players’ strengths. They are athletic wings who like to run and play a fast tempo. McCaffery’s Siena teams were fast as well – averaging about 69 possessions per game between 2007-10. Kenny Hasbrouck, Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter tried to run the opposition out of the gym. Hawkeye sophomores Roy Devyn Marble (11.4 PPG) and Aaron White (9.7 PPG) are being molded into similar type of players. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) isn’t as methodical as the B1G but the change in tempo introduces a wrinkle to rest of the conference teams when they play Iowa.
- Attack, Attack, And Attack: Gone are the Iowa teams that hurt you with the deep ball. To paraphrase Rick Pitino’s tirade during his Celtics’ days: “Jeff Horner, Adam Haluska or Luke Recker are not walking through that door.” Zach McCabe (48% 3FG) and Matt Gatens (35% 3FG) have a decent shot from beyond the arc but the team overall is shooting only 35.0%. But McCaffery recognizes the lack of a long-range shot and preaches that every player relentlessly drive to the hoop. What better way to hide your shooting woes than earn most of your points from the free throw line? The lightning pace of the game stays high during the half court sets because they get to the free throw line better than most teams. Twenty-two percent of their total points come from the free throw line, which ranks second in the league. The free throw rates of Aaron White (56.3) and Devyn Marble (49.0) are two of the best in the league. Their ability to get to the line is just pure determination, which spills over from McCaffery’s attitude. Without a true big man inside, the high free throw rate numbers are even more impressive.
- Rebounding: Among the players who average more than 10 minutes per game, the tallest player on Iowa is 6’8 – Aaron White. Melsahn Basabe takes the bruising hits in the paint against the Zellers and the Sullingers of the conference. Outrebounding Jared Sullinger and Ohio State by eight or Wisconsin by five on the road is very impressive without a true big man. On a side note, Aaron White is the third best freshman in the league after Cody Zeller and Trey Burke. He is flying under the radar but the league will recognize him more over the next three seasons.
The freshmen and sophomores listen to the second year coach and have bought into his system. Even though their three-point shooting abilities are suspect, they play within the system, which shows that McCaffery’s message is being heard all across the program. They rank dead last in the B1G in three-point attempts because they are well aware of their limits. Three-point specialists or big guys can always be recruited but the tough brand of basketball on the court is a far more important intangible for their future. Help is on the way next season – Adam Woodbury, a 6’11″ forward and a top 50 recruit according to ESPN, will be the true big man. Mike Gessell, a gritty point guard and top 100 recruit will provide some range.
Gone are the days when teams strolled into their games against Iowa expecting an easy win, as the rest of Big Ten has begun to respect this program again. Pesky and tough were key words used to describe Iowa before 2007. Carver Hawkeye Arena is once again a great a home court advantage for them as the attendance has increased. There is certainly more interest and a different vibe about Hawkeye basketball in the Iowa community. McCaffery may look like a maniac out there on the sideline but it is paying off.