Fran McCaffery was hired on March 28, 2010 to replace Todd Lickliter as Iowa's head basketball coach. He inherited a program at rock bottom. Iowa had just gone 10-22, setting a team record for losses and registering a third consecutive losing season. Players had jumped -- and, if reports from that time were to be believed, were preparing to jump -- from the program in record numbers. The lack of success, style of play, and side effects of the Big Ten Network had sent fans for the exits, and Iowa was selling approximately 60% of its seats (and getting even fewer through the gates). Program revenues had decreased by $1.35 million over five years, with profits down by nearly $1 million. Lickliter had been given 1000 days and shown the door. Where does the program sit 1000 days into the Fran McCaffery regime?
The results speak for themselves: Three years into the McCaffery era, the Hawkeyes just went 25-13, won more games in a season than they have in more than 25 years, and finished runner-up in the National Invitational Tournament. McCaffery has yet to make the NCAA Tournament, but Iowa was in the tournament conversation for the first time since 2007. Iowa finished 23rd in the Kenpom ratings, its highest finish, again, since 2007; its highest rating in the intervening five years was 64th in 2008.
The 2012-13 season followed a steady progression of success. McCaffery's first team, made up almost exclusively of Lickliter's players and missing two key players from his recruiting class, went 11-20 and a fairly miserable 4-14 in Big Ten play. But even in that team there were glimmers of hope. Iowa closed the season with a home win over a top 20 team (Purdue) and recorded a second victory over a top conference foe (Michigan State). The Hawkeyes didn't shoot worth a damn, especially from outside, but they also took to the basic premise of McCaffery's defensive philosophy: Do not give up free throws (it was the only thing that tied the Lickliter and McCaffery systems together).
Iowa's offense improved dramatically in 2012, largely due to Matt Gatens finding the cheat code in his Game Genie, the rapid progression of Roy Devyn Marble, and the improbable play of freshman Aaron White. The record went with it: The Hawkeyes finished 18-17, going over .500 for the first time in five years. The Hawkeyes made the NIT andf won their first round game as a home underdog. More importantly, Iowa again reached competitive respectability in the Big Ten, going 8-10 in the conference and sweeping rival Wisconsin.
Expectations for 2013-14 are already spiraling skyward, with Iowa destined to be a trendy dark horse pick to win the Big Ten. It's all or nothing for the NCAA Tournament, never a good situation for Iowa basketball teams under the two previous coaches. It will now be McCaffery's charge to reverse the jinx.
McCaffery had a rocky start on the recruiting trail. He started by losing two coveted Lickliter recruits: Sioux Falls-based forward Cody Larson opted to attend Florida, and Chicago-area sharpshooter Ben Brust went to Wisconsin. McCaffery was able to hold onto forward Zach McCabe and wingman Roy Devyn Marble. He also added Melsahn Basabe, who had committed to play for McCaffery at Siena and agreed to make the move west, and JUCO point guard Bryce Cartwright. All four were contributors, with Marble developing into the team's best all-around player. Credit has to be split between Lickliter and McCaffery, but credit is warranted nonetheless.
In his first class, McCaffery added Cedar Rapids shooting guard Josh Oglesby, lightly-recruited forward Aaron White, and prep school center Gabe Olaseni. More important to many fans, though, was who he missed, specifically forward Jared Uthoff. Also disconcerting was McCaffery's inability to land a point guard to replace the exiting Cully Payne. While the addition of White and development of Basabe solved some of Iowa's frontcourt problems, the miss at point guard meant that Marble would have to back up senior Bryce Cartwright, with a true freshman presumably inheriting the position the next year. He had procured a commitment from JUCO transfer Anthony Hubbard, but Hubbard left before he ever really got here.
All of that changed in September, when highly-coveted center Adam Woodbury turned down offers from some of the nation's best programs and agreed to play for the Hawkeyes. He was quickly joined by AAU teammate Mike Gesell, the four-star point guard that Iowa desperately needed. The Hawkeyes also got two other guards, Anthony Clemmons from Michigan and Patrick Ingram from Indiana, and a development project at power forward in Kyle Meyer. All in all, it was a national top 25 recruiting class at a program that had been irrelevant for the entirety of the players' conscious lives.
McCaffery wrapped up 2013 recruiting early, in large part by poaching Uthoff back from Wisconsin on a transfer. He also added Peter Jok, a wing from West Des Moines who had been considered a top prospect when in junior high but struggled with injuries. Jok led the state in scoring as a senior.
Most importantly (and most unlike the AAU-weary Lickliter), McCaffery has a staff geared to modern recruiting. Assistant Sherman Dillard has ties to Nike's summer camp programs and the AAU coaches who get players to those camps. Assistant Andrew Francis, who came with Fran from Siena, is the boots-on-the-ground recruiter on this staff. And nobody works as hard as McCaffery himself, who rarely missed a high school or AAU game while pursuing Woodbury and Gessel, and who notoriously cut a December postgame press conference short so he could get to a late high school game in Peoria, Illinois. Aside from those early misses, it's been smooth sailing, and recruiting has become as big a source of hope in the program as the on-court play.
Grade: B+, only for the mistakes of 2011.
As problematic as recruiting was under the previous administration, retention was far worse. In 2007, Iowa signed three recruits: Jarryd Cole and Jake Kelly, who were recruited by Alford, and point guard Jeff Peterson, a Lickliter recruit. Of those three, only Cole made it to his third season in Iowa City: Kelly left for Indiana State in spring 2009 after his mother was tragically killed in a plane crash, and Peterson left the same spring for Arkansas.
Lickliter's first full recruiting class featured six players, five of which he identified and recruited (Matt Gatens had committed to Iowa during Steve Alford's tenure). Guard Anthony Tucker got into legal trouble and transferred after two seasons. Jermain Davis, a JUCO guard who started eleven games in his first season on campus, left for Minnesota State after one year. Devan Bawinkel, a JUCO transfer who had precisely one shot (the three from the corner), made it through two seasons and graduated. If the rumors are to be believed, the threat of transfer by Gatens and forward Aaron Fuller were what forced Gary Barta to fire Lickliter; Fuller transferred to USC anyway. Only Gatens and Andrew Brommer stayed four years.
Two of the four players in Lickliter's second full class -- Eric May and Devon Archie -- stayed for the duration. Archie was a transfer with nowhere else to go, but May suffered through injuries and made himself a solid basketball player. Lickliter's other two 2009 recruits were not so lucky. Brennan Cougill, famously promoted by his hometown paper, ran into classroom trouble and transferred out. Cully Payne had a solid freshman season, but injuries stopped him from playing most of 2010-2011, and he left for Loyola Chicago after the season.
The slow bleed killed the Lickliter regime. Having to land five players every year just to fill the roster was tough enough, but the transfers prevented players from learning the finer points of Lickliter's famously complicated offensive system. A perpetual parade of underclassmen wasn't helping anyone.
Fran McCaffery has signed 12 players to Iowa (including two who Lickliter recruited). All 12 are still here or graduated on schedule. Gone are the days of struggling to find seven players for a rotation. Gone are the widespread player grumblings every March. Gone is the string of freshmen who never make it to be juniors. Iowa is bringing back a group of players who have not only stayed, but developed into serious Big Ten basketball players.
Grade: A (can it be anything else?)
It was as if whoever is running the Iowa Basketball Twitter account (@IowaHoops) knew I was writing this:
Attendance at CHA has increased 30% from 2010. Thank you Hawkeye fans!!! #Hawkeyes— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) April 8, 2013
It really is amazing what attractive basketball can do. It has been said by many that Iowa fans will support a team that loses while playing fast, and that Iowa fans will support a winner that plays slow, but a methodical, plodding style of basketball coupled with morale-destroying defeats were a bridge too far. McCaffery's first team was 11-20, hardly an upgrade from the previous season in results, but drew increased attendance solely by going up-tempo: Home attendance increased 23 percent, the fifth-highest percentage improvement in the nation. The Big Ten opener against Illinois was an official sellout.
Iowa averaged 11,900 fans per game in Fran's second season, a much more modest improvement of just 2.3%, and pulled a legitimate sellout in its NIT opener against Dayton. The Flyers head coach Archie Miller called CHA a "hornets' nest" that night, and the program successfully capitalized on that performance to build interest for 2012-13.
The Hawkeyes parlayed that interest into 13,625 fans per home game in 2012-13. In Big Ten play, Iowa averaged 14,385 spectators, just 1,000 short of full capacity. Iowa recorded six sellouts: Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana State (NIT), and Stony Brook (NIT). It was Iowa's highest attendance total and average since 2007, returning to its historic top 20 levels. It was also a 14.4 percent increase over 2011-12. And that was with a horrendous, borderline unwatchable nonconference home schedule.
That is a 3.83 GPA for McCaffery in three seasons, more than enough to keep that APR up (oh, and Iowa's 947 APR is more than enough to keep them in good standing; again, it's amazing what happens when players stay). It's been a remarkable turnaround in just three seasons, a rebuild that is probably a year ahead of schedule (as McCaffery's 2012 nonconference schedule showed). This season was the end of the rebuild. Next year is the payoff.