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Overreaction Monday: Fran McCaffery, Expectations and the Iowa Basketball Program

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The Iowa Hawkeyes lost 4 straight before catching the rebound yesterday. Where do things stand with head coach Fran McCaffery and the Iowa basketball program overall?

Iowa v Iowa State
Things have not been great for McCaffery and the Hawkeye hoops squad of late.
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

The basketball regular season is more than a third of the way over. It’s incredible to think that three weeks before the start of the new year that could be true, but here we are on this 11th day of December and the Iowa hoops team has already played 11 of their 31 scheduled regular season game.

Perhaps more surprising than just how quickly this season has gone is how quickly it seems to have gone from one of hope and optimism into one of frustration and despair. Like many of you, I came into this season with relatively high expectations. I knew the loss of an offensive force like Peter Jok would be difficult to replace, but the weapons on the roster seemed to have ample firepower to do the job.

While the firepower seems to be there, it isn’t deployed with any level of consistency. We’ve seen this team go on incredible hot streaks with the offense moving and the points flowing. In those cases the points come in bunches and this team can play with just about anyone in the country. But those stretches have been incredibly limited; maybe once or twice a game at most and never more than a few minutes. In contrast, there’s inevitably a long scoring drought in every game, regardless of opponent or their defensive prowess. And by long I mean 5-10 minutes long. The kind of drought that will cost you a game against any team with a pulse. And it has.

Worse, what offense is there is counteracted by bad to brutally bad defense at times. You can’t win basketball games allowing 15-0 runs every game. You can’t win games allowing nearly 76 points a game (245th in the country) with the level of competition they’ve played to date. Not with the inconsistency on offense. You just can’t.

Making matters even worse, the poor defense and inconsistent offense is exacerbated by an insane number of turnovers and terrible free throw shooting. Going into yesterday’s game, the Hawkeyes were turning it over 14.8 times a game, good for 274th in the country (out of 351 teams). That’s really bad. Worse? The free throw shooting. Going into yesterday, they were shooting 63.6% from the line. That’s 329th in the country. Unacceptable. There’s no other way to put it.

So what’s the cause of all these issues? Well, it’s complicated. Obviously the defensive intensity just isn’t there. Is that on the players? The coaches? Yes. It’s pretty clear watching any Iowa game the players have long stretches where they just seem uninterested in exerting effort on defense. That’s on them.

But it’s also on the coaching staff. If a guy isn’t cutting it on defense, grab some lumber. And it’s not just the effort - guys truly look lost out there at times. The rotations are slow or non-existent oftentimes. That’s on the coaching staff. The press is kind of all over the map. Some of the time it speeds up the opponent, sometimes it pressures them into mistakes, but others it leads to wide open buckets. That can’t happen. Not when you’re matching that with 10-minute scoring droughts on the offensive end.

And why in God’s name does it seem to take so long to get a timeout during those stretches? There are times when you can see from the stands or your couch at home that the bleeding ain’t stopping and yet Fran likes to let guys work through the issues to the point of costing the team valuable points. It’s infuriating to watch at times.

Even more so is watching any end of half play. It’s complete confusion on all fronts. Inevitably it’s the point guard dribbling precious seconds away at the top of the key until they get around the 8-second mark. Then a number of screens are set and before anything can come of them the ball is turned over. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve nearly destroyed my television set watching it unfold. The execution is pitiful, but like with the football team, if the execution is always the problem the root is the coaching.

Perhaps one of the leading causes of a number of these issues is the roster itself. As much talent as there is, it seems to be a collection of best available players. We all know Fran loves to bring in under-recruited, long and lean guys who can play multiple positions and run the floor. That’s fantastic. but has it come at the expense of a true point guard? At this point the answer seems to unequivocally be yes. There’s a slew of guys over 6’4” who can slide in at the SG, SF and often even PF spots, but nobody suited to be a true PG.

Sure there’s Jordan Bohannon. And he’s great. But he’s best when he’s getting open looks from 3, not when he’s try to penetrate into the lane and finish in traffic or dish. The same can be said for Brady Ellingson. This team lacks a guy who can take his man off the dribble and finish with consistency. It lacks someone with the lateral quickness to defend the perimeter. It’s full of long guys to can shoot over defenders and disrupt passing lanes, but it’s constructed in a way that those guys aren’t being put in the best position to succeed on a possession by possession basis.

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Iowa
Jordan Bohannon is great, but he’s best as a spot up shooter.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Never is that more evident than in the midst of those long runs opponents seem to go on. Inevitably there are defensive lapses with quicker guards blowing by Iowa defenders and getting easy buckets for themselves or teammates. That’s met on the other end with stagnation as defenders don’t fear Bohannon’s ability to get by them. Eliminating his shooting threats leaves others to sag off and make entry passes to the post more difficult.

It’s even worse when Fran opts for one of his line changes leaving only bench players on the floor. It’s baffled me for years that McCaffery doesn’t seem to like mixing 1-2 bench players in with his starters, or even just leaving a pair of starters like Cook or Bohannon on the floor with the rest of the second group. The rotations have to be improved to stave off those long droughts.

And yet, with all those issues, all the hand-wringing, I still look at this team and have hope. Not so much for the NCAA Tournament. I think those hopes have been dashed (realistically it’s still possible, just not probable - assuming they need 20 regular season wins to hit the bubble with the SOS, they would need to go 15-5 the rest of the way.... unlikely). But there are some really good parts on this team. I have no doubt they’re going to ruin a lot of quality team’s day down the stretch.

Luka Garza has shown glimpses of some of the best post play I’ve seen from a true freshman big man at Iowa. Yes he needs to prove it against the big boys, but post players are notorious for taking years to develop fully and he is much further along than most in his position. Dito for Jack Nunge. Nunge’s ability to handle the ball and shoot it from outside is ridiculous for a guy his size. Those two are going to be a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams.

The guard issues outlined above are what they are. There isn’t some lightning-quick guard showing up in January who can defend the perimeter and break down guys off the dribble. Hell, there isn’t even one coming in next season in a recruiting class that’s going to include the highest rated player Iowa’s landed in nearly 2 decades. But we did get a glimpse of what Connor McCaffery brings to the table yesterday and I liked what I saw.

No, he isn’t going to be that guy who takes his man off the dribble when the Hawkeyes need a bucket. And no, he isn’t the answer defending the opponents’ guy who can do that. But he is a guy who can facilitate and make the offense flow. That’s what has been missing when Jordan Bohannon is on the bench. And frankly, the option of running McCaffery at point with Bohannon in a position to catch and shoot sounds pretty appealing.

We’ve also seen glimpses of both Isaiah Moss and more recently Maishe Dailey that give me a lot of hope. They often lack confidence, but when they have it they can be lethal. When they are shooting in rhythm and attacking the defense, the Iowa offense has a different dynamic that gives me hope.

And that hope extends beyond this year. This team is incredibly young. As Boiler has pointed out, this team is ranked only slightly higher in KenPom’s experience rankings, coming in at 335th. That’s not a recipe for a lot of wins unless you’re a blueblood with a roster full of 5-star kids. That will likely never be Iowa.

So as next season approaches, this young group will gain valuable experience to build upon. Guys like Moss and Dailey and Bohannon will continue to develop their games and their confidence. Nunge and Garza will be another year along in their development. If Cook stays (yes, I think he needs another year, but the rumblings are there nonetheless) God help opponents and rims alike.

And as I said above, the roster will add the best recruit most young Hawkeye fans will have seen in their lifetimes in Joe Wieskamp. Add in another knockdown shooter like CJ Fredrick and there is plenty to be hopeful about. There will still be the glaring hole where a breakdown point guard could be, but the surrounding pieces improve again and I think there’s enough there to overcome the weakness.

All that hope is exactly why some of the nonsense being spouted about coach McCaffery being on the hot seat are just that: nonsense. This team has flaws. I’m as disappointed as anyone else about where things stand at this point in the season. So is Fran, I can assure you. There are a number of things he clearly deserves criticism for. No coach should be above questioning.

But to call for his head is both ridiculous and completely oblivious to the facts of his tenure. When Fran McCaffery took over as head coach at Iowa in 2010, the program was in shambles. It’s difficult to express just how deep the valley was under Todd Lickliter. The fact that seven years later some feel we are in a position to put the head coach on the hot seat for back-to-back years without an NCAA Tournament appearance is exactly why he shouldn’t be on the hot seat.

Seven years ago an invitation to any post season tournament would have been a gift. The thought of an NCAA Tournament appearance was a distant dream. And now it’s a foregone conclusion, something to be expected. When it isn’t there, the alarm bells are going off.

So have some patience. The man brought this program back from the dead and his given us all the privilege of feeling entitled to an NCAA Tournament appearance every season once again. The team is talented and young. There are recruits in the pipeline which appear to be as good as nearly any we’ve ever seen in program history. It’s hard to watch the struggles early in the year and some criticism is warranted, but let’s not overreact, OK?

Besides, maybe Fran can pull a little Big Ten Tournament magic out of his ass this year a la REDACTED. A little something like this, perhaps?

I mean, he’s got a solid track record in the BTT.

Happy Monday people. The holiday season is fast approaching. Let’s be merry and bright. Go Hawks.