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Free-For-All Friday: How Far Can Fran McCaffery Take Iowa Basketball?

Hello Jerry and JPinIC blow off work to talk about Iowa Basketball, expectations for next season and the ceiling for Fran McCaffery at Iowa. Hint: it’s the roof.

Michigan State v Iowa
Watch out, Tommy Boy, the Franimal is coming for you!
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Note: Hello Jerry and JPinIC go way back. Like back to college, way back. So basically since the beginning of time. They are former proprietors of a business you may have heard of called Prestige Worldwide (not really, that’s a fake story that’s not true). They ran a website (or two) together that you may not have heard of (Meet Me On Melrose is still the best damn Iowa site that’s not on the internet) and will, on occasion, ramble on and on in email exchanges about the beloved Hawkeyes (Hello Jerry Note: I’m going to force JP to write for you all. No more gif dumps on Fridays from the king of gif dumps. MAKE ME A BICYCLE CLOWN!). What follows is the first of what we hope will become a regular part of the week here at The Pants. You can think of it as a sort of Fireside Chat where we are sitting side-by-side in front of a blazing fire in a study adorned with many leather-bound books smoking pipe tobacco. Or you can think of it as a sort of bar discussion where we are hammered drunk (though not singing lead for Lynyrd Skynyrd) at FAC being the obnoxious guys you wish would just go home already. But we won’t. It’s Friday. It’s a Free-For-All. And we are going strong into the wee morning hours.

JPinIC: Jer, first and foremost, welcome aboard man! It’s been far too long, my friend!

Hello Jerry: Oh you are still too kind. I’m glad to be here. It’s been awhile since you and I collaborated together about the ol’ Hawkeyes, but you know what they say… when it feels good and it feels right, it’s probably meant to be. YOU CAN’T KEEP US AWAY, JP.


So now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive right in, shall we?

So, hoops season just ended. And while I had my hopes up a bit toward the end this group could sneak in to the tournament that counts, it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t have that expectation at the outset of the season so at the end of the day I’m not really disappointed. I would have liked to see a nice little NIT run, but at the end of the day I think the season was essentially right on par with expectations. And the nice road wins down the stretch to make things interesting going into the Big Ten Tournament were a cherry on top. Am I falling into the Kirk Ferentz trap of believing Iowa just isn’t sexy enough to demand an NCAA Tournament team every season, or were you in the same boat?

Hello Jerry: Since I left Chicago four years ago and moved to the state that has become a Jimmy Fallon punchline, I’ve tried to adopt a new approach to my sports life… EXPECT NOTHING. Is it cynical? Of course it is. But when you’re a “Cradle Chicago Fan” that so chooses to attend the University of Iowa (by way of St. Ambrose), you go through some heartache. I’ve expected a lot of things in this life of mine.

And Derrick Rose just couldn’t deliver.

And it still hurts.

So, now I expect to be good once every four years under Kirk Ferentz. I expect the Bears not to have a good QB ever. I expect Jimmy Butler to be traded. I expect the White Sox to be fun in three years.

BUT, when it comes to Iowa basketball, all of what I said above goes out the window. I’ve believed in Fran McCaffery’s abilities as a recruiter and coach ever since I personally met him as a bright eyed member of the Hawks Nest hours before his introductory press conference.

Listen, I’m a card carrying forever member of the Franimal House and as a card carrying forever member of the Franimal House, I am forever obligated to expect that this year will be “the year” we at least make it to the Sweet 16.

But back to your question. Honestly, I believed that the freshman class had enough to stay in the upper half of the league at the beginning of the year. And that belief paid off at the end of the season. Those dudes grew up before our eyes and were Tom Crean’s last win away from making our March Madness dreams a reality. I think the basketball program is as healthy as it can be (especially when you look back to where they were) and I will continue to trust McCaffery’s process on our way to a Final Four in two years (@ ME!).

JPinIC: There’s so much to unpack here. First, let me just say I recall bailing on work early to go see Fran’s introductory press conference. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been excited about the prospects of the Todd Lickliter hire. That was the only time during his tenure I was excited about anything. So I didn’t want to get burned, again. I walked into Carver pretty skeptical. Here was a guy who hadn’t coached at a major and who I had never heard of. He was being hired by a guy that gave us Lick and I had been trained by a lifetime of Hawkeye fandom to be cynical. About everything.

Then I listened to the guy talk. And he effing nailed it. He said everything a fan could hope a new coach would say following the disaster that was Todd Lickliter. He talked about playing fast. He talked about getting fans energized. He talked about recruiting. He talked about getting mad again. Now, I had been mad for a while, but he was talking about something different. And as much as I wanted to mock it, I bought in. Especially when he started talking about his previous re-builds and I started looking at what he had done at places like Lehigh, UNC-Grensboro and Siena. None of those are perennial powers, but he took them all to the promised land. And his Siena team went in three consecutive years and took down some big boys. That was something a guy could get used to.

Fast-forward a few years and Iowa looked pretty similar to Siena. The roster makeup wasn’t identical, but that was more a function of the players willing to come to Iowa than what Fran was trying to build. So, after three straight NCAA Tournament appearances at Iowa, it’s hard, to your point, to not get your hopes up heading into every season, but I had slightly tempered expectations given the youth of this roster.

Now that the youth has matured, you better believe my expectations are higher for next year. The real question is, what’s the ceiling for next season and beyond with this group?

Hello Jerry: Outside of simply winning a game in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since I was in high school?

This roster, for the first time in McCaffery’s tenure as a head coach, can do all of the things he talked about in his first presser (did you just Ferris Bueller your way out of work?). You’re right when you mentioned above that his teams looked like the Big Ten’s version of Siena and that’s because of the basement Iowa basketball was locked in when he came onboard.

Seriously, the Todd Lickliter years were like the Upside Down Place in Stranger Things, and he was the Demogorgon. In this exact moment? Am I crazy for thinking that this is a team that can flirt around with an outright title in the next two years?

Oh Iowa Basketball, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: Isaiah Moss and Tyler Cook and Nicholas Baer and JoBo and Cordell Pemsl and Ryan Kriener and Connor McCaffery and Luka Garza and Jack Nunge.

That’s a squad, JP.

The half suicide half rescue mission that McCaffery has completed is just down right impressive. Are there things that he could change? Of course. But isn’t this probably his best collective group of players that he’s ever recruited and coached in his career?

Here’s a fun game I want you and our readers to play… Say you’re a ESPN Top-100 recruit and you grew up in Plainfield, Illinois (about 45 minutes southwest of Chicago). You’ve always wanted to play Big Ten basketball.

What would your personal Top-five be for Big Ten coaches you’d want to play for (keeping everything a Top-100 recruit would think about in mind)?

I think you might be surprised where you’d honestly put McCaffery right now.

JPinIC: Oh man, this is really tough for me to do for a number of reasons. First, I wasn’t a Small-Town-Iowa-Conference Top 100 player so putting myself in the shoes of an actual athlete is tough. Then there’s the whole black and gold colored glasses problem. But I’ll give it a shot.

(Actual footage of my high school career)

  1. Tom Izzo - the resume speaks for itself. EL is a hell-hole, but college kids get over that when they are playing with what’s perceived as a legend.
  2. Mark Turgeon - this was a lot tougher than 1, but Maryland has a reputation, Turgeon has done well bringing in talent so he is obviously selling something I would like and who doesn’t love the flag (I’M A 17-YEAR OLD HIGH SCHOOL KID, DAMNIT!)?

3-5. Things get pretty sketchy here. I could make a case for several guys, but they are mostly based on the school, not the coach. If you’re saying I grew up in the Chicago burbs, there’s a decent chance I’m an Illinois or Wisconsin fan (puke) so I’d probably throw Gard in there. Again, that’s not necessarily about him or what he is selling as it is proximity, fandom and some history (albeit mostly under a different coach). With Illinois, I’m just a dumb high school kid so I completely ignore the fact that Champaign is where talent (and other things) go to die. It’s also a hell hole, but if I grew up a fan, I’m probably buying the hype of the new coach. Again, not about the coach, just the school. Given the reasoning here, I’m probably putting these two on one line (call it 3a and 3b). In the 4th spot, I might go with Archie Miller and Indiana. Similar line of thinking. I think Miller is a good coach and all, but as a high school kid I’m looking at a Blue Blood program with a new coach who is selling me history, playing time and a shiny new future that you can’t dispute because he’s been there less than a month.

And then we get to the fifth line and I’m probably putting Fran McCaffery side-by-side with John Beilein. I don’t know how Beilein is perceived by high school kids, but I think he’s a damn fine coach. He’s got some NBA guys he can sell you on and Michigan, in addition to being a good school, has some history and name brand. McCaffery can sell the hell out of his playing style being one of the most fun in the conference. He can pitch a stretch of 3 straight NCAA Tournament appearances that would’ve been 4 if not for a few things going this way or that. And the family atmosphere is something we always hear about from players.

At the end of the day, if you’re a top-100 kid from outside the Chi and you have an offer from everyone in the midwest, I think Iowa is probably in your top 8 as it stands today. From there it comes down to who you were a fan of growing up (did you grow up rooting against Wisconsin or ND? Is your dad a huge Illinois fan?), where you can find playing time (I love Iowa, but if I’m a PF in the class of 2018, I’m not looking at Iowa) and where you build the best relationship with the staff and the community. I think Iowa does a damn fine job on the last point so if they can find a couple kids who fit on the first two, they are in really good shape. Tyler Cook is a prime example. Nunge and Garza are both just outside the top 100, but I think they both fit there as well.

For me, I’m just hoping Fran can take all that and finally reel in the “break you down off the dribble” guard in 2018 to take things to the next level. I think Moss and Williams have shown some flashes, but the recruiting history of Fran tells me he really wants a waterbug PG who can penetrate and kick to guys like JoBo and let Williams and Moss be more slashers.

So let me do this, I’m going to flip your question back on you. And then I want to ask you where you think this team finishes next year with the roster we have, and where do they finish as a ceiling over the next 3 years?

Hello Jerry: That Mark Turgeon pick was a wrench I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it’s because of my “NOT MY BIG TEN” mentality, but your point was well received (besides the flag, that thing is hideous and so are their yellow uniforms).

Like you, I tried to look at this as objectively as possible. As a dude that is actually from Plainfield, Illinois, I can tell you that the University of Illinois has been dead in the streets since Dee Brown graduated with his degree in Basket Weaving. I’m not sure a two-timing coach is going to change that for me that quickly.

Here’s what I got:

  1. Tom Izzo - AAAAADUH
  2. Jim Beilein - Fun offense. NBA Talent. Deep runs in the tournament. Players seem to love him. He also pre-planned on having a Super Soaker for after a tournament game that he was an underdog in so he could blast his players before they emptied their water bottles onto him. Gotta love a coach with the onions to do that.
  3. Archie Miller - If Indiana came knocking on my door and Whoopie Goldberg was the coach I’d still consider going to Bloomington. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Archie Miller outside of the fact that he got Dayton to the NCAA Tournament a few times, but playing for IU still holds some weight and at this point, Archie’s not dumb face is a bonus for them.

Beyond those three coaches and their respective programs, you can mix up the remaining coaches depending on what you are looking for. Do you want crabcakes and football? Go to Maryland. Do you want to be a Vet? I hear Purdue is pretty solid at that. Do you want to only score 50 points a game? Wisconsin is a beautiful campus. Do you want to play up and down while your coach breaks a chair? Come on down to IC.

Obviously this is super subjective and there are an infinite number of reasons why these kids select these programs, but I suppose my whole point is that Iowa IS a destination for these top recruits. Between the family-like program that McCaffery has created, the facilities, and the campus itself, the top talent in the country should continue to welcome the pitch.

As far as next year goes (and the next three years for that matter), if Iowa finishes outside of the Top-4, I’m going to be a little upset -- which will inevitably turn into me privately questioning everything I just wrote above.

What say you, JP?

JPinIC: I’m with you. This is a roster that’s built to do some damage in the Big Ten. I think over the next 3 years, we should EXPECT to finish no worse than 6th, but more likely top 4. I think next season in particular, we should see them come in around 5th-6th (remember, everyone coming back on this roster is still going to be an underclassman except Williams, Ellingson, Baer and Wagner - oh and Uhl, but he doesn’t count because he shouldn’t ever see the floor again). They’ll be in the tourney and I think they should get a W in round one (that may be a stretch, it’s all about matchups).

It’s the year after next that has me really excited. I think 2018-2019 is the year we could see them make a run at a Big Ten Championship and make a push beyond Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament. The only thing I see holding that group from (and I know how ridiculous this might sound) making a serious run at the Final Four, is a game-breaking guard who can get to the rim at will. Those are hard to come by, for sure, but I think it’s a prerequisite for making a serious run.

The year after is more of a question mark. You lose Baer, Ellingson, Wagner and Williams and Pat McCaffery is the only committed player in the class. You’re still missing an elite ball handler and those losses are nothing to scoff at. However, I think the group of then-seniors, now freshmen, is good enough to keep the team in the top 4-5 in the league and into the Round of 32. If Fran can land a great penetrating guard, a slasher and another shooter in the 2019 class (or before if there’s attrition), the team would still be in a position to make another deep tourney run.

Not to go off on a total tangent here, but it’s kind of interesting to me to look at the recruiting. I maintain the missing piece is that penetrating guard, likely a PG. Essentially every year since Fran got here, he’s made an attempt to bring in one of those, typically in the form of some undersized, water-bug type. Think Caesar “Salad” Guerrero, Tyler Ulis, Charlie Moore. Those guys were all capable of breaking their man down off the dribble and getting into the lane. They were all dangerously close to coming to Iowa and didn’t pull the trigger.

Now we have Jordan Bohannon, who is (as Fran would say) phenomenal and I believe he’ll go down as one of the all-time great Iowa players, but he doesn’t fit that mold. Next year we are bringing in Connor McCaffery. He doesn’t fit that mold. If you look out to the next PG being recruited, it’s Carson McCorkle. He looks pretty damned good and can penetrate better than either Bohannon or McCaffery, but he doesn’t fit that mold either. So I wonder if Fran’s philosophy has changed due to a lack of success or perhaps he knows something we don’t about this team (that seems unlikely, we are a blog after all). Or, maybe he’s looking at McCorkle as ancillary to a breakdown PG. If that’s the case and he can close it, the ceiling is the roof, as the kids (and MJ) say.

So all that to say, I think you are dead on that Iowa should be a contender in the league and making the NCAA Tournament just about every year for the remainder of the McCaffery era. I expect there to be the occasional year like this one where the recruiting classes just necessitate a down year (when you have 10 scholarship players that are freshmen or sophomores, it’s really tough to contend), but otherwise I expect basically what Wisconsin had under Bo Ryan (as an aside - F Bo Ryan).

If Fran can deliver that sort of success, I will die a happy Hawk fan. Now, the real question is, if he is that successful, will fans actually show up to the games and cheer? Or will Carver be a snooze-fest for eternity?

Hello Jerry: We’re going to need another 3,000 words for that one...

So what say you? Who ya got as your top 5 coaches? How far will this team go next season? What’s Fran’s ceiling? Will JP ever stop gif-ing? We need answers!