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The Curious Case of Point Guard Recruiting Under Fran McCaffery

Fran McCaffery has been a successful recruiter for the Hawkeyes with one glaring exception: the point guard position. What’s gone wrong and how can it be fixed?

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

During the recent struggles of the Iowa basketball team, there’s been particular focus and angst among fans and talking heads alike due to the current situation at point guard. It’s an interesting development coming in a year where the Hawkeyes return Jordan Bohannon, who was by all accounts a breakout star in Iowa’s 2016-2017 push for an NCAA Tournament berth. Adding to the intrigue, the roster appeared to have two additional quality options at PG in the fall with the return of junior Christian Williams and the addition of a borderline top-100 recruit at the position in Fran’s oldest son Connor McCaffery.

That picture has changed drastically over the last few months. In late October, Williams announced he was transferring and leaving the team immediately. Connor spent the early part of the season battling a combination of injuries, mono and tonsillitis and now appears headed toward a redshirt season. The Hawkeyes have gone from 3 solid options at PG to 1.

What’s worse, the departure of last year’s Big Ten leading scorer, Peter Jok, has allowed opposing defenses to focus much of their attention on Bohannon. As great as he was a season ago, his strong suit is setting up the offense and knocking down open shots. Those open shots are few and far between with opponents looking to shut him down. His deficiencies as a penetrator are exacerbated by defenses overplaying him and a lack of other penetrators on the floor to draw defenders away.

As the Hawkeyes have struggled to find conference wins, the struggles of the backcourt have been at the forefront of many fans’ minds. Questions have been asked about the lack of depth at the guard position and more glaring lack of penetrators in the backcourt.

So how do Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeye faithful find themselves in this spot? The answer is a bit complicated.

It starts with the issues already discussed above. Neither Christian Williams nor Connor McCaffery would have been the savior for this team. Neither are the quick penetrator this team lacks. But both are quality ballhandlers that provide depth at the PG position. Both are missing. If either or both were still in the rotation, the problems would still be there but would certainly be muted.

The bigger issue goes back to the recruiting trail. Since his arrival in 2010, Fran has been a relentless recruiter. He’s turned over rocks to uncover under-recruited stars like Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Dev Marble. But what’s seemed to evade him going all the way back to his first season is that coveted PG.

For Fran’s part, it’s not for a lack of trying. Quite the contrary. McCaffery has targeted at least one PG in every single recruiting class since he arrived, save the 2018 class where he had only one scholarship available and a top-50 SG in his backyard.

What’s more, Fran has set his sights pretty high. Here’s the rundown of McCaffery’s top PG target each year since his arrival in Iowa City.

McCaffery PG Targets

Year Top Target Other Target
Year Top Target Other Target
2010 Ben Brust
2011 Cezar Guerrero Trey Burke
2012 Marcus Paige Mike Gessell
2013 EC Matthews
2014 Tyler Ulis Riley LaChance/Bryant McIntosh
2015 Glynn Watson Marcus LoVett
2016 Charlie Moore Jordan Bohannon
2017 Connor McCaffery
2018 Tyger Campbell Courtney Ramey
2019 DJ Carton Tyreke Locure

*2013 was the Peter Jok year. Fran had one scholarship to give out and prioritized Jok.

It’s really an incredible list. Almost every one of those guys, had they ended up at Iowa, would have had a major impact on the outcome of seasons for the Hawkeyes. Some of them may have even been a so-called program-changer, merely from the standpoint of helping Fran turn the corner on the recruiting trail and building the brand.

In contrast, here’s a look at who Fran ultimately signed.

PG Signees Under Fran McCaffery

Year PG Signed
Year PG Signed
2010 Bryce Cartwright
2011 N/A
2012 Mike Gessell, Anthony Clemmons
2013 N/A
2014 Trey Dickerson
2015 Christian Williams
2016 Jordan Bohannon
2017 Connor McCaffery

The disparity is quite stark. The what-ifs are nearly endless. For example, would this current season be nearly the mess it is if one of Glynn Watson, Marcus LoVett or Charlie Moore were running the point? Sure, if you add one of those guys you’re removing someone else from the roster, but given the widespread criticism surrounding the PG position I think it’s a safe assumption this team would be better.

Given the talent disparity between top targets and ultimate signees, it seems only logical to criticize Fran as a recruiter. It would be pretty easy to say he’s setting his sights too high, trying to lure in top national recruits Iowa has no business landing. It would be equally easy to say he must just not be very good at closing the deal. Both of those would be easy. But they’d both be wrong, in my opinion.

To say McCaffery has set his sights too high in the world of PG recruiting is to completely overlook just how close he’s come to landing a number of these guys. Either through public comment or widely known information in recruiting circles, we know the Hawkeyes finished a close second on the likes of Brust (duh), Guerrero, Ulis and Moore. Burke would likey have been included in that list if Guerrero hadn’t been made a priority.

If any one of those guys commits to Iowa, nobody is saying Fran has set his sights too high. But none did. So it is as simple as McCaffery not being able to close? Not exactly.

In nearly every case, there have been some... let’s call them extenuating circumstances. Ben Brust, for example, was a victim of the coaching change that brought Fran to Iowa. Blaming him for not keeping him is a bit unfair in my estimation. EC Matthews wasn’t a realistic option given the scholarship situation and the proximity with Peter Jok. The same can be said for Campbell and Ramey in this year’s class given the talent of Joe Wieskamp. The addition of CJ Fredrick is a unique situation and not a reflection of McCaffery prioritizing another SG over a PG like Campbell or Ramey.

Watson ended up at Nebraska largely due to his relationship to fellow Chicago-native Ed Morrow. Morrow was also an Iowa target and was rumored to really like the Hawkeyes. But he was also a Nebraska legacy and his recruitment was never really in question. Watson went with Morrow to Nebraska and as fate would have it, Morrow has since transferred to Marquette while Watson remains in Lincoln.

Ulis is a bit of a different case. It’s also the one most widely known and discussed. As has been well documented, Fran and staff were one of the first to get involved with Ulis. They spent an immense amount of time building a relationship with the Ulis family and he was considered a virtual lock to end up a Hawkeye.

Then John Calipari and Kentucky came calling. Kentucky is a blueblood and it’s hard to fault any coach for losing a recruit to a blueblood. It’s even more difficult to blame them when Kentucky really decides they want a player.

The recent FBI investigation into shoe company dealings in college basketball did not implicate Kentucky. To-date, it has centered mostly around a specific financial advisor, ADIDAS and a few select schools. But from what we’ve learned by the early uncoverings, it’s pretty easy to see that when a shoe company’s premier school decides they want a player, they get that player. It certainly doesn’t hurt when the player’s father is employed by the shoe company in question.

Cal, where Charlie Moore ended up out of high school, is another university not implicated in the FBI investigation at this point. Their former coach, however, has been similar to John Calipari in that every school he’s coached at (at the high major level) has been hit with sanctions shortly after his departure. When Cuonzo Martin went to Tennessee in 2012, they were under sanction for repeated violations by former coach Bruce Pearl. Shortly after Martin bolted from Tennessee to Cal, they were again hit with sanctions.

To be clear, there has been no formal evidence that the reason Charlie Moore ended up at Cal is anything other than wanting to play for that coach at that school. But his recruitment was particularly interesting. For the longest time, it was a two horse race between Iowa and Illinois with the Hawkeyes the presumptive favorite. Then, rather abruptly, both schools essentially stopped recruiting him cold turkey.

Moore then committed to Memphis, who hadn’t really been involved until Iowa and Illinois backed off. When head coach Josh Pastner abruptly left Memphis to take the Georgia Tech gig, Moore seemed ready to follow suit. Pastner, as you may recall, took over at Memphis after the departure of Calipari, under whom Pastner had been an assistant. Pastner started his Memphis tenure with a slew of sanctions for actions during the Calipari era. While still at Georgia Tech, he’s once again been under scrutiny and NCAA investigation.

In the end, Moore ended up at Cal under the aforementioned Cuanzo Martin. He excelled there during his one and only season. When Martin left Cal to take the head coaching job at Missouri, Moore transferred to Kansas. Cal, for their part, isn’t yet under any scrutiny from the NCAA for Martin’s time there. His new school, though, has some question marks.

He’s going to a school with Academic Progress Rate issues that could affect postseason eligibility. He’s going to a school that has an ongoing investigation into claims from a former tutor that she did classwork for athletes – this coming while the basketball program is already on probation for violations that occurred during Frank Haith’s tenure.

So why take that risk if you’re Cuonzo Martin? Well, because he thinks he can win. And he took his first step little more than a week after starting at Mizzou when he hired Michael Porter Sr. to his staff. Porter, who had no prior coaching experience, had spent the last year as an assistant at Washington under family friend and head coach Lorenzo Romar, was signed to a 3-year deal with all sorts of perks.

The deal, which runs through April 30, 2020, calls for an annual base salary of $300,000, plus an additional $75,000 in supplemental salary each year.

Porter also receives a country club membership, courtesy car, four season tickets to men’s and women’s basketball, and access to all other home sporting events.

Porter Jr., the consensus #2 player in the country, committed to play at Mizzou under Martin the same day.

Again, none of this means anything nefarious ever occurred in the recruitment of Moore, or even Ulis before him. Neither Cal (and Martin) nor Kentucky (and Calipari) have been named in the major scandal or handed down sanctions. But there are plenty of dots to connect.

The one school explicitly named in the FBI investigation who Iowa has finished 2nd for a PG recruit is Oklahoma State, who had assistant coach Lamont Evans arrested on 11 counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery, solicitation of bribes and gratuities and wire fraud. Evans had only been at OSU for a year after being brought on by now Illinois coach Brad Underwood, so the scandal is well after the arrival of Guerrero in 2011.

However, a New York grand jury submitted a subpoena to Oklahoma State requesting emails, text messages, cell phone records, social media messages, computer records and many other documents and electronic records dating back to January of 2014 when Travis Ford was still the coach. Ford is the coach who recruited Guerrero. One last time: no smoking gun here, no formal NCAA sanctions, just dots that could be connected.

All this to say there is a lot more to college basketball recruiting than meets the eye. Blaming Fran for “not closing the deal” on top tier PG talent is short-sighted and ignores a lot of outside factors. If we learned nothing else from the bombshell scandal, it’s that college basketball recruiting has a very dirty underbelly. By all accounts, McCaffery has steered clear of even a remote chance at trouble (his biggest scandal to-date is Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury running into Ashton Kutcher in the press box on their official visit - never mind that Marcus Paige is allowed to play 1-on-1 with Michael Jordan while on his UNC visit without reprimand).

Fran has worked his tail off identifying quality point guards early and building a relationship. He’s been very close on some incredibly high profile guys who would have made a serious impact on the Iowa program. But in the end, high quality PGs are coveted by every program in America and they don’t just grow on trees. When big name schools get their eye on one they want, they rarely lose out to a lower level program unless that program is willing to take some chances.

So, while it’s not accurate to say Fran has set his sights too high in the past or that he is not a good closer, perhaps those comments can shed some light on a way to potentially solve his problems going forward. He’s proven a very skilled talent scout, identifying a number of under the radar guys early in their careers. The struggle has come when they have developed too much too soon.

This very scenario is playing out before us in the class of 2019. Fran’s top target is Bettendorf-native DJ Carton. McCaffery and staff have been in contact with Carton for years building a relationship and monitoring his development. This summer and fall, that development has taken off. While the Hawkeyes were in early, they held off on an offer until they saw the development they wanted. Unfortunately, Wisconsin saw that development as well and offered in July, two days before Iowa.

Since then, Carton has continued to climb the recruiting rankings. He’s now a consensus 4-star prospect and ranked just outside the top-50 nationally. The big names are starting to take notice. While it’s possible Fran can land him, it’s just as possible we’ve seen this movie before.

If we have, it’s possible the Hawkeyes can land their second choice. It’s unclear exactly who that is at this point, they have offers out to Mario McKinney, Tyrell Terry and Rocket Watts. It’s also possible all the time and attention paid to Carton could take away from developing the requisite relationship with any of those guys. That would leave the staff with Plan C.

At this point, that looks like Des Moines North product Tyreke Locure. Locure, to me, looks a lot like Wes Washpun did - except he’s a better pure shooter. Washpun, you’ll recall, was a local product who was a bit of a waterbug. He was quick with the ball in his hand, but wasn’t a great shooter in high school. Given his size, he was lightly recruited and treated as a fallback recruit by Iowa. When things fell apart with Guerrero and the Burke ship had sailed, Fran and Co. started to zero in on Washpun. But he committed to Pearl and Tennessee before transferring to UNI and having a very successful collegiate career.

Locure too seems to be a fallback recruit. He’s also slight in stature at only 5’10” and he is lightning quick with the ball in his hands. The primary difference between he and Washpun is his shooting stroke, which looks quite good as a high school junior. To date, he only has offers from Drake and North Dakota.

If, as I said above, this is a movie we’ve seen before, it may be wise for Fran to pay a bit more attention to plan C. He seems to be the type of player Hawkeye fans have been coveting and the current roster is sorely lacking. If this turns out to be an entirely different movie and Carton wants to be a Hawkeye, would it really be the worst thing in the world to have both he and Locure?

However things play out, it’s sure to be a curious case.