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Made in Manhattan: Expectations Rise for Iowa Basketball

Why Hawkeye fans should open themselves up to loftier goals after Connor McCaffery’s play this weekend and overall defense

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Connecticut vs Iowa Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In watching the Iowa Hawkeyes take home the 2k Empire Classic, I was struck by a lot of things which seemed different from last year:

  • There was a tighter rotation with more clearly defined roles,
  • Newfound energy on the defensive end, and
  • A backup point guard who can ease the ball handling burden on Jordan Bohannon.

I’ll be honest, I was always a little skeptical of what Connor McCaffery would bring to the table in that last point. After watching each of the games again, it cannot be understated the value McCaffery brings to this team as its best ball handler. This is not a knock on Bohannon, Maishe Dailey, or even Joe Wieskamp. But placing Connor at the top of this list slides everyone down in the hierarchy and allows them to play roles more suited for them.

In other words, life is much easier when the Hawkeyes can throw two capable point guards on the court, especially during crunch time. Throughout the two games, especially against the Connecticut Huskies when Bo missed about 15 minutes due to foul trouble, McCaffery showed the game Iowa fans have yearned to see from a point guard.

Getting to the basket

In the first play below, it’s basically answering the question I’ve heard 1000 times regarding Iowa point guards, “Why can’t we find one who can make things happen with the shot clock running down?” The second is just an uncanny replica of the first. Both plays are made where the spacing is good but the lane remains somewhat clogged for him to navigate, which he does.

This type of stuff is obviously going to get scouted and he may face larger, stronger defenders as we progress into the season. But UConn was not a team of scrubs, and McCaffery often looked like the best player on the court in a game where his starting front court put up 48 combined points.

But just for fun, here’s McCaffery doing the same play but at the other elbow.

The press gets broken but Iowa finds themselves a little disjointed offensively. McCaffery uses a couple Nicholas Baer screens to get him a cleaner path and he’s able to finish in the lane going right. Connor went 5/7 in the lane on Friday night and his two misses were immediately followed up with tip-ins. He also draws a ton of fouls and, as of this writing, ranks third in free throw rank according to KenPom ($). Good thing he’s currently shooting them at an 89% clip.

Pick and roll offense

In each of these four plays, Connor uses a screen with Luka Garza to get somebody a wide open shot. They’re passes only McCaffery can make with his size, patience, and frankly left-handedness.

My personal favorite, is the last one where he draws Garza’s man and Garza draws Isaiah Moss’s guy. It’s really perfect pick-and-roll defense and Connor breaks it.

Not many players can find the open player in the corner, let alone a redshirt freshman.

Little things

This is maybe my favorite play from the whole weekend. I mean, who the heck runs a baseline screen for their center to get a corner three?

It comes after a broken play where Baer gets an offensive rebound and Dailey runs the point. Whether this is a set for the Hawkeyes to run or just something Connor decided to do as off-ball pick-and-roll action, it’s hard to know.

What isn’t hard to know is getting Garza clean looks anywhere on the court is a good thing for the Iowa offense.

With Connor, it’s worth highlighting one of Fran’s out-of-bounds plays. I mean, no one has been around Fran’s plays longer than his oldest son! (well maybe Margaret) I was watching the game with my fiancée, who played basketball throughout college and recognized the double-screen immediately.

I lead with that because it’s pretty clear everyone else recognized it, too, as it’s pretty well-defended. What makes it special is Connor’s patience to wait out the switch back and attack the lane which opened up as a function of it.

White Magic, Jr.?

These are fun plays to make when your team is riding out a double-digit victory:

I’m partial to the second one since it’s a real no look pass.

Going forward

It is pretty clear Connor McCaffery is going to factor in heavily into Fran’s plans this season. Despite coming off the bench - the perfect role given the current roster - he leads the team in assists, is fourth in points, and fifth in minutes (all according to sports-ref). It’s early but his assist rate and turnover rate both rank nationally, according to KenPom ($). He is as pure a point guard as Iowa is going to get. This is without getting to all of the things which do not show up on the box score like communication on defense and being the primary in-bounder during crunch time.

One concern I have: in the waning minutes of the game on Friday, he came up a little lame with what appeared to be a lower leg injury.

With just Alabama State on Wednesday before the Pittsburgh Panthers come to town 11 days after the UConn game, it may make sense to ease him back if he’s feeling any lingering effects.

Otherwise, Iowa has a point guard of the future, and present.

Defense Defense Defense

During the broadcast, Fran Fraschilla equated Iowa’s defensive philosophy with that of a junk ball pitcher. The Hawks are never going to have a 100-mile-an-hour fastball (man-to-man) or nasty slider (peak Boeheim zone), but if they do enough different things well enough, they’ll keep opponents off balance so their offense can carry the way.

I totally agree with it but it ultimately starts with effort, and we saw a TON of it on Thursday and Friday. Tyler Cook was the guy who lead the charge on that end of the court. As Iowa’s best player, he should and then everyone will follow his direction. He also showed little sign of fatigue when he played, by my estimation, the most minutes of his career in a non-overtime game. He was feeling it on that end of the court this weekend:

I’m being serious when I’m not sure I could have put together 100 seconds of Tyler Cook defensive highlights last year. What really stuck out to me throughout the weekend was his willingness to switch. He was regularly sticking with smaller guys and even forced a couple turnovers. He contested a shot and even tried to draw a charge! These are all good things! If he carries over this effort and ability both the Hawkeyes and he will be better for it.

The other defender who stuck out to me was Ryan Kriener. He showed some real rim protector prowess, especially against Oregon:

I do not know if there is a single person in college basketball who runs harder than Kriener. On a couple plays he breaks out in a sprint to protect the hoop, which he does. He was credited with just one block against the Ducks, but it was just a small portion of the shots he affected.

Ultimately, it was just two games out of a 30+ game schedule and the four games we’ve seen so far are roughly the same percentage as a game and a half of college football. Even though there’s a ton of season left, I’ve seen enough to assume this defensive effort is going to carry through. But there will be a time when opponents start hitting their shots (UConn and Oregon were just 10/42 from deep) and Iowa really needs to dig deep to get a stop.

Now I have the confidence they can do it.