You know the drill by now: the Iowa Men’s Basketball team is ranked #20 in this week’s AP Poll after winning games against then No. 13 Oregon and Connecticut at Madison Square Garden last week.
Holy momentum, Batman!
The calendar has flipped to a new week of basketball and while the competition, the Alabama State Hornets, might not match last week’s, the opportunity to see to learn more about this team is important.
How convenient, then, that head coach Fran McCaffery met with the media yesterday afternoon to discuss his team and its upcoming matchups. Heavy-hitters below, check out the full press conference here.
Let’s start with the obvious:
Q. Fran, you guys are ranked in this week’s polls. What are your thoughts on being ranked?
FRAN McCAFFERY: Obviously, we’re happy about it. I’m happy for the guys. But we’ve played four games. You have got to temper it a little bit and continue to strive to get better. Obviously we made a big step. I felt we competed. I felt we really were locked into the game plan. I said that to the guys afterwards. To beat teams of that caliber on that stage, you’ve got to be locked in as a unit, and we were.
You guys can see the remainder of our schedule and how difficult it is, so it’s going to be critical that we continue to do those things night in and night out.
Yep, this is exactly how I feel. While I’m excited, I can’t help but be excited with guarded optimism. We went down this road in the 2015-16 season, and that ended about as heartbreakingly as possible. Let’s keep it realistic for now, folks.
Q. Do you feel like this team has that focus to not let positive attention affect it?
FRAN McCAFFERY: I think they do. They should. They’re an older group now. Sometimes it’s harder when you’re younger. But also we’ve got some depth that maybe we didn’t have last year. It seemed like we did, but they were young and couldn’t always overcome -- a couple guys didn’t have a game up to their capability, and we seemed to struggle. And now, somebody else seems to step up.
I’m really pleased with that aspect of it. A lot of guys are playing well. Occasionally you have an off-night, somebody steps up for you, but in any event they’re all pulling for each other. They’re all in for each other doing what we can as a group to be good, and I think that’s always great to see when you’re a coach. You want to see that kind of enthusiasm and support for one another.
Is it possible that we’re underrating the maturity aspect of this team? Most of the squad has played together for 2-plus years. Combine that with the talent we all know exists up and down the roster and you have a team exactly like Iowa that gels just a little quicker earlier in the season than other, younger teams. But will it pay off in March?
Q. Besides what you’ve already addressed, is there anything in New York that jumped out at you that pleased you, maybe surprised you even?
FRAN McCAFFERY: ...You’re at Madison Square Garden. The competition level is raised, and you have to go in there with the correct mindset...
...So you’ve got to stay together to the point where there’s that level of consistency. I thought there was more consistency, which I think is what we were striving for. But it also wasn’t perfect.
So if you -- like we turned the ball over a couple times against UConn’s pressure. Okay, can you just overcome those mistakes and get to the next play and then be successful. So the lead went 25, to 13, then it went back to 18. It didn’t go from 25 to 13 or 5 or 2. We were able to -- okay, we made some mistakes, we’ll come back and make our free throws and we’ll move the ball and we’ll get fouled. We won’t turn it over, then we’ll get back and we’ll get a crucial stop when we need it. I think that’s what we accomplished, that level of consistency.
I think that’s a big window there into the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team that we’re seeing already. Yes, they gave up leads at times during the UConn game that made us all nervous, but they responded. We saw so much of the opposite of that last year that it’s engrained into our minds that they will blow a first half lead and end up losing the game. I hope this new trend continues.
Q. One negative, the turnover issue. Is that misleading in your mind?
FRAN McCAFFERY: Needs to be addressed. Needs to be improved. We played three teams at least that really scrambled at full court and really got up into us. Oregon was the one that didn’t as much, but they also pressed 1-2-2, and they scrambled a little bit at the end, so we’re seeing a lot of pressure. But we’ve got to have it the other way. We’ve got to be a positive assist-to-turnover ratio ultimately.
CORDELL PEMSL WATCH!
Q. How about Cordell; is he going to be back Wednesday?
FRAN McCAFFERY: I don’t know. We just did film and free throws and shooting and lifting Saturday and Sunday. We’ll go hard today. So we’ll see where he’s at.
Boy, that’s non-committal!
And finally two quick hitters on Tyler Cook and Luka Garza:
Q. With Luka coming off the MVP performance earlier this week, can you speak a little bit to his development between last year and this year, and especially considering -- we talked about it before, but he missed a lot of time with that surgery, and he’s just starting off the season like nothing happened.F
RAN McCAFFERY: Well, I think if you look at his progression, it’s pretty consistent. He started the season playing pretty well last year. He had a phenomenal Big Ten portion of his season. His summer was really unparalleled from a lot of people I’ve seen over the years. He worked so hard, and he was playing so well. So the surgery was obviously a scare to all of us, most importantly for his health, but the surgery went well, and he was diligent in his recovery. He just picked right back up where he left off. So I’m not surprised at all.
My only concern was would there be a health setback. But he just kept saying, Coach, I’m doing well. I’m doing exactly what they said. That’s the kind of person he is.
But he was playing so well, was in such phenomenal shape before the surgery, that’s why he didn’t miss a beat. I’m thrilled for him. To be able to get that trophy on that stage is pretty impressive, considering what he went through.
To be honest with you, I think that’s what we all kind of expected, he’d be playing that well at this time of the year, and I’m not surprised by it, I’m just happy for him. You’re looking at potentially a season-ending surgery, and here he is picking up the MVP award for prestigious tournament. It’s just a credit to his character.
More MVP-like performances from Garza will create a lot of good things for this team.
Q. I know you said this coming into the season that Tyler Cook, you really wanted to see him step up from a leadership perspective. First half he played all 20 minutes; second half -- I think he played 24 straight minutes, and he’s banging the ground trying to get his defense pumped up. What have you seen, and how was he in New York?
FRAN McCAFFERY: ...I thought he was unguardable this weekend. I just kept saying, we’ve got to go to him. They can’t stop him, they’re going to keep fouling him. His confidence, I think, is growing as a result. It’s funny because you’re right, I didn’t take him out. Normally I’ll always take him out and get him get a little breather, but I just felt like, just stay out there. He wanted to stay out there, and he didn’t seem to be tired. He was a little tired in the second half. He said, Coach, give me 30 seconds. That’s about what I gave him. Put him right back in, and he finished strong.
I’m really proud of him. I’m proud of that leadership, and I think it’s fun to watch him play with the confidence that he’s playing with, and that’s got to be fun for him, too.
I think I wrote this in my last Fran presser recap, but Tyler Cook as a better leader will also lead to big things for this team. It’s really encouraging to me to hear Fran give him this kind of praise, particularly after the way things ended with Cook last season. And now we’ve seen what he and Garza can do as a combined force, and that’s pretty scary.