Fran McCaffery has long been known for his fire and passion. It’s perhaps what he’s most known for. At times, it’s been to McCaffery and his team’s detriment. But nobody can question the man’s desire to win and his dedication to his players.
Throughout his tenure in Iowa City, that same fire and passion has earned McCaffery plenty of scrutiny and a number of technical fouls, as well as a handful of ejections. The outbursts have come as Fran both defends his players when he feels they aren’t getting a fair shake from officials and as he attempts to fire them up when he feels they need that energy manufactured.
Thus far in 2019-2020, we’ve seen fewer of those outbursts from Fran. Sure, there have still been a few, including a technical foul early in Friday night’s blowout win over Maryland, but they’ve been much more the case of sticking up for his guys than trying to fire them up. This group of players doesn’t need fired up. This collection of talent has perhaps the most heart and determination of any Iowa team in recent memory.
Just 16 games into this young season, the Hawkeyes have endured a tremendous amount of adversity. Much ink has already been spilled covering the absurd number of injuries on this roster. By now we all know the stats: three opening day starters out, highly touted freshman and key bench player also out, just eight scholarship players remaining healthy. Of those eight, one is a former walk on and another is still dealing with chronic back issues. Yet two more have been dealing with fevers and vomiting while yet another walk on is recovering from mono. You couldn’t make up the laundry list of ailments.
In spite of that, this team has outperformed even the most optimistic of expectations through the first 16 games. The non-conference schedule was the most difficult of McCaffery’s tenure at Iowa, yet the Hawkeyes survived with a 9-2 record and a signature win.
Just when the fanbase was getting used to the idea that this team might be special, the news on CJ Fredrick came down. Iowa dropped a barn-burner in Philly to Penn State, but the real gut punch came last Tuesday when Hawkeye fans witnessed one of the worst shooting night’s in memory. Iowa was an abysmal 12.1% from 3-point range at Nebraska, ultimately suffering their first bad loss of the year.
Friday night, we saw what this team is made of. We learned why Fran has been so content keeping his cool and not manufacturing intensity from his players.
Coming off that brutal loss in Lincoln, Iowa fans were in a meltdown. The offense looked lost without Fredrick. The Hawkeyes were down their two best shooters and the Huskers laid the blueprint for holding Luka Garza in the same universe as the rest of the league. The sky seemed to be falling and the season’s hope in doubt. This no longer looked like a Tournament team.
In the face of that adversity and mounting outside noise, this team banded together and absolutely obliterated the #12 team in the country. Friday night in Carver we saw a depleted roster come out and fight through all they’ve been faced with to put on an incredible performance in front of a similarly depleted Carver crowd (the state of Iowa was of course hit with an ice storm Friday afternoon which promised 4-8 inches of snow following the game). They overcame the poor shooting performance on Tuesday to shoot nearly 40% from beyond the arc against a team that had been holding opponents to just 20% from deep the prior two games.
After going 1-10 from beyond the arc on Tuesday and in the face of criticism for not taking over against weaker opponents, Joe Wieskamp came out and dominated Friday night. He posted a career best 26 points on 5 for 9 shooting from deep. He also hauled in 11 rebounds. Joe Wieskamp did everything you need a leader to do in the face of adversity.
Joe Wieskamp scored a career high 26 points & Luka Garza scored 21 to lead Iowa. pic.twitter.com/FdbjhKhVRj— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) January 11, 2020
But he wasn’t alone. Luka Garza continues to be one of the most incredible Hawkeye stories in program history. He fought through the double- and triple teams on Tuesday to come away with 16 points and an incredible 18 rebounds, but he was even more impressive Friday. Fighting through hand fighting, arm bars and loads of contact, Garza dropped 21 points and grabbed 13 more rebounds for his 10th double-double in 16 games this season. He remains the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 22 ppg and is second in rebounds per game at 10.8. He’s having an All-American season and his effort and intensity exemplifies what this team is all about.
On Friday night, with that depleted roster and facing an opponent with higher rated players and a national ranking, this group of Hawkeyes rose to the challenge - just as they’ve done all year. It would have easy to mail in the rest of the season. Nobody would’ve blinked an eye if Iowa had been on the receiving end of the beat down Friday. There would’ve been little criticism if Tuesday turned into Friday and Friday turned into half a season of losses. This team has been through the ringer.
But they don’t feel sorry for themselves and they don’t need your pity. They have fight and they just need your faith. They certainly have it in themselves. Fran McCaffery certainly has it in them, that’s why his temperament has been so calm and collected most of this year. This team brings that fire and chip on their shoulder every night. Even when they have a historically bad night shooting and are severely short handed, they don’t stop fighting.
Whether this team has the horses to make the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. It will be a very difficult road. But it’s already been a difficult road and this group has met every obstacle in front of them head on. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on a team in their way when the season is on the line. And I certainly wouldn’t bet against Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp or anyone else on this roster after what they’ve shown us thus far.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.