Oh hey, it’s Big Ten basketball season again! Tomorrow, the Iowa Hawkeyes will face the No. 21 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions at the iconic Palestra arena, home of the Penn Quakers in the heart of Philadelphia, hometown and alma mater of Fran McCaffery.
As he always does, Fran met with the media yesterday to discuss the upcoming game. As you can imagine, he got some fun questions about this unique chance to return to his hometown for a Big Ten conference game. Highlights below, full transcript here.
Q. What does this game mean to you on a personal level?
FRAN McCAFFERY: I have a lot of family and friends there, grew up with that place being a big part of my life. I had an opportunity -- that was our home arena. My college coach is going to be there. A lot of those types of things. But I’m pretty good at kind of separating that from the task at hand. It’s a big game on our schedule. It’s a ranked opponent, a team I have a lot of respect for. They’re playing extremely well. My responsibility is just to make sure we go there and play well.
Makes sense. I think we’ll hear more about the emotional aspect of this after the game, particularly if the Hawks win.
Q. Most of us have never been to the Palestra. What’s it like? What was it like for you? What striking memories do you have of having been there for the years you were there?FRAN McCAFFERY: You know, my memories are a little bit different because it starts with my mom and dad bringing myself and my brother to games when we were kids, like young ...
Then you hope to be recruited by one of those five teams so you get to play there. Well, I got recruited by the one that that’s our home arena, so we practiced there every day and played pickup there in the summer, that kind of thing ...
But the thing that was really special about it is throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, there were always doubleheaders, so you went and you stayed there for six, seven hours, and you watched four teams play, and nobody left ... if you grew up in Philadelphia, you watched all the games, you knew all the players, you knew all the coaches ... Bob Weinhauer took us to the Final Four; he will be at the game. He was my coach; he’ll be at the game on Saturday. Because ironically enough, at 7 p.m., Penn plays Princeton in the Palestra. So 9,000 people will leave, 9,000 more will come in and watch that game.
So it was a very -- and remains a very close-knit basketball community in Philadelphia that would convene every Saturday night at the Palestra, but oftentimes on Tuesday or Wednesday during the week, they also played double-headers during the week.
This was a really long answer that I cut down for readability drastically, but it’s fascinating to read the whole thing. Fran is in his element here. I’ve read a lot of these transcripts and I have never seen him give such a long answer. Philly loves basketball, and it’s good to see that the gravity of this opportunity is not lost on Fran.
Now let’s talk about the game itself...
Q. How has Jones changed their dynamic this year?
FRAN McCAFFERY: Well, he’s really playing extremely well. He’s shooting well over 40 percent from three. He’s made over 30. But he’s their backup 1. He goes off the dribble, hits floaters, hits big shots, tough shots in key situations. I think it’s really critical as you look at that team, especially because you know what you’re going to get from Stevens and Watkins, but then you’ve got Myreon Jones doing what he’s doing, Dread doing what he’s doing, Curtis Jones, Brockington, and then the guy that’s sort of the engine that makes them go, the point guard Wheeler, who’s really good in particular at the defensive end of the floor. But he pushes the ball, and they’re playing at a very fast pace.
This will certainly be a big challenge for Iowa. Penn State can score and they have a lot of talent. Fran and his coaching staff have clearly done the scouting, but I’m curious to see how they will defend the Nittany Lions, particularly Jones.
Q. Where do you think most of the credit goes to for the offensive efficiency ranking you guys have had?
FRAN McCAFFERY: Well, it’s the character of the players, their understanding and willingness to share the ball. And recognizing, okay, Luka is playing at a high level, Joe is shooting the ball extremely well, CJ is playing at a very high level, let’s get those guys shots ...
Give Garza and Wieskamp the ball and good things happen! It’s as easy as that.
Q. Have you seen any kind of difference in Joe Toussaint from preseason or early season to where he is now in terms of the way he practices, goes about his business as young as he is?
FRAN McCAFFERY: I wouldn’t say how he practices. He brings it every day. He’s an incredibly hard worker. But you’re watching a guy who is gaining experience in every practice and every game, so he’s obviously further along in the process now than he was at the beginning of the year.
I was impressed with how he came back. He was really good until the Cincinnati game, then he got in foul trouble and he didn’t get the opportunity to come back in ... he didn’t hang his head, just kept grinding, came back, had three great workouts, had a terrific game the other day.
Bigger challenge now against a veteran guard on the road in a hostile environment. Another step in terms of his progress, and I think he’s mentally tough enough to handle it.
Agreed. Toussaint has been a bright spot for this team this year, and they could really be a force next year if he continues to progress.
Q. Is this one of the most challenging years you’ve had as a coach so far with all that’s happened?
FRAN McCAFFERY: Yeah, one of them. I’ve been doing it a while. We’ve had some others that were incredibly challenging in ways like that but also other ways. Every team is different, whether you’re young or old or you have injuries or you have one guy who’s a problem. There’s always challenges.
The thing that I will say about this team is there’s just no issues in terms of off-the-court things that you have to deal with. Guys kind of take care of their business, a very professional businesslike approach to what they’re doing, which makes our job as coaches a lot easier.
Sorry this is long but there was a lot of unique stuff in this press conference. I encourage you to check out the transcript linked above or watch a video recap of it, because hearing Fran talk about Philly is a real treat. This game should be fun. Go Hawks.