Fran McCaffery’s career, and certainly his legacy in Iowa City, will be defined by the remainder of the 2019-2020 season for the Hawkeyes. On the surface, that’s a hyperbolic statement, but it’s true nonetheless.
Entering this season, it’s fair to say the Iowa fanbase is relatively split on McCaffery. The turnaround specialist who had taken three mid-majors to the NCAA Tournament before arriving in Iowa City has accomplished what he was hired to do. He raised this once proud Hawkeye program from the depths of the Lickliter era and took his fourth program to the dance, making him one of only 11 coaches to ever take four different programs to an NCAA Tournament.
Now, though, the progress has largely stalled. The Hawkeyes have made four NCAA Tournament appearances under Fran, but have failed to advance past the round of 32. Iowa was incredibly close a season ago, but as it stands this is a program that hasn’t made a Sweet Sixteen in 20 years. That doesn’t sit well with a fanbase full of people raised on Lute Olsen, George Raveling and Dr. Tom Davis. The locals are restless.
At the outset of this season, it seemed like that restlessness could grow to discontent. With question marks surrounding production following the early departures of Tyler Cook to the NBA and Isaiah Moss for Kansas, this looked like a year where Iowa would be firmly on the bubble, especially with the most difficult schedule of McCaffery’s time in Iowa City.
With Jordan Bohannon in the lineup but looking like a shell of his former self, this season looked doomed after a 93-78 blowout loss to DePaul that wasn’t as close as the final score in just the second game of the year. With Bohannon ostensibly using up his eligibility by playing a full season and early rumors of Joe Wieskamp looking to follow in the footsteps of Cook with an early departure for the NBA, this season was on track to put Fran firmly on the hot seat with option to turn off the warmer.
Instead, we’ve seen an incredibly resilient Hawkeye team fight through that early blowout to DePaul to come back stronger. When they lost starting forward Jack Nunge to an ACL, they didn’t pack things in, they went small and found some serious chemistry. When they lost Patrick McCaffery to his lingering side effects, they didn’t fold, they tightened the rotation.
Coming out of the non-conference slate at 10-3 and 1-1 in the conference, this Iowa team was ahead of where anyone had predicted they would of fully healthy. They did it despite the injuries and the side stories about Bohannon‘s future. And when it was final that Bohannon too was shutting it down for the season, this team willed their way to two wins to close out that non-con slate.
On Saturday, this resilient bunch was dealt even more adversity in Philly. In a raucous, steamy Palestra where the temps were over 80 most of the game, the Hawkeyes went back and forth with the 21st ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. They played the second half without starting guard CJ Fredrick and despite a poor shooting day, particularly at the free throw line, they lost to PSU by just three. It was a fun game to watch as a fan and a gutty performance by a group of Hawkeyes that have been through a lot to get to 10-4 on this young season.
In spite of all that resilience, this is now a 10-4 team that’s fallen to 1-2 in the Big Ten. They’re going the rest of the way without their starting power forward and point guard. Now, they may also be without a starting shooting guard. It will take everything this team and coach McCaffery has to make the NCAA Tournament. If they do, this will be the defining moment in McCaffery’s legacy at Iowa.
Getting the Hawkeyes in would mean they likely finished the year no worse than 9-8. That despite a grueling remaining schedule and the myriad injuries already addressed. It would be a truly remarkable feat with virtually no depth and a coaching philosophy predicated on getting up and down the court. It would mean Fran has made serious adjustments to his approach to fit his roster and the players bought in.
It would also mean this program is trending in the right direction. It would mark back-to-back appearances for the second time in Fran’s tenure and just the fourth time since the run of 13 appearances in 15 years from 1979-1993. With Jordan Bohannon now ostensibly returning for a second senior season, Joe Wieskamp and Luka Garza potentially returning, CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery and Joe Toussaint more experienced, Jack Nunge and Pat McCaffery healthy and the addition of more penetrating guards like Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins and another back-to-the-basket big in Josh Ogundele, it’s hard to see the 2020-2021 Hawkeyes not making it three in a row. There’s a strong case to be made for that roster, if it plays out that way, to finally be the one to get over the hump in the round of 32.
It’s a career-defining season for Fran McCaffery. Thread the needle, fight through adversity and build momentum and they may build a statue if he can deliver on the potential. Have another February slump, collapse down the stretch and lose guys to the NBA and transfer again and we’re back to hot seat discussion and a fanbase divided.
We’re at a pivotal moment for the season, McCaffery’s career and the Iowa basketball program. Here’s hoping Fran is our man.
Happy Monday, y’all. It’s a jam-packed week of hoops as the Hawkeyes look to climb that hill to finish .500 or better in the Big Ten. They do that, with this schedule, and there’s no doubt they’re dancing. It all starts tomorrow as the Mayor brings a new team to town.