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Free-For-All Friday: Does Luka Garza’s Breakout Hurt Fran McCaffery’s Case for Coach of the Year?

Nobody is talking about Fran McCaffery for Big Ten Coach of the Year, despite Iowa being one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season and a slew of injuries working against the Hawkeyes.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Iowa
Luka Garza is tremendous, but does his greatness overshadow the job Fran McCaffery has done to get this Iowa team to where it is?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawkeyes gave up another torrid shooting night in Bloomington last night for their second loss in the state of Indiana in as many weeks. Worse yet, Iowa may have lost their best shooter for some time as CJ Fredrick suffered a high ankle sprain.

And yet, Iowa is still in the hunt for the Big Ten title and at the very least a high seed in the Big Ten Tournament. But this is a critical stretch to navigate and there are land mines all over the place. If the Hawkeyes can avoid a collapse, should Fran McCaffery be in the discussion for the Big Ten Coach of the Year? Does it hurt him that Luka Garza is in contention for the National Player of the Year?

We discuss in this week’s free-for-all!

JP: Jerry, we’re hitting a critical stretch for Iowa hoops here. The Hawkeyes are sitting in the top-4 of the conference, but they’ve got 4 of their final 7 games on the road and matchups with Penn State, Illinois (on the road) and Michigan State (on the road) all in front of them. How you feeling as they hit the road and try to close out this season?

Jerry: Happy Friday buddy boy. To answer your question quickly, I feel like (and will continue to feel like) Iowa is playing with house money at this point. We’re half way through the Franbruary Slide and there hasn’t been too much sliding. Sure, the Purdue game sucked, but what better way to make us all forget about that travesty than by taking our home court and demolishing poor Fred Hoiberg?

Nothing. That’s what.

Remember when we lost to DePaul? Remember when JoBo hung up the laces after that amazing Iowa State win? Remember when we realized that we were going to get absolutely nothing out of Patrick McCaffery? Remember when Jack Nunge got hurt? Things continued to look worse and worse and worse and yet, here we are with the National Player of the Year, Big Ten Coach of the Year, a baseball playing point guard that is the best assist man in the country (who is starting to play with a real confidence that it’s transferring over to his jumper), a sophomore gamebreaker that can take over and release all the pressure off Luka Garza’s Peacock Feathers and the swaggiest ball handling jump shooter Iowa’s seen since 2008.

When you take all of that into consideration and sprinkle in the Big Ten Conference and the number of big time quality wins Iowa has, what’s to worry about? This team is making the tournament despite the difficult schedule ahead. They are going to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since Matt Gatens had that weird takeover run that ended too early. And when they get a 5 or 6-seed, they’re going to be one hell of an out no matter who they end up playing.


JP: So good? You’re feeling good?

I think you nailed it when you said they’re playing with house money at this point. It feels a lot like the football team in my opinion. You looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year and the roster in front of you and you thought, “eh, this is a middle of the road Iowa team.” Then halfway through the year you realize the opportunity you have and all of a sudden winning 9 games feels like some sort of letdown when you’ve in fact vastly outperformed.

This was an Iowa hoops team we thought would be a borderline tournament team before the year started. They were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference. They’ve vastly outperformed any reasonable expectations BEFORE you consider the myriad injuries you outlined. If you factor those in, it’s baffling to me that there isn’t more buzz for Fran as Big Ten coach of the year.

I mean, I get it, Penn State is having a great year. Rutgers looks like a good team finally (at home). Illinois is good. But nobody has dealt with the headwinds Fran has dealt with and this team is right in the mix for the first outright conference title in a generation.

Is the lack of buzz because people outside Iowa just don’t like Fran? Do they only think of him as the hothead (I will forever contend that 95% of his on court antics are no different than any other Big Ten coach)? Or is he being held back by the fact that Luka Garza is a National Player of the year candidate?

Jerry: Your last point is interesting to me and I feel like it’s spot on. But I wanted to make sure so I went and looked it up. Since the 1986-87 season, there have only been seven total Naismith College Player of the Year and College Coach of the Year winners from the same team...

1. 87-88: Larry Brown/Danny Manning
2. 88-89: Coach K/Danny Ferry
3. 91-92: Coach K/Laettner
4. 95-96: Cal/Marcus Camby
5. 97-98: Bill Guthridge/Antwan Jamison
6. 98-99: Coach K/Elton Brand
7. 03-04: Phil Martelli/Jameer Nelson

You’ll also notice that since the start of Y2J there’s only been one such coach/player winner with Martelli and Jameer. I’m still a little shocked there haven’t been more dual winners with the recent insurgence of one-and-done players that bring their teams to big time heights. Perhaps voters don’t believe coaches have anything to do with that type of success now in this new age of college basketball?

BUT, that’s just not the case here at Iowa. Nobody outside of the Garza family believed that Luka would be THIS good. I’m sorry if that hurts to read, but you know it’s true. And while the Garza family did a lot in the off season to get him to this level, I have to believe that part of that is because of Fran, right? He at least gave his big man some notes on what to work on at the very least? And that says absolutely nothing of the position he’s put him in to succeed. Luka is playing crazy minutes (16th in the Big Ten according to KenPom), part of that’s because Fran trusted him from the opening tip of the season to run the floor, stay out of foul trouble, and dominate on both ends of the floor. He might not be the whole reason for Luka’s success (I for one always want to give credit to the players in situations like this), but he’s at least part of it.

Fran saw that he could be, recruited him and then let the peacock fly. On top of that, he’s pushed all the right buttons with an incredibly young and inexperienced roster that lost their best pure shooter and senior leader. I don’t want to take anything away from Pat Chambers, he’s gone into Villanova and Virginia country and nabbed 4-star recruits to come play for Penn State. That’s no small feat (trust me, nobody expected it up here in PA). But they haven’t faced the type of bad luck Fran has.

And at the end of the day, Iowa is right there with them in the standings with the ability to jump them. To me, as an extremely biased individual that gets the luxury of writing for this website, that’s a recipe for Player/Coach of the Year awards.

JP: I think you have to give Garza’s family a ton of credit for the work they did with him. You have to give Garza himself a ton of credit for the work ethic he has and the effort he’s put in. But to not give Fran any credit is nuts to me.

Discounting the job he’s done this year because Garza has been so good makes absolutely no sense if you’re going to give credit to a guy like Brad Underwood for doing great with guys like Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu. He didn’t develop those guys. They came to Champaign essentially the way they are. Sure he paid for them recruited them, but how is that any different than Fran recruiting Iowa? The only REAL difference to me is Fran recruited Garza before he was projecting to be a star.

And expectations matter. The adversity matters. Iowa is outperforming its expectations without the adversity and it’s dealing with more of that than anyone in the conference (although Underwood may be dealing with some of his own now that Ayo is injured – can he win without a star the way Fran has?).

It’s going to be hard to top pat Chambers if Penn State manages to win the league, but it’s going to be even harder to convince me anyone deserves it more than Fran.*

*If we see a massive collapse down the stretch** I will be convinced.
**We won’t see a massive collapse down the stretch.

Jerry: I have nothing else to add but this... not only will Iowa not collapse down the stretch, they will be playing on Saturday and the game is going to come down to the last two minutes and whether or not Luka can add the exclamation point to his PoTY season.