The Iowa Hawkeyes tipped off against Illinois in Carver-Hawkeye Arena amidst what is probably too much worry for a team that’s ranked inside the AP top-25 and sitting in the top third of the Big Ten standings. It’s a worry that has little to do with the individual matchup against Illinois or the impact of that particular game.
While Illinois entered the day tied for first place in the conference, Iowa entered only two games back and ranked ahead of the Fighting Illini. A loss wasn’t a season ender on either side. But Iowa did enter Sunday’s matchup fresh off their first loss in nearly three weeks and the game was the Hawkeyes’ first in the month of February.
And therein lies the source of the worry. It’s widely understood that Fran McCaffery-coached teams get worse as the year goes on. Or more precisely, Iowa teams under McCaffery get worse as the year goes on. More precisely still, they aren’t very good in the month of February.
A number of Fran’s best Hawkeye teams have come out of the gates hot, racking up a number of early season wins, only to falter during the month of February. That’s been coined the Fran Fade or the February Fade. It’s common knowledge in Hawkeye circles and a source of much consternation for a team that has had as much unexpected early season success as this year’s group has had.
The memories of years such as 2015-16, where the Hawkeyes climbed to as high as 3rd nationally with a record of 16-3 at the end of January, only to end the season just barely inside the top-25 and settling for a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, are seared into our brains. That leaves Iowa fans waiting for the other shoe to drop this time of year.
But is the February Fade actually a thing? On the whole, not really. Iowa has only finished with a losing record in the month of February three times in Fran McCaffery’s nine seasons at Iowa. One of those, his first year in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes were actually better in February than January despite the losing record. Likewise, Iowa has only had a worse record in February than January three times under McCaffery.
January 1-8 February 2-5
January 3-6 February 5-3
January 3-5 February 4-3
January 5-3 February 4-4
January 4-4 February 6-2
January 8-1 February 3-4
January 5-5 February 3-3
January 3-9 February 1-6
January 5-5 February 5-2
The Fran Fade has been grossly overstated, but it’s not without good reason. That 2015-16 season had the potential to be a really special year. The Hawkeyes won some big games early in the year and rattled off 9 straight, including a season sweep of top-5 Michigan State, on their way to that #3 ranking at the end of January. To ultimately end with a 7 seed and lose out on the chance for a Sweet Sixteen run was truly disappointing.
Seasons such as that shape our memories and our fears for the year we’re in. The Hawkeyes again find themself with tremendous success early this season. Later today they’re bound to climb further up the national polls, perhaps into the top-15. But ahead lies five road games in the most difficult conference in America. There are three more dates with ranked opponents (as of this morning). There’s a real chance a slide could come.
But this team has a different mental makeup than perhaps any other we’ve seen under McCaffery. While it has star power to match the likes of Devyn Marble or Jarrod Uthoff or Aaron White with the likes of Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp, it has as much balance as any Iowa team I can recall.
Garza is a bonafide superstar. He’s now had five games this season with 25+ points and 10+ rebounds, the most of any P6 player, and as many as any player in the Big Ten in the last decade. He’s scored 20+ in seven straight games, the longest streak for the Hawkeyes in two decades. He’s going to be the first Hawkeye to be a first team All-American since Chuck Darling in 1952 and is a legitimate contender for the Wooden Award. He’s as good a centerpiece as Iowa has ever had.
But he isn’t alone. Joe Wieskamp is a future NBA player who can attack the rim, pull up from midrange or knock down an open shot from deep. He’s the perfect complement for a player like Garza and he’ll likely find himself as a first team All-Big Ten player because of it.
If Iowa has just those two players, that may be enough to claw their way to a good season. In such a scenario, fears of a February Fade may be more warranted. Those two guys would be asked to carry such a load, fatigue down the home stretch of a Big Ten gauntlet would almost be expected.
Except this Iowa team has a number of role players capable of stepping in to carry that load. On Sunday, freshman CJ Fredrick dropped 18 points on 75% shooting from the floor. He’s been Iowa’s best three-point shooter all season and has shown no fear of the big shot. A number of times, Fredrick has been the guy to step up and knock down a much needed three in the midst of an opponent’s scoring run. On teams past, he may have been the best player on the team. This year, he’s arguably the third.
And beyond Fredrick, there are key role players such as Connor McCaffery, who added seven assist and himself shot 67% from beyond the arc yesterday. McCaffery is the steady hand who is among the conference’s best in assist-to-turnover ratio and acts as a coach on the floor. He adds length and versatility nobody else on the roster can bring, guarding opposing point guards and power forwards alike. Mix in the quickest guard we’ve seen in a generation in Joe Toussaint and a stretch four who is just as happy banging in the paint as he is knocking down an open three in Ryan Kriener, and you’ve got weapons surrounding major weapons.
More important, though, than the weapons is the mentality. This roster may not be terribly deep, but it’s full of guys with a ton of heart. This team fights. Any one of those guys is willing to step up and knock down a big shot and all of them are ready to jump in to have their teammates’ backs.
That hasn’t always been the case for past Iowa teams. Past iterations have seemed more content to take a shot to the jaw and back down. This group counters with a knockout combo and then stands over their opponent to let them know who took them down. They have moxie and swagger. This team isn’t built for a February Fade if there were such a thing under Fran.
We saw that again on Sunday as the Hawkeyes withstood body blow after body blow from Illinois. The Fighting Illini are talented and put up a good fight, but this group of Hawkeyes thrives in the fight. They stepped up the defense and knocked down shots when they needed them.
Luka Garza let the world know “this is my team” as he ran down the court and Connor McCaffery let the Illinois staff know this team isn’t taking anything from anybody. They’re built different and they have a different mentality. This group of Hawkeyes is going to be just fine in February. They’re already 1-0 and just one game out of first place. The only thing this team will be fading is the notion of a February Fade.