For the sixth time in Fran McCaffery’s decade as Iowa basketball coach, the Hawkeyes have won at least 20 games in a season. And for the sixth time in his tenure, the Hawkeyes will be headed to the NCAA Tournament. That marks the most tournament appearances in a decade span since Dr. Tom’s first ten seasons in Iowa City, when the Hawkeyes were building on back-to-back appearances under George Raveling and some of the best recruiting this program has ever seen.
The starting point couldn’t have been more different for Fran McCaffery, stepping in after one of the worst three year stretches in school history with recruiting essentially not happening. Yet here we are, a decade in and essentially back to where we were under Dr. Tom. The NCAA Tournament is no longer a pipe dream, but an expectation every season. Even in what should’ve been a throw away season, losing last year’s leading scorer to the NBA, perhaps the greatest sixth man we’ll see to graduation, and a pair of role players to transfer (including a starter), this team has managed to fight through season ending injuries to a pair of starters and a key bench player, as well as losing their best shooter for more than a quarter of the season to be a historically bad shooting night at Nebraska away from a legitimate chance at the first conference title in a generation.
Its been a remarkable season with more adversity than most people can fathom. Perhaps that’s why nobody nationally seems to have noticed. There’s been little discussion from Fran as Big Ten coach of the year, let alone the national coach of the year. Iowa is likely to finish as a top-20 team in the nation, in spite of all those obstacles laid out. Yet when the 15 finalists for the Naismith Award were announced over a week ago, Fran was notably absent.
Patrick Chambers, Penn State
Scott Drew, Baylor
Brian Dutcher, San Diego State
Mark Few, Gonzaga
Anthony Grant, Dayton
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa
LaVall Jordan, Butler
Chris Mack, Louisville
Greg McDermott, Creighton
Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Steve Pikiell, Rutgers
Brad Underwood, Illinois
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
There are some great coaches on teams having great seasons listed, no doubt. But who among them is in the top 20? Running down the list: Chambers*, Drew, Dutcher, Few, Grant, Hamilton, Huggins*, Mack, McDermott, Pearl and Willard. Who among those has accomplished what they have in a major conference? Chambers, Drew, Hamilton, Huggins, Mack, McDermott, Pearl and Willard. Now who has done it with the kind of adversity Iowa has faced? None of them. Who has done it by beating more top-25 opponents than any other team in the country (7)? None of them.
There’s no excuse for Fran McCaffery to be left off that list and there certainly isn’t another Big Ten coach on that list who is more deserving than McCaffery, that much we learned over the weekend. But here we are.
And it’s not just Fran being overlooked. Luka Garza, statistically speaking, is the national player of the year. There really isn’t any question about it. But like Fran, Luka is likely looking at a snub.
Bovado already shows Garza trailing Dayton forward Obi Toppin in the odds for the player of the year (+275 vs. +190). This despite Garza averaging 4 ppg and 2 rpg more than Toppin.
Since the Player of the Year appears to be between 2 players, let’s break it down from the tree tops:— Chris Hassel (@Hassel_Chris) March 1, 2020
Games vs ranked opponents: 1
Games vs ranked opponents: 11
While Garza is clearly in substantially better position to win the award he’s so deserving of than Fran is for the award he’s put himself into a position to win, he’s still likely to come up short. Anyone who thinks the player with the better resume will surely win the awards needs look no further than the Lou Groza award and the snub job done on Keith Duncan.
Perhaps the thing keeping both Fran and Garza down the most is the position Iowa finds themselves in. The Hawkeyes are good. As mentioned, it will be difficult for Iowa to finish the regular season outside the top-20 nationally. But Iowa isn’t great. If the Hawkeyes were say, a top-10 team, Fran would be getting plenty of attention for coach of the year and the only argument for Obi Toppin over Luka Garza would be non-existent.
The Hawkeyes have been good enough this season to make the national media completely forget about all the attrition they’ve overcome, but not good enough to become a media darling. And the cause is pretty simple: CJ Fredrick’s injury. It, like the season itself, hasn’t been a big enough deal to draw a ton of national attention, but it’s been enough of an issue to make a difference in the season’s trajectory.
With CJ Fredrick in the lineup, this Iowa team is 16-5. In games Fredrick doesn’t finish due to injury, Iowa is only 4-4. The issue is exacerbated away from the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where Iowa is 5-4 with Fredrick in the lineup and just 1-4 without him. Granted, Fredrick has been injured during Big Ten play where the road games are more difficult, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think his absence hasn’t cost Iowa at least one loss on the year. The argument could be (and certainly has been at the water cooler and local watering hole) that his absence has cost Iowa several losses.
CJ is Iowa’s best shooter and the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooter (and 11th nationally) at 46.8% from deep. His absence was most notably felt in the horrific loss at Nebraska where the Hawkeyes shot an absurd 12.1% from beyond the arc. Flipping that loss alone on Iowa’s resume likely bumps them up a seed line and would have locked up a top-4 finish in the Big Ten (outside some equally shocking losses down the final week of the season by other teams). It would have the Hawkeyes squarely in the top-15 and the conversation on Fran and Garza would be notably different.
It could certainly be argued Fredrick’s presence may have altered the outcome of the Penn State game where he was first lost, as well as the loss at Michigan State just last week. Either one of those outcomes flips, along with the Nebraska game, and this would be a top-10 Iowa team staring down a Big Ten title with only Purdue and Illinois in their way. In such a world, it’s hard to imagine Fran McCaffery not being a lock for Big Ten coach of the year and serious contender for national coach of the year. You’d be hard pressed to do as anyone in the country who didn’t think Luka Garza was the national player of the year.
But alas, CJ Fredrick has been injured for more than a quarter of the season. That injury, like those to Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge and Patrick McCaffery, has cost Iowa wins. Those missed opportunities may well cost Garza and Fran some hardware.