Over the course of 10 weeks, we’re counting down Fran McCaffery’s squads as head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Below are links to previous iterations in the series:
After 3 years in the wilderness with Todd Lickliter, the Iowa Hawkeyes nabbed Fran McCaffery to lead the Hawkeyes back into the tournament. With a resume as a builder, taking three low major teams to the NCAA tournament, he certainly looked and spoke the part.
Yet there was no sense what it would actually look like other than “not pretty.” Hawkeye basketball was never been more bare from a talent perspective. Matt Gatens, Jarryd Cole, and Eric May headlined the holdovers and were joined by already-recruited Devyn Marble & Zach McCabe and Fran-recruited Bryce Cartwright and Melsahn Basabe. So yeah, while they didn’t figure to be good, at least they weren’t coached by Todd Lickliter.
Iowa was in dire straights after going 38-58 over three seasons under Lickliter. And while the record was bad, it didn’t really do justice to just how bad things were on the court. They averaged barely 60 points a game, good for 323rd out of 347 eligible teams. The defense was fine at 66 points/game but when the offense is scoring 60 points a game, an on-its-surface solid defense is borderline irrelevant.*
Anyways, Fran wasn’t on this list of 11 potential candidates, nor was he in this article which listed about another dozen. He was pretty much out of the blue and, when looking at the candidates Gary Barta was allegedly looking at - including Dayton’s Brian Gregory, Kevin Stallings - only a couple are objectively appealing. (Scott Drew & Steve Forbes) But few had the lengthy track record of Fran.
*KenPom didn’t have the notoriety in 2010 he has now, but for what it’s worth, the defense was actually worse than the offense in that season. (196th in the country vs. the 165th offense) Tempo that season? A Lickliter-era high 322nd. Yeashhh
The Statistical Profile
(all ranks vs. McCaffery teams)
Record: 11-20 (10th), 4-14 (T-9th)
Offense: AdjO - 103.9 (10th); 67.2 PPG (10th)
Defense: AdjD - 96.8 (4th); 68.1 PPG (3rd)
Despite having the accolades as an offensive coach, it was the defense which carried the Hawkeyes through their maiden voyage with Fran. And really, that’s where the talent lied for these guys. Cartwright was at the point of attack; Gatens, May, and Marble were switchable wings; and Cole, Basabe, and McCabe were all nimble, yet stout, bigs. But really, this is putting lipstick on the pig of a bad, bad, team.
(ORtg, % Poss; Points-Rebounds-Assists; FG%/3P%/FT%; MPG)
ORtg & % Poss via KenPom ($); rest via sports-ref
Matt Gatens, jr - 108.2, 0.185; -2.4-1.8; 0.395/0.331/0.874; 33.5
Melsahn Basabe, fr - 105.7, 0.231; -6.8-0.3; 0.572//0.714; 24.5
Bryce Cartwright, jr - 91.6, 0.262; -2.9-5.9; 0.393/0.275/0.693; 31.1
Jarryd Cole, sr - 113.4, 0.159; -6.3-0.5; 0.568/0/0.677; 25.2
Eric May, so - 90, 0.194; -2.9-1.3; 0.423/0.394/0.604; 25
Zach McCabe, fr - 88.2, 0.194; -3.6-0.8; 0.349/0.286/0.804; 19.6
Roy Devyn Marble, fr - 88.7, 0.199; -2.4-1.3; 0.379/0.268/0.53; 19.1
Cully Payne, so - N/A, N/A; -1.4-3.4; 0.286/0.214/1; 20.8
Andrew Brommer, jr - 93.1, 0.164; -2.4-0.7; 0.569//0.424; 12.5
Devon Archie, jr - 93, 0.167; -2.9-0.3; 0.5//0.261; 8
The offensive deficiencies of the squad really come into light after this trip through the stat sheets but a deeper dive show just how tough they had it.
- By KenPom’s algorithm, Eric May was receiving minutes at point guard which was a helluva thing to do to him. In truth, it was probably overlapping minutes where Cartwright sat and Marble had them, but between injuries and necessity, it took awhile for May to be used appropriately.
- A hallmark of many Fran squads was their willingness to hit the offensive glass. This team showed a huge improvement over the prior year, going from 250th under Lick to 68th under McCaffery. The shotmaking & turnovers didn’t necessarily improve, but they gave themselves more cracks at the basket. The five percentage point jump represents about 3.5 “extra” possessions per game.
- As mentioned above, this team was as defensively-leaning as any Hawk squad of the last 10 years. The turnover rate they forced still ranks as the highest this decade. Gatens and May each tallied over a steal per game.
- Gatens as the leading scorer with just 12.6 points/game...Yeash.
The Low Point
There are plenty to choose from, being that there were 20 losses. Wake Forest rated out as the 259th team in the land according to KenPom that year and Iowa lost by 3 points in a totally frustrating game. They yielded a 27-4 run going into/coming out of halftime which erased the good work they did in building a 16 point lead. They couldn’t break a 73-73 try despite gaining four offensive rebounds on a single possession.
The Big Ten was pretty good this year so none of Iowa’s losses were particularly concerning.
Honorable mentions: opening loss to South Dakota State, neutral loss to Long Beach State, home loss to ISU, 53-possession game where they beat UNI by 12
The High Point
Naturally, the high point is essentially scrubbed from the Internet by Matt Painter, who has made my life a living hell as someone who could never commit to true Purdue fandom. Setting the stage a bit, Iowa was on a six-game losing streak with little reason to believe things would change against a Boilermaker squad a win (and OSU loss) away from a shared Big Ten crown.
The Hawks won in a cathartic performance from Jarryd Cole, who posted 16 points and 10 boards, which included an absolutely nails elbow jumper to put the game just out of reach. What a way to go out for a guy who never saw an above water record, let alone a postseason berth.
Honorable mentions: N/A, this is unquestionably the best moment from the season (but Iowa also beat a mediocre-by-their standards Michigan State team)
The What If
The pessimistic way to frame this question is: what if Todd Lickliter still coached this team? The answer is a timeline I do not want to envision but probably includes more John Lickliter, less Matt Gatens, and pain. Lots and lots of pain. (Though maybe it means no Gary Barta???)
But that is enough harping on Lick...his resume since then speaks for itself.
The optimistic way to frame it is: what if Fran McCaffery DIDN’T coach this team? Maybe Iowa gets lucky with Scott Drew or Steve Forbes but there are a lot of guys in those links above who could have sent Iowa basketball further spiraling. So maybe this isn’t optimistic.
Fran McCaffery certainly has his faults, yet when I look back on his hire, it certainly represented a turning point back to respectability. Though Iowa’s ceiling remains a sticking point, the floor he’s raised Iowa basketball to a solid foundation.
It was a stretch not to have this team be the first one written about but really, it came down to expectations. They’re the only team under Fran who didn’t make a postseason tournament when no tournament was expected. He regained the foundation for this program. Perhaps it’s a little revisionist, but there was a true moment of excitement in a way which didn’t exist in 2017-18.