When it comes to my fandom for Iowa Basketball in conversations with my friends, I’m a broken record.
For years now, I’ve said to anyone who was willing (and many who were unwilling) to listen a version of what has already been written on this site this week after Iowa’s embarrassment at the hands of Oregon in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament: we’ve seen Iowa Basketball reach the peak of its possibilities under Fran McCaffery.
Fran was hired in 2010 to bring excitement back to Iowa Basketball after 3 seasons of bottom-dwelling, slow and boring basketball. He promised to bring fast paced offense and wins back to the parquet floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena with one goal in mind: returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2005-6 first round upset loss to Northwestern State under REDACTED.
Iowa’s marketing campaign for Fran’s first season? Let’s Be Mad Again.
Now 11 seasons later, Fran’s done it. Not only have the Hawkeyes returned to the NCAA Tournament multiple times, but I’m mad — again — at the state of Iowa Basketball. And the 2020-21 season is the perfect microcosm of why.
When Luka Garza announced he was returning to play out his senior season as a Hawkeye after the premature cancellation of the 2019-20 season due to COVID, I, like every other Hawkeye fan, was overjoyed. I was also incredibly skeptical of the instant fan projections of a Big Ten regular season title, or a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. When the initial rankings came out for the season and had Iowa as a top-5 team, my skepticism increased.
Well, for one, over the years of being a Hawkeye fan, I’ve always found that if you go into any season of any sport with low expectations, it will be way more fun. So I went into the season with the expectation that we’d see what we’d always seen before from Fran: some good wins, and some worse losses, and an NCAA Tournament appearance that would probably end early.
What I didn’t expect was suspect (at best) lineups, a complete lack of defense, an offense that, while potent, lacked any sort of true flow or consistency, and either Fran’s inability — or unwillingness — to make coaching decisions that could have changed things for his team.
Flame me all you want for this, but the moment we realized that Fran was going to play Jordan Bohannon starter minutes the entire season, without fail, despite his complete lack of ability to defend, we should have known there would be no run for this Iowa team. We saw so many people on Twitter (myself included) saying things all season like: Joe Toussaint needed more minutes, Keegan Murray needed more minutes, why is Fran sitting Garza with two fouls for most of the second half, etc. etc. that seem obvious to so many, and yet, nothing.
People say coaching in the NBA is more about managing personalities than X’s and O’s, but I disagree with that notion. We see the good NBA coaches — the Kerr, Pop and Spoelstra’s of the league — constantly tweaking their lineups and rotations to not only fit with what’s working in game, but to fit the flow of a game. Meanwhile, we just endured a season of Fran seemingly pulling lineups out of the pockets of his Iowa pullovers at random, game in and game out, seemingly learning and adjusting nothing along the way.
I don’t think we’ll ever know how truly good the Big Ten was this year. While the conference has definitely underperformed in the NCAA Tournament, I personally think there were a lot of really talented teams who fell victim to the worst possible matchup (Illinois), or just had off nights at the worst possible time (Ohio State, Purdue). Rutgers is the only team I’d say who over-performed expectations. I say this because I’m willing to give Fran a break for not winning the conference title this season. But there’s also no doubt that this was his best chance to sniff the air at the top of the mountain.
I’m also not naïve enough to say that there isn’t hope for the future of this program. If Keegan Murray can get his jumper consistent, who knows what kind of player he could be in two year’s time. Joe Toussaint brings energy and tenacity to both ends of the floor that will benefit greatly from more playing time to iron out. And Patrick McCaffery, while having an overall average season, showed flashes of potential that could really be special, especially if he puts on a bit more muscle.
But for every positive, there’s at least one or two question marks for the future of Iowa Basketball, and I just can’t help but think we left a lot on the table this year. Sure, Luka Garza won a ton of awards in his final year in the Black and Gold, but what does he have to show for it? Exactly what he had before: honors for himself, and early exits for his team at the times when it mattered most.
I think it’s fair to at least assume the following thought at least floated through his mind as he did all he humanly could to try and will his team to victory against the Ducks: I came back for this?
From my perspective, Fran’s ceiling as the Iowa Basketball coach was unknowingly determined by the aforementioned marketing campaign.
Fran McCaffery will come to your program, bring in some talented players, and get the team to the NCAA Tournament. But if you’re looking for a conference championship, or a deep run in the tournament, you’ll need someone else.
Nothing drives me more up the wall than when I complain about something Fran does (whether legitimate or just me being picky) and the response I get is “But look at how far we’ve come compared to what we had before.”
There’s no question that the program has returned to relevance under Fran. No doubt whatsoever. And having a program that has gone from serial bottom dweller of the Big Ten to serial mid-tier Big Ten is certainly an improvement, and something we can’t take for granted.
But I also don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for one conference championship or conference tournament championship, or one Sweet 16 appearance in 11 years from Fran. I’m not dumb enough to think that this program is one hire away from being the next Duke or Kansas, but I’m also not dumb enough to look back and say “This for sure is the absolute best we could have performed in any of these situations.”
Iowa’s loss to Oregon didn’t surprise me in the least, and that was before I was even aware that Oregon was grossly under-seeded at 7 (I, like most others, did not watch nay a second of Pac-12 basketball this year). Save for the 2018-19 comeback against Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, Iowa has been blown out of the water in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in all three of its appearances. And even that close loss to the Volunteers came as a result of needing a major second-half comeback.
Losses like that come down to a lot of things, and coaching is at the top of the list. A situation like this is a slippery slope. Fire a coach at the wrong time, and all of the sudden, you’re Indiana Basketball, trying to bring back the magic to your historic program and getting a new coach every few years, with maybe a tournament appearance or two along the way and no consistency.
But the opposite is also true. Extending your coach into eternity creates consistency, and that’s certainly not to be taken for granted. But it also might hold the program back from getting where you want it to go, either as an athletic director (lol), as a player, or as a fanbase.
If your expectations were for Fran to get Iowa back to relevance and back into the NCAA Tournament more often than not, the 2020-21 season was perfect for you. Sure, there were some rough stretches and bad losses, but the program achieved its yearly goal: making it to March Madness.
But if you’re like me, you’re unsurprised and still disappointed. Not because you expected anything more, but because history continues to repeat itself, with our without one of the best players in program history.
And it’s ok to want more.