Perhaps no coach has had a more interesting last few years in the Big Ten than Fran McCaffery. That might sound an odd thing to say about the coach of a team that has missed the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons, but it’s true. The rises and falls of McCaffery’s teams have been bizarre.
The question is now whether McCaffery can reverse Iowa’s recent tailspin.
It’s something that will occupy Hawkeye fans all offseason.
But to discuss this question in depth, it’s important to go back to the beginning of McCaffery’s tenure with the program. When he took over after a disastrous three-year run with Todd Lickliter at the helm. During those three seasons, Iowa posted a pitiful 48-58 overall record and failed to post a record above .500 in any individual season.
Not exactly something that will get fans to do back flips.
However, things steadily turned around with McCaffery at the helm. Iowa improved from 10 to 11 wins in his first season and then jumped to 18 and 25 in the seasons thereafter. Iowa also made the NIT in 2012 and 2013, marking the program’s first postseason appearances since 2006. It was steady and solid progress for the Hawkeyes.
And things really started to improve after that.
Not only did Iowa qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but it made it in the three straight seasons, including the 2015-’16 season, where Iowa jumped out to a 20-5 start that included four wins over top 10 teams on KenPom. It was arguably the best three-year run since (at least) the early 1990s for Iowa’s program.
What was also particularly impressive about the run was that it came without elite recruiting. McCaffery took in relatively unheralded players like Peter Jok, Roy Devyn Marble, and Aaron White and turned them into stars. While the players weren’t nobodies on the recruiting trail, few would have expected them to put up the numbers they did during their careers in Iowa City.
The logic was simple. McCaffery would find unheralded players that fit his system, stash them on the roster for a year or two, and then insert them into the lineup when they had developed. It wasn’t a revolutionary approach, but it was something that McCaffery had shown could work with him in Iowa City.
Unfortunately, that formula hasn’t quite held up as of late.
While it was reasonable to expect some regression in 2016-’17 after the graduation of players like Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff, and Adam Woodbury, Iowa fell hard. The Hawkeyes missed the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and followed it up with an underwhelming 14-19 performance last season. It was Iowa’s first losing season since 2011.
The issue hasn’t been single-fold, either. Iowa had a star player in Peter Jok in 2016-’17, but lacked an adequate supporting cast to help him. And while the Hawkeyes had depth and experience last season, Iowa didn’t have the star power to get the job done. The team’s overall defensive efficiency also fell off a cliff.
Of course, this regression has raised quite a few questions. If McCaffery had his model humming so well, what went wrong? And, moreover, how can he get back on track?
The elephant in the room, here, and with regard to what went wrong dates back to 2016, when the players mentioned above graduated. Iowa lost huge contributors like Gesell, Uthoff, and Woodbury and lacked clear replacements.
Sure, there was depth on the roster and potential replacements, but nobody ended up stepping up. While Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook added some excitement in 2016-’17, Iowa was overly reliant on Jok. Then, when Jok left, Iowa regressed even further and struggled to find high end options at the two and three spots.
No matter what Hawkeye fans would like to believe, that’s reality. Teams need star players to compete in college basketball and Iowa has had one player (Jok) of that caliber over the last two seasons. It doesn’t take much more analysis to figure out why the program regressed.
However, what’s particularly troubling is just how quickly things have snowballed. Since opening up the 2015-’16 season at 20-5 overall, Iowa has gone 35-40 (.467) over its last 75 games. More importantly, Iowa has been dreadful against quality competition. In fact, over that same period of time, Iowa is just 12-32 (.273) against top 100 KenPom teams.
That’s, uh, not great.
The question, of course, is whether Iowa can reverse this trend. It’s something we’ve been tap dancing around for the duration of this article. So, can the Hawkeyes reverse course?
Maybe this will be disappointing, but my answer is a partial one. Yes, I believe Iowa can reverse course and get “back on track” starting next season. However, based upon what we have seen, I’m not sure Iowa will ever get back to the heights it reached earlier in McCaffery’s tenure. Fans will probably just need to accept a bit of a lower bar.
The biggest reason why Iowa probably won’t reach the heights it did earlier in McCaffery’s tenure is also what made the Hawkeyes so good. Relying on three-stars to blow up into superstars isn’t a reliable long-term approach. Some programs have made a living out of it, but few have consistently stayed at a top 25 level and/or competed for league titles while also relying upon unheralded prospects.
But the good news is that there are some real reasons to think that Iowa will trend up in the years to come. To start, Iowa has a returning base with experience and depth. Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss should return in the backcourt, Nicholas Baer should be back on the wing, and Luka Garza should return upfront. There’s also a decent chance that Tyler Cook will return after a productive sophomore campaign.
Iowa has also done a pretty solid job on the recruiting trail in the last few years. Garza and Connor McCaffery were solid additions last year and Joe Wieskamp figures to be a solid addition in the 2018 class. If some of these players can emerge in next season and beyond, Iowa could do some major damage in the years ahead.
There’s no debating that the last two seasons have been disappointing for Hawkeye fans. However, there are still plenty of reasons to hope. And if McCaffery can get things heading back in the right direction, there should be reason for optimistic as we move forward.