The knock on Fran McCaffery has always been twofold.
One, he can’t coach defense to save his life. With the exception of his very first season at Iowa, when the Hawkeyes were terrible at everything, Coach McCaffery has always rolled out an offense that is way better than his defense, usually by a big amount. This season, the Hawkeyes boast the nation’s third-best offense and 90th-best defense.
Two, he can’t recruit at an elite level. One of the things I hear a lot is that Iowa has a lot of white guys on the team. I’ve seen message board conversations where Iowa fans complain about that. Some of the other more savvy fans tell the first set to look at the demographics of the state of Iowa; what do they expect? And there are people like me who aren’t comfortable talking about the subject at all and think the he whole issue is overblown, particularly when you have guys like Jarrod Uthoff who can be first-team all-Big Ten. But the fact remains that the only nationally elite, program-changing recruit who Fran has even been close to landing has been Tyler Ulis, and he ended up at Kentucky.
The funny thing is, this is looking like it might be the best team that Fran has ever had in Iowa City, and both of those knocks still apply. As of Monday night, the Hawkeyes are No. 20 in KenPom. Now, it’s true that Iowa has reached higher highs in the middle of the season before (looking at you, 2016), but the highest end-of-season mark that Fran has ever put up has been No. 22 in 2014.
Fran is a “system coach”. We’ll define that term as a coach who plays a distinctive style of play with heavy emphasis on one particular aspect of the game, to the detriment of the aspects of the game that aren’t emphasized. You know what they’re going to do well, and you know what they’re going to do poorly, and it’s going to be the same, year after year.
When I think of system coaches in the Big Ten, there are three names that come to mind: Bill Carmody, Tom Crean, and John Beilein. Interestingly, every single one of these coaches had heavy emphasis on offense, though only Crean emphasized tempo the way that Fran does.
But none of these coaches is a great example when it comes to what to expect Fran’s ceiling at Iowa to be. Carmody coached at Northwestern, and he was never going to get the talent that he needed to compete at the top of the Big Ten. He had to be quirky to make up for the talent gap and try to get to .500 in the league. Crean and Beilein coached at places that are known for their ability to land top-tier talent, located smack in the middle of some of the best basketball recruiting grounds in the country. That’s not Iowa.
But let’s look at Beilein. He made two runs to the National Title Game. Interestingly, neither of those teams won the Big Ten regular season title. They just got hot at the right time.
That first team, in 2013, was Beilein 1.0. Best offense in the country, and a defense that was good enough to get by, mainly because they did a great job of not fouling. That roster had Trey Burke, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III, but of those guys only McGary was a nationally elite recruit when he committed to Michigan. I think 2013 Michigan is a classic example of what happens when you have a system where all the pieces click into place. Luka Garza is looking like one of those guys who didn’t come in with a ton of accolades but who developed and turned himself into an all-Big Ten guy.
But I think an even more interesting example is that 2018 Michigan team, featuring Beilein 2.0. That team made its run on the back of an elite defense. It’s amazing that a coach as old and established and successful as Beilein could make such a stylistic change, but he did, and it almost won him a national championship. The catalyst was the hiring of Luke Yaklich as an assistant, and the decision to basically hand him the keys to the defense. Basketball doesn’t have coordinator positions like football, but Yaklich was clearly the stud DC for Michigan.
So for Iowa fans who are worried that Fran is good for keeping the Hawkeyes out of the Big Ten basement but bad for making it to the second week of the NCAA Tournament, keep two things in mind. One, teams can get hot at the right time. Iowa is a spurtable team. Hell, they came this close to completing the epic comeback on Tennessee and notching a Sweet Sixteen last season.
Two, it’s possible for a coach to hire an assistant who is strong in the areas where he himself is deficient. It takes money and an ability to spot rising talent and a reputation as being a good boss. I’m not sure Iowa has any of those things working in their favor right now. But I’m also not sure they don’t. This one doesn’t do much for those who want to put their hopes in the 2019-20 version of the Hawkeyes, but it’s something worth keeping in mind if and when Iowa hits a wall in March, limps into the NCAA Tournament, and loses in the second round again.
In the meantime, just enjoy this Iowa team for what it is. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a single Big Ten game more than watching Fran and his boys pick apart Iowa State in Hilton Colosseum. When they’re on, they’re fun to watch. Of course, that’s been true for the past eight seasons or so. But this year’s team seems like they’re on just a little bit more than past teams have been.
This is Franball. It’s pretty good. Whether it can be great is still an open question, even in Year Ten.