By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Fran McCaffery is entering by far his most important season as the Iowa men’s basketball coach.
It’s the most important season because for one, it’s the upcoming season and coaches always live in the moment.
But season number nine under McCaffery also comes on the heels of one of the worst seasons in program history, a stunning decline that nobody saw coming after McCaffery had led Iowa to six consecutive postseason tournament appearances, including three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament from 2013 to 2016.
Iowa finished just 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall last season, and it was mostly due to being a sieve on defense where opponents averaged 78.7 points per game.
It was such a humbling and eye-opening experience for McCaffery that he changed what he emphasizes as a head coach.
“I've always been an offensive coach,” McCaffery said Monday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “We're going to put points on the board. We're going to run. We're going to attack, and essentially, we're going to out-score you. Most of the time, that's worked. If you look every year that I've coached, we've scored the ball. We've attacked the rim. We've gotten to the free throw line. We've gotten into the bonus, gotten into the double bonus.
“My players play with supreme confidence. I always have guys up in the scoring leaders, all-league guys, because they play with confidence, and I let them play. That's great, and our offensive numbers were really good last year. I mean, tremendously good.
“But our defensive numbers were not. So, okay, we have to spend more time in practice, whether it's breaking drills down, one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three, four-on-four, and then ultimately five-on-five. Okay, how do we transition defensively? What have we been teaching? We have to reorganize how we teach that. Ball screen defense; you could go staff-by-staff throughout the country and you might have staffs that spend four hours a day talking about ball screens. It's just one of those things.”
Iowa scored the ball at an impressive rate last season, averaging 79.7 points per game.
The top nine scorers return from that team, led by junior power forward Tyler Cook and junior point Jordan Bohannon, who averaged 15.3 and 13.5 points per game, respectively, last season.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cook is a force in the low post on offense, while Bohannon is on pace to become Iowa’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets.
Junior shooting guard Isaiah Moss also can score in bunches, evident by his 19-point outburst against Minnesota last season in just 96 seconds.
Incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp, a 6-6 small forward from Muscatine, also averaged more than 30 points per game as a high school senior and ended his illustrious prep career as the all-time leading scorer in Class 4A in Iowa with 2,376 points.
“I know offense is never really a problem,” Bohannon said. “We have scorers left and right, and with Joe coming in as well. Isaiah is able to get hot and Tyler is always reliable and myself.
“But at the end of the day, it depends on what we do on the other side of the court. Our offense is going to be there, but we have to really dig down and play some defense this year. That’s what it really is going to come down to.”
Bohannon is arguably the top 3-point shooter in the Big Ten, if not the country. His shooting range stretches nearly 30 feet and he is capable of scoring 30 points on any given night.
Bohannon is also the only player nationally to record at least 150 assists and 80 3-point baskets as a freshman and sophomore over the past 25 years.
His defense, on the other hand, has been suspect at best, especially in regard to stopping point guard penetration.
“That’s been a big mindset to me, being a better on-ball defender, better lateral quickness,” Bohannon said. “And that’s something that we all have honestly done as well this offseason.”
Sophomore center Luka Garza showed flashes on defense last season, while also averaging 12.1 points per game.
However, he still is recovering from surgery in early September to remove a nine-pound cyst from his abdomen.
The 6-11 Garza still has a ways to go with his recovery, but he is optimistic about being ready for the start of the season in November.
“The check-ups have been great with the doctor, everything is looking good right now,” Garza said. “So if I keep getting better, that’s the goal, to play in that first game.”
McCaffery and the players all talked about self-reflection, about looking in the mirror and about being accountable for what happened last season.
McCaffery was asked on Monday if his players feel any pressure to win after what happened last season.
“I would think that they would feel pressure to win every year, and I think that's the plan,” McCaffery said. “You start the season, you feel like you have a good team; we're supposed to win. Let's go win. Let's put it together. Let's compete together. Let's understand how each of us can help the other.
“So we're helping them. They are helping each other. They are getting better. We're getting better. I'd like to think it's not every possession has to be won, or else we're completely failing based on what happened last year. I don't think you want that mindset. There's got to be a comfortability and confidence level that's developed and I think we're working towards that.”
Iowa has failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, so it’s reasonable to think that there is pressure to end that streak, but Cook sees it differently.
“I don’t feel any pressure in terms of expectations for myself or for this team’ said Cook, who tested the NBA draft process this past spring before deciding to return to Iowa. “And I think we’re all thinking the same way as well.
“People expect us to be at the bottom based off last year. So from this point, there is nowhere to go but up. And so I think that’s the fun part, thinking of ways to get better.”
McCaffery isn’t on the hot seat despite what some in the national media might think, but a repeat of last season would almost certainly put him there.
Iowa sunk so far last season from a record standpoint that it’s hard to be overly optimistic despite all of the offensive firepower that is returning.
Redshirt freshman point guard Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, is also healthy after missing most of last season due to injuries and illness.
Connor McCaffery tried to downplay speculation that his father is feeling added pressure to win after what happened last season.
“I don’t think he’s putting more pressure (on himself) necessarily,” Connor said. “He’s been through this before. He’s experienced and he knows kind of how to handle this, and I think that’s what is showing more.
“He really kind of has taken a step back and looked at the situation and just kind of said, ‘Okay, what do we need to do better? What was good? What was bad? And I think some of those problems were pretty clear. Obviously, the defensive side of things we need to get better.”
Connor McCaffery said his father pays no attention to the outside noise and couldn’t care less what the so-called experts think about his job security.
“He does not care what people say or think, and I think that’s a positive, I think it’s a great thing, actually,” Connor said. “He’s always been like that. And I’ve tried to take some of that as well.
“You can’t listen to what people are saying. It shouldn’t affect you. Sometimes, it may, but you can’t let it bother you because what they say isn’t going to change what you have to do or want to do. And it shouldn’t change your confidence or opinion of yourself.”
And though Fran McCaffery might not feel any added pressure to win after what happened last season, his team's sudden decline did cause him to question himself.
"Absolutely. I think you have to," Fran McCaffery said. "Because if you don't, what you're saying is, it's everybody's fault, and I think that's foolish and unfair. So you have to analyze everything; what did I do, what can I do differently? You know, what do I need to demand out of my staff. How do we plan practice. How do we run practice. What's the role of our graduate assistants, our student managers? How are we doing recruiting?
"And then make sure the players know and understand that that's our part, and now they have to do their part. Okay, what did they do well; what didn't they do well."
The fact that no players transferred during the offseason despite persistent rumors that some were considering it, including Cook, could be a good sign because this is an age when many players transfer at the first sign of trouble.
Chemistry off the court doesn't appear to be a problem with the current group of players as they all seem to get along and respect each other.
It makes sense that the players would try to downplay the pressure to win while talking to the media because to acknowledge it might bring more pressure.
But the players know what's at stake this season and that another losing record would be disastrous for the program, and for Fran McCaffery.
The only cure is to win, but that won't happen unless the situation improves dramatically on defense.