By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In the wake of last season’s stunning decline, Fran McCaffery has been willing to make changes to help his team perform better on defense, but that willingness to change only goes so far.
One thing that won’t change is McCaffery’s desire to play at a fast pace on offense.
He played that way in high school and in college as a pass-first point guard, and he worked under two head coaches at Notre Dame – Digger Phelps and John McLeod – who preferred to push the pace on offense.
“Maybe you slow it down a little bit to improve your defense, it makes sense,” McCaffery said Wednesday. “But you never want to take away that edge, well, we're going and we're playing with confidence and we're moving the ball.
“I never felt like, on any teams I've had, where we play fast that we ever had any kind of selfishness at all. Everybody likes to play that way because everybody gets touches and everybody gets to kind of do their thing."
McCaffery’s desire to push the pace had worked up until last season when Iowa allowed nearly 80 points per game and finished 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall.
More emphasis was put on defense during the offseason, but the desire to play up tempo on offense has remained firm and will be the approach used on Thursday when Iowa faces Missouri-Kansas City in the season opener at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“One of the things you can do is if you are not playing good defense is limit the number of times you're on defense,” McCaffery said. “Maybe longer possessions on offense, squeeze the ball a little bit more and try to dig in on a fewer number of possessions.
“That's one philosophy that comes out of a team that struggles defensively as you go back and look at it. But I don't want to do that. I want to continue to run. I don't care if there's a high number of possessions in the game. I don't care if we shoot the ball early in the clock. I'd rather not shoot early in the clock if we're not completely open.”
Players also prefer to play at a fast pace on offense because it’s more fun and exciting than walking the ball up the court.
“It’s fun, having the ability to just go, having the freedom,” said redshirt freshman point guard Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son. “It helps everybody just to be in space and you’re able to do what you want to do with space.
“If you’re always slow and set and you have a methodical way about your offense, it can be a little bit old. I think so, at least.”
Most players think that way and Fran McCaffery tries to use that to his advantage in recruiting.
“I think anybody that you recruit, nobody wants you to say, hey, by the way, we're going to walk it up, we're going to call a set and we're going to try to beat you 54-53,” McCaffery said. “Nobody's going to be listening to you, that's for sure.
“So I encourage my guys to go make plays. And they want to play in that type of system. You can't play nuts. And you can't -- we're going to play fast, but you keep looking at the stats in every game, you've got 22 turnovers and 15 assists. You're going to get beat.”
Todd Lickliter tried the slow-and-methodical approach for three seasons at Iowa, but failed miserably before being fired in 2010.
Fran McCaffery was hired as Lickliter’s replacement and fans immediately embraced McCaffery’s desire to push the pace on offense because it was entertaining and because it was a drastic change from Lickliter’s offense.
The fact that Iowa showed steady improvement under McCaffery made his offense even more popular.
Last season marked the first time since McCaffery’s first season at Iowa that his team failed to make a postseason tournament.
Iowa returns 90.5 percent of minutes played from last season, a percentage that is fourth in the country.
Iowa is also one of only four schools nationally to have all five starters retun with all five being its top five scorers.
That includes junior point guard Jordan Bohannon, who told reporters on Wednesday that he will play in the season opener on Thursday despite suffering from what Fran McCaffery said was a bad bruise.
McCaffery hasn’t said where the bruise is located and Bohannon also declined to share that information on Wednesday for reasons that aren’t exactly clear.
“I practiced a little bit yesterday and it felt good,” Bohannon said. “So I’m looking forward to Thursday because I’ve been out for a good two weeks from practice and that’s been killing me.”
Fran McCaffery called Bohannon's availability for the season opener a game-time decision, but Bohannon was more optimistic about playing.
“First game of year; you guys know me better than that.”
Bohannon is critical to Iowa’s up tempo offense as the starting point guard. The former Linn-Mar star has thrived in Fran McCaffery’s offense and is the only player in the country in the last 25 years to record at 150 assists and 80 3-point baskets as a freshman and sophomore.
The players worked hard on conditioning during the offseason and that should help them push the pace on offense.
“A lot of people across the country weren’t doing what we were doing and we know that and the work we’ve put in,” Bohannon said. “We’re going to take that into effect as soon as we get going tomorrow and there on out for the season because we know we’re going to be one of the best conditioned teams in the country.”
As for Thursday’s opponent, Missouri-Kansas City was defeated by Loyola 76-45 in its season opener on Tuesday. The Kangaroos finished 3-11 in true road games last season.
Iowa vs. Missouri-Kansas City
When: 7:01 p.m. Thursday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena