Connor McCaffery's early success in college not a surprise to his former high school basketball coach

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Iowa redshirt freshman point guard Connor McCaffery takes a shot against Alabama State. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Connor McCaffery is doing exactly what Steve Bergman said he would do as a point guard for the Iowa men’s basketball team.

Bergman said on several occasions while Connor McCaffery was his starting point guard for Class 4A power Iowa City West High School that Connor had the physical and mental attributes to also be a standout point guard in college for his father, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.

Bergman obviously is biased where Connor McCaffery is concerned. But Bergman is also a straight shooter, and one of Iowa’s all-time greatest high school basketball coaches. So he understands the game very well.

And so far, Bergman’s prediction that the 6-foot-5 Connor McCaffery would have a positive impact has been spot-on.

In addition to leading Iowa with 19 assists, Connor McCaffery is also averaging 10.6 points per game and is shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 87.5 percent from the free throw line.

His impact at point guard has helped Iowa get off to a surprising 5-0 start and climb back in the rankings, where the Hawkeyes are 14th in this week’s Associated Press top-25 poll.

“I’m not surprised, but happy,” Bergman said. “Until you actually see him play one never knows. But he just has a leadership ability that not many kids have, and he understands the game.”

The one big change for Connor McCaffery besides the level of competition in college, is that he now plays for his father after having been Bergman’s starting point guard for four seasons at West High.

What hasn’t changed is Connor’s unselfish approach to the game.

He always has been a pass-first point guard and will look to be a facilitator and a stabilizer on offense when Iowa faces Pittsburgh (6-0) on Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Connor McCaffery is also a student of the game as Bergman learned when Connor missed three or four games in high school due to a concussion.

“I always think back to he got a concussion and had missed three or four games and it’s like I was really spoiled those three or four games having him sit on the bench and help me,” Bergman said. “How many kids are you going to say that about?

“He gets the game. He’s a team first guys and always has been, even in high school. He was the best player in the state but it wasn’t like he was going and scoring forty. He was a team-first guy and those things are sticking out.”

There was concern that Connor McCaffery lacked the lateral quickness to play point guard at the major-college level, but Bergman never had that concern. And so far, Connor has held his own on defense against some pretty respectable competition, including Oregon and Connecticut.

“And then the thing I think people kind of doubted that I never did doubt was how well would he play defense,” Bergman said. “He just knows where to be and knows how to move his feel and use his hands. And he hates getting beat at anything. He’s the most competitive person that I know. So those things all add up to you’re going to guard people.”

Bergman said Connor McCaffery has learned how to use his physical strengths to his advantage on defense, and how to compensate for his weaknesses.

“It’s noticeable when you watch the game and there is a quick little guard who kind of has his own way of getting around people,” Bergman said. “And yet those people have deficiencies, too.

“And so Connor makes up in intelligence and size and strength. He makes up for not having the quickness of the little 5-11 water bug guard that you often see.”

Connor McCaffery already was a gifted and willing passer when he joined Bergman’s program as a freshman.

That probably shouldn't come as a surprise because Fran McCaffery was also an accomplished pass-first point guard in high school and in college. Fran earned the nickname "White Magic" while growing up in Philadelphia, and that was due largely to his ability to make nifty passes.

“I’ll take no credit for Connor’s passing ability,” Bergman said. “Zero. He came to us like that.”

That same ability and willingness to pass, and to get his teammates involved on offense, is mostly why Connor McCaffery has earned significant playing time right away for his father.

It was the same way for Connor when he joined Bergman’s team as a high school freshman.

“He didn’t really put up numbers when he was freshman,” Bergman said. “But we had to have him on the floor. He absolutely solidified that team and got us over the hump.”

Fran McCaffery called Connor a “gamer” after a recent victory and then was asked if that could be taught to a player or if it just comes natural for some players.

“That's something that's developed over time,” Fran McCaffery said. “He's been playing a long time in different situations, whether it be high level AAU, World Series baseball, you know, when he's 10 or 11 years old, to West High and the schedule that they play. I've always been impressed with Coach Bergman. He's played against Gary Trent Jr. and Tre Jones and those guys. That's who they play against. So there becomes an expectation of yourself as to the level of performance that you expect to consistently perform at.

“So it's not something I can prepare him for in a short period of time. It's something that I can help him prepare for over a long period of time. He's always been on winning teams. He's always been on championship teams. He's been on teams that were close to winning championships, and he's been through what that feels like, and playing two sports. It started when he was very, very young. The competitive side of this thing is so critical.”

The fact that Connor McCaffery also plays baseball for Iowa shows that he thrives on competition and that he loves a challenge because it’s hard enough playing one sport at the major-college level.

It helps that Connor also excels in the classroom because he seems totally equipped to handle the demands of playing two sports in college.

Connor also knows how to handle his teammates, according to Bergman. Connor worked hard in high school at trying to strengthen the lines of communication between the players and coaches, and Bergman admired him for that.

“He’s smart. He’s smart in school and he’s smart in basketball,” Bergman said. “He was a huge help with some of the more difficult personalities on our team. I mean he would really help me with those guys. “He would reach out to them, and he would talk to me about how they respond to certain things. He just really understood those teammates and he wanted to understand those teammates. And he was really helpful.”

Playing for your father at any level could be an awkward situation, but not if you prove yourself worthy of playing time, which Connor McCaffery has done this season.

The offense seems to run smoothly with Connor playing point guard, and his presence also allows for starting point guard Jordan Bohannon to play off the ball more in order to take advantage of his 3-point shooting prowess.

And it probably isn’t a coincidence that Iowa has improved on defense with Connor McCaffery now part of the rotation.

He and true freshman Joe Wieskamp both have provided a spark on offense and on defense where Iowa struggled last season, allowing nearly 80 points per game.

Fran McCaffery was asked on a Monday teleconference why his team is better on defense despite having most of the same players from last season who struggled on defense.

“We’ve got some additional pieces and we’re a year older,” Fran McCaffery said

He went on to say that defense was more of an emphasis during the offseason, but the fact that Fran McCaffery started his answer by mentioning the additional pieces is telling.

Connor McCaffery might be the head coach’s son, but he is also much more than that.

Fans only saw glimpses of Connor’s potential last season as he battled with injuries and illness as a true freshman.

He was granted a medical redshirt after appearing in just a handful of games and the team struggled without him, finishing just 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall.

“Last year we were a little bit on the younger side, and sometimes, you have to go through a couple tough defeats and some adversity before you can figure it out,” Fran McCaffery said. “But he's really smart. He knows what we need, he knows who we have, and he scored the ball against UConn, which is great. But he also knew where to get the ball, and that's critical.”

The jury still is out on Connor McCaffery’s ability to be a threat from 3-point range. He has attempted just four shots from behind the arc and made one.

But Connor showed steady improvement as a 3-point shooter throughout high school, and Bergman expects the same thing to happen at Iowa.

“I’m sure he wants it to be a little (better), but I think he’s good enough that they have to respect it,” Bergman said. “And that’s really what it’s all about. He’s not going to look for it, but he’ll shoot it when it’s there and when they’re taking away other things. He’ll make it enough that they have to account for him in a scouting report.”