By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There is no denying that Fran McCaffery has some serious fixing to do in his ninth season as the Iowa men’s basketball coach.
His current team fell to 0-3 in the Big Ten with Thursday’s 86-70 loss at Purdue and the game wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. Iowa has now lost 17 of its last 21 conference games dating back to last season, including 11 by double figures.
Iowa also has trailed by at least 17 points in its past 11 Big Ten road games, which is another staggering statistic.
Iowa never lost 17 of 21 conference games during any stretch in three disastrous seasons under Todd Lickliter, so there is reason to be concerned and to question whether McCaffery can steer the program back in the right direction.
The fact that Iowa won all 11 of its nonconference games softens the blow a little, but also seems deceiving, and doesn’t change the circumstances heading into Sunday’s game against Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Both teams are so desperate for a win that the game could be called a must-win for both despite it being just the fourth game in a 20-game conference schedule.
Nebraska blew a late lead at Maryland on Wednesday and is 1-2 in conference play.
Iowa, on the other hand, led Purdue for less than two minutes and trailed by as many as 26 points.
The game played out like so many games did last season when Iowa finished 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall.
Iowa was a sieve on defense against Purdue from start to finish, and undisciplined and impatient on offense in the first half when the game mattered.
McCaffery gives his players a lot of freedom as shooters, but even he took exception to what McCaffery said were contested shots taken too early in the shot clock against Purdue, especially in the first half when Purdue started to pull away.
“We don't want to shoot those, especially early in the clock,” McCaffery said. “I don't care who it is. If we move it, move it, move it, and you catch it and you're open, you shoot the ball. Those guys know who they are.”
Iowa certainly missed not having 6-foot-11 sophomore center Luka Garza against Purdue because of an ankle injury. But it’s probably a reach to say that he would have changed the outcome of a game in which Iowa trailed by as many as 26 points.
Garza was questionable for the Nebraska game as of Friday afternoon, so the next 24 to 36 hours will be crucial in the recovery process.
“Every day I’m getting better,” Garza said Friday. “I’m waking up and feeling less sore and the swelling is continuing to go down.
“I’ve got two days of practice ahead and I’m just going to continue to work on my strength and my explosiveness and just trying to get back to one-hundred percent.”
Garza is in a difficult situation in that he wants to return as quickly as possible to help his struggling team, but he also has the big picture and himself to think about.
“I myself want to get out there and play,” Garza said. “But the decision is in the hands of the coaches and the training staff. I trust them. So whatever they decide is best.”
Garza said Fran McCaffery made the right decision by holding him out of the Purdue game.
“I was close, but just wasn’t right there,” Garza said. “So it was a good decision on his part and the training staff’s part.”
Iowa’s situation hasn’t reached the crisis stage with 17 conference games still remaining.
But a loss to Nebraska on Sunday would put Iowa on the verge of a crisis.
Iowa already has lost once at home in the Big Ten to Wisconsin in the conference opener, and to have two home losses in the first four games would be a major concern.
The Iowa players said all the right things while meeting with the media on Friday. Junior forward Tyler Cook and junior point guard Jordan Bohannon both have spoken individually to the players about how anacceptable the Purdue loss was, so the team leaders are doing their part.
The problem is that talk eventually falls on deaf ears, and it might have reached the point with some of the Iowa fans, who only want to see results at this stage.
The defense had shown signs earlier in the season of being better than last season when Iowa allowed almost 80 points per game.
But the defense has been horrible in the last two Big Ten games against Purdue and Michigan State as Iowa combined to allow 100 points in the paint against both teams, including 48 points against Michigan State.
McCaffery said the focus on defense against Purdue was to limit its potent 3-point attack, but that strategy made Iowa vulnerable in the paint and Purdue exposed that.
“So I don't know that you want to start blaming all the guys,” McCaffery said. “They were trying to do what we asked them to do. There are things that are in conjunction with that that weren't carried out effectively. We just have to do a better job of getting them ready for that and making sure they're locked into that.”
McCaffery showed no signs of panic, or even concern as he met with the media on Friday. He is a master at living in the moment and doesn’t get too high during good times or too low during bad times.
The conference schedule still is in its infancy and there is plenty of time for McCaffery’s ninth team at Iowa to figure things and to start winning.
The defense has to improve considerably, as does the point guard play.
The days of Bohannon not being a focal point of every defensive scouting report are long gone. Iowa’s sharpshooting junior point guard now has a reputation that proceeds him and defenses are taking drastic steps to limit his shot attempts.
Bohannon only scored eight points against Purdue and struggled to get open looks while facing constant pressure.
“We're kind of used to how they're guarding Jordan now,” Fran McCaffery said. “They're paying a lot of attention to him. That's something that started happening last year. I think he's trying to look for his shot but not hunt for shots. It's kind of two different things.
“He doesn't want to be selfish, but at the same time he's got to be a little bit selfish and really work. We have to do a better job screening for him and getting him the ball.”
Defenses also are adjusting to 6-5 redshirt freshman point Connor McCaffery by sagging more into the lane to stop his penetration because that’s an area where he excelled early in the season.
Connor McCaffery, who is Fran Mccaffery’s son, is a past-first point guard, but Connor acknowledged on Friday that he has to start looking more often for his shot, especially from 3-point range because defenses are almost daring him to shoot it.
“I do need to be ready to shoot when I do have the chance because if I don’t that’s something that could get lost on me and I need to be able to knock shots down,” Connor McCaffery said.
This has been a strange season so far, considering Iowa is ranked in both top-25 polls, but winless in conference play.
Fans, obviously, are concerned and some probably are expecting the worst because of what happened last season.
It’s only natural for fans to feel that way, and winning is the only way to change that feeling.
Cook scored 24 points against Purdue and is scoring and rebounding at a higher mark than last season.
And yet, Iowa still is struggling and reverting back to some of its bad habits on defense.
Some fans want to think that Fran McCaffery’s job is in jeopardy when that isn’t the case. It could be if Iowa fails to make a postseason tournament, but we’re not there yet.
Iowa has made a postseason tournament in four of the last five seasons under McCaffery, including the NCAA Tournament three times in a row from 2013-16.
McCaffery’s body of work still carries some weight, but a repeat of last season would shorten his leash.
Iowa has to start winning in a hurry or McCaffery will have a crisis on his hands, probably sooner than later.
Iowa vs. Nebraska
When: 4:30, Sunday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network