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Fran McCaffery: His first season in his own words

[ 8 ] April 12, 2011 |

Iowa went 11-20 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten Conference during Fran McCaffery's first season as coach. (Bill Neibergall / Des Moines Register photo)

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery discusses his first season as Iowa men’s basketball coach with Rick Brown of The Des Moines Register.

Q: Was your first trip through the Big Ten about what you expected?

A: It was. I think I went into this season with my eyes open. You analyze it at the front end and you see how many teams are picked to be in the Top 10, the Top 25 and see how many teams we had in the tournament, it stayed pretty true to form.

We had a number of teams ranked all year long. There were names that I was already aware of, players I had watched. Stars. And that’s what this league is. You go on the road and the atmosphere is phenomenal. There’s hall of fame coaches in our league, so the coaching is spectacular. And every team not only has stars, but every player can really play. And you have potential all-Americans coming off the bench who are maybe young.

It tests your team every possible way: their basketball intellect, their toughness, their stamina, their strength, and their ability to sustain all of those things over time. And I think the real test is how you get through one game and then how do you get through 18 of these games. Because every one of them is phenomenally difficult.

Q: Was the play of (point guard) Bryce Cartwright one of the biggest surprises of your coaching career?

A: I think it was, because he came in with little fanfare. I’ve recruited other players before who had come in the same way. They just wanted an opportunity , knew in their heart they could play, just give me a chance and then I’ll prove I can play, and I don’t care what people say.

This kid came in and was looking for a chance. I gave him a chance, and then he got a chance to play more when Cully (Payne) got hurt, and he proved he was our best point guard, clearly. And I think more importantly, his improvement from the start of the season to the end of the season was something that I really appreciated because it showed me that he not only had the character to be able to do that, but he was willing to accept coaching and study the game and get better.

Bryce Cartwright emerged as one of the Hawkeyes' top players this season. (Matthew Holst / Iowa City Press-Citizen photo)

And he had an ability to have an off-night and then come back and have a really good game, which shows me how tough he is. For him to average 11 points and lead the Big Ten in assists, considering the quality of point guard in this conference, I think that’s what makes it amazing. What he did is one thing. Jordan Taylor, Kalin Lucas, Demetri McCamey, Lewis Jackson, Juice Thompson, Talor Battle, you name it, there’s pros at his position. That this kid comes in and does what he did says a lot about who he is.

Q: There was a sense of apathy that had grown around the program before you came. Did you sense the feeling that people genuinely want the program to be successful again?

A: There’s no question. I thought our crowds were tremendous. Not only that but how engaged they were on every possession. That’s what the great fans do. And I said at my (introductory) press conference that these fans were sophisticated.

There were times when we struggled, and I think the thing that impressed me most is that they hung in there with us while we were struggling. I think that had a great impact on our players. We didn’t play well against Northwestern or Minnesota at home, but they came back and enabled us to play really well against Michigan State and Wisconsin and Michigan and Purdue. And before that against Ohio State and Illinois.

I think they saw a group of young men that competed, that were playing the game the right way. I think it was a more fun approach for the players and for the fans to watch. They want to see our kids having fun. It’s OK if they make mistakes. But they want to see a fast break, and they want to see an alley oop, and they want to see penetration, and they want to see the great runs. And when we would make one of those runs the crowd was right in the middle of it. But it’s fun when the crowd is so much a part of everything that is going on.

And I think when a guy gets in his car and drives over to the game he wants to be a part of it. He doesn’t necessarily want to be a spectator. He wants to be intimately involved. And I think our arena lends itself to that atmosphere where everyone is right on top of you.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery gives instruction to guard Matt Gatens during a game this season. (Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City Press-Citizen photo)

Q: Attendance was up. How important is a home-court advantage as you build this? Isn’t it mandatory?

A: It is. It phenomenally difficult to win on the road because of the same thing. You have to overcome so much. And ultimately, to be a championship team, you’ve got to win on the road in conference play. You’ve got to protect your home court and then be able to go and win on the road. To know we have this kind of home-court advantage gives me great confidence as we go forward.

Q: How have you been received on the recruiting trail, and has Iowa’s recent struggles been a bargaining chip for programs that are recruiting against you?

A: I suspect. It’s not something anyone would come out and say. Some of the superstars are at times a little bit hesitant. But I would say this. The really good players are open and interested. They know the league. They’re interested. And they’re aware. They know who Melsashn Basabe is, and who Cartwright is, and who Matt Gatens is. They saw some of our games. So it’s slowly getting back to where we’re a program that the elite players are going to consider.

Q: When you recruit, what are you selling?

A: You sell opportunity. You sell the new (practice) facility, you sell the tradition, you sell the Big Ten, and how many teams we got in (the NCAA Tournament). You sell the Big Ten Network. There’s a lot to sell.

The one thing I found is that it’s so important to get recruits to Iowa City. People that are not from here have a preconceived idea of what life is like in Iowa. They get here and, “Wow, this is really a great city, a great place to go to school, it’s a beautiful campus, there’s a lot of things to do.’ They think it’s a quieter, slower pace, which at times it is, but there’s a lot going on here. And people, when they see it, they tend to fall in love with it.

Q: Are you confident that your style of play can be successful in the Big Ten?

A: No question. I hope to play even faster and press even more. And I think when I feel like we’re a little bit deeper we will do that. We had to be careful last year. We didn’t have enough depth to really get after people and really push the ball. I was worried about foul trouble with key personnel. But if we get enough depth and I can push the tempo even more that’s what I’d like to do.

Josh Oglesby of Cedar Rapids Washington, left, is part of the Hawkeyes' 2011 recruiting class. (Mary Chind / Des Moines Register photo)

Q: How do (fall signees) Josh Oglesby and Aaron White fit in, and do you see both getting minutes next season?

A: I do, for a couple of reasons. I think, if you analyze this team, one of the areas we struggled with was outside shooting. Matt Gatens shot the ball fairly well. Eric May on fewer attempts had a pretty good percentage. But after that we weren’t a 3-point-shooting team. (Devyn) Marble didn’t shoot 3s. Cartwright didn’t shoot 3s. Zach McCabe, who I think will be a very good 3-point shooter, started well and then struggled towards the end.

Now when you have Oglesby and White, I think Marble and McCabe’s numbers are going to come up, we’d like to see Bryce’s numbers come up as a result of penetrating more. We still have some scholarships to give so that will give us some more athleticism. What I’m trying to do is get more athletic, a little bit bigger, and have a few more people who can make 3s to stretch the defense. And I think if we’re able to do that with this class we’ve done it in a big way.

The thing I like about Josh and Aaron in particular, Josh is a big guard. He’s a legitimate 6-6. Aaron is 6-8 but he’s long and he’s sort of sneaky athletic. And he can make 3s so he can stretch the defense. So when you put all of those things together it enables you to overcome a lot of things. You can’t get zoned, you create driving lanes and penetration opportunities as a result of the folks on the floor who can make shots. And then we get a few more rebounds, we’re a little bit deeper, so we can press more and sustain our defensive intensity longer. That’s going to be really exciting as we look to next year in terms of what we’re capable of doing.

Q: How important is skill development of the returning guys?

A: It is important, because ultimately you’re going to win with juniors and seniors. When you look at the mid-majors that advance in the NCAA Tournament, it’s always senior- and junior-dominated teams. That’s why I always say, “Boy, I wish I had Jarryd Cole back.’ There’s a guy who really benefited from the work we’ve done with him since he got here.

Jarryd Cole was the lone senior on the Iowa men's basketball team this season. (Matthew Holst / Iowa City Press-Citizen photo)

And that kid, he just has something inside him from a character standpoint that enables him to be so focused on being a good player, being a good teammate, being a good captain, and putting a premium on winning versus himself. Ironically it always works out that way that he ends up getting a lot of the attention. Certainly in that Purdue game to have him a senior day like that was tremendous.

Q: What areas do you think your team will be better at next season than they were in 2010-11?

A: I just think we’ll be more consistent. And I think that’s the key. I think if you look at why we lost the games we lost we weren’t inconsistent for 40 minutes. We were inconsistent for short spurts. Just enough to be a difference between a five-point loss and a three-point win. Four or five possessions, that’s all were talking about here. So you’ve got to get more consistent at both ends.

Q: The Big Ten lost a lot of great seniors. Is the league in a transition phase or is the Big Ten a reload league?

A: It’s a reload league. People just have to get used to the names now. You look at Illinois you see Myers Leonard and (D.J.) Richardson. Go team by team, you’ll see other guys who will step up. The (Deshaun) Thomas kid at Ohio State, he’s got a chance to be a star. You go team by team. It will just be the next wave of guys coming in. And sometimes it takes a little bit. And hopefully we’ll be able to benefit from that.

Q: Do you anticipate anyone other than Cully Payne leaving the program?

A: I think we’re pretty set.

Q: Do you think the spring signing period (starting today and lasting a month) will drag on as you try and fill your open scholarships?

A: I hope not. The one thing about recruiting is that it’s phenomenally unpredictable. Every situation is a snowflake. Every kid goes about it differently. It’s the biggest decision of his life, and he should be able to go through it however he wants to go through it. Some kids decide quickly. Some take forever. It’s usually somewhere in between.

That’s why I encourage guys to get out and see places, and ask, and listen, and think. Then you can make a decision. You don’t have to start the process too late and then all of a sudden you’re getting phone calls that some of the options you thought were there were are gone.

Q: People wrote last year that by the middle of the season, you’d be wishing you were back at Siena. Are you happy with the progress you made in year one?

A: I’m very confident in what we’ve done and where we’re headed. I never looked back. It was a phenomenal five years (at Siena). I spent time at the Final Four with the athletic director from Siena, and the coach, my good friend Mitch Buonaguro, the head of the board of trustees was there, a good friend, and another guy who’s close to the program, at this one place together having a big time. I loved it there. But I’d hoped to one day have this kind of opportunity. This is exactly the one I wanted. And we’re going to get it done.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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