IOWA CITY, Ia. — Penn guard Fran McCaffery wasn’t in awe the first time he walked into Madison Square Garden to play in the 1980 Holiday Classic.
“I didn’t get in awe of places,” said McCaffery, who will return to New York City’s famed arena to coach his Iowa basketball team against Maryland in the semifinals of the NIT on Tuesday.
McCaffery’s upbringing played a role in his lack of intimidation. His father, Jack, worked at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia. Fran spent a good share of his youth watching games there. He’d also take the subway to Convention Hall to see Wilt Chamberlain play for the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I was a Wilt guy,” McCaffery said. “I hated Bill Russell.”
And when he was playing at Penn, McCaffery would take the subway to the Spectrum to see Dr. J, Julius Erving, play.
“He was one of those guys you’d pay to see,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery started his college career at Wake Forest. That included a trip to one of college basketball’s great home courts, North Carolina’s Carmichael Auditorium. McCaffery was one of several freshmen on the team, and the Wake Forest coaches gave them a tour of the building and pointed out banners for Tar Heel greats hanging from the rafters, in hopes of calming nerves.
“I wasn’t thinking about banners or some guy in the fifth row yelling at me,” McCaffery said. “I was thinking, “What do I have to do to outplay Phil Ford?’ He was the point guard on the Olympic team, the player of the year in the country. That’s where my focus was.”
McCaffery transferred to Penn and got his first taste of Madison Square Garden when the Quakers lost to St. John’s 66-58 and beat Iona 82-66 in the 1980 Holiday Festival.
McCaffery returned as an assistant coach to John McLeod at Notre Dame in 1992. The Irish lost to Virginia in the NIT title game, 81-76. Ironically, McCaffery will return to the Garden this week after his Iowa team won at Virginia in the quarterfinals 75-64.
Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe grew up in Glen Cove, N.Y., about 35 miles northeast of New York City. He’s got six tickets for family members. He could use a lot more.
“I’m scrambling right now,” Basabe said.
Asked last week how many requests he’d received, Basabe looked up the seats of Carver-Hawkeye Arena and said, “Enough to fill half of this arena.”
Basabe made his one and only trip to Madison Square Garden as a 17-year-old junior to watch the semifinals of the 2009 Big East Tournament.
“There were so many pros on the floor,” Basabe said. “That’s when I really got excited about playing college basketball. That was my first time seeing a college game. My first experience at the Garden. It was a special one.”
Iowa assistant coach Andrew Francis was in his early 20s when he saw his first game in Madison Square Garden.
“It was a tremendous feeling,” Francis said.
He had great tickets, too, compliments of Knicks player John Starks. Francis had worked a basketball camp for Starks.
“I was sitting right behind Spike Lee, a couple of rows back,” Francis said. “I was in so much awe, being there and watching (the Knicks) play.”
Lee, a fixture at courtside, spends a lot of time on his feet during Knicks games. Francis never asked him to sit down.
“I didn’t have to,” Francis said. “He’s not a tall guy. I could see right over him.”
Francis returned to the Garden later as an assistant coach at Villanova.
HELPING HAND: Iowa has assisted on 63.3 percent of its field goals this season (545 assists, 861 baskets). That ranks 19th nationally, and is the Hawkeyes’ best percentage since the 2005-06 team (25-9) assisted on 64.2 percent of its field goals.
“I thought it was possible, because we have an unselfish team and we have forwards who can pass the ball,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “A lot of times, you look at those numbers and it’s a function of can your big guys pass. (Adam) Woodbury is a good passer.”
REJECTION RECORD: Iowa has blocked a school-record 178 shots this season. The Hawkeyes broke the previous school record of 174 in the season’s 35th game. The old mark, held by the 2004-05 team, was set in 33 games.
“It’s not something I thought would happen,” McCaffery said. “But if you said to me it was going to happen, I’d have said to you that that means Gabe Olaseni has developed in a way that he’s been on the floor blocking shots. Because for us to have that record, he has to be right in the middle of it.”
Olaseni had seven blocks, and Iowa set a single-game record with 13, in a 63-55 victory against Illinois on March 5. Melsahn Basabe has blocked a team-high 45 shots this season. Olaseni has 36, Adam Woodbury 27 and Aaron White 25.
MARBLE’S NIT MAGIC: Two of Devyn Marble’s top three career offensive games have come in NIT play. He scored 31 in a second-round loss at Oregon in 2012 and scored 28 in a second-round victory over Stony Brook in 2013. Marble also scored 30 against Northern Iowa in Des Moines on Dec. 15, 2012.
In five career NIT games, Marble is averaging 23.2 points while shooting 52.7 from the field (38-for- 72), 48.1 percent from 3 (13-for-27) and 84.3 percent from the free-throw line (27-for-32).
His 25.3-point average in three NIT games this season trails only Tyler Haws of BYU (28.7). Marble has now scored 527 points this season and stands at 1,107 points for his career. He ranks 31st on Iowa’s career scoring list.
DUEL OF 7-FOOTERS: Iowa’s 7-foot-1 Adam Woodbury will square off against Maryland’s 7-1 sophomore Alex Len in Tuesday’s semifinals.
Woodbury had 10 points and eight rebounds while playing a career-high 26 minutes against Virginia.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player, and has a chance to be a pro,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.
Len had 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots in the Terrapins’ 58-57 quarterfinal victory at Alabama.
“To see how Adam played the other night was huge for him,” McCaffery said. “Now he gets an opportunity to go against Alex Len, and he’s a lottery pick. It’s a great challenge for him. He’s gone against other lottery picks this year. We’ll see how it goes. He’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball