IOWA CITY, Ia. When Fran McCaffery first hit the recruiting trail as Iowa’s newly minted basketball coach, he learned one thing very quickly.
The Hawkeyes’ strong basketball tradition was ancient history in the eyes of today’s recruits. So McCaffery dug in his heels and started looking for players to help him reverse the program’s decline in perception and prestige.
That process was repeated Wednesday, when players across the country signed binding national letters of intent. Iowa signed two players — guard Brady Ellingson and forward Dominique Uhl — who McCaffery thinks will help his program continue to grow. He still has two more scholarships at his disposal for 2013-14.
Signing day offers promise and potential, which is about all Iowa fans had to look forward to until McCaffery arrived in March of 2010. But things have changed. Iowa, coming off a 25-win season, entered this year with some national buzz that has been missing for nearly a decade. That’s reflected in increased ticket sales, expectations and preseason projections. A program that hasn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 2006, or won an NCAA game since 2001, is expected to do both this year.
“That’s the interesting part about how you go about this,” McCaffery said. “This time of year, you want to temper enthusiasm to the point where everyone is grounded with regard to where we are and what we’re doing. We recognize it’s important to be part of the conversation, to be discussed, and for people to think we’re good. But there’s also responsibility that comes with that. The bottom line is, you’ve got to ultimately be good. It’s pretty simple.”
Making the NCAA Tournament would provide an assist in recruiting, too, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately moment for recruits with no knowledge of Iowa’s past. Selling Devyn Marble is a lot easier than spinning tales about Roy Marble.
“I definitely think it will help,” McCaffery said. “There’s a lot more to it. But it’s clearly a component. There are a lot of people that want to play in this league. But ultimately, kids want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Absolutely.”
Any coach worth his seven-figure salary has to be focused on the present with an eye on the future. That is reality in a world where recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. Countless hours and dollars are invested. Often, the return on that dollar is zip.
Take the case of Tyler Ulis, the fleet point guard from suburban Chicago. McCaffery was ahead of the curve there. He was sold on Ulis early in the recruiting process and gave him the full-court press.
McCaffery saw a point guard perfect for his system. He also saw Kentucky’s big shadow step in late and steal him away. McCaffery outrecruited Michigan State for Ulis. But Kentucky was, well, Kentucky.
McCaffery won his share of battles, too. Ellingson, a 6-foot-4 guard from Sussex, Wis., comes in with a shooter’s reputation.
“He is a very good shooter, but he’s a player,” McCaffery said. “When I recruit guys who I think will be really good three-point shooter for us, to me they have to have a game. He’s got size, he can go off the dribble, he can make a play for somebody else, and he makes shots late. He’s got that innate toughness.”
In Uhl, a native of Germany and a 6-9 forward from Point Pleasant Beach, N..J., McCaffery has a player with length and an upside.
“With Dom physically, he has unbelieveable potential with his athletic ability and his length, and he’s got a skill set to match that,” McCaffery said. “He can put it on the deck. He really likes to make plays for other people. He makes plays for himself off the dribble getting to the rim. He can score, rebound and block shots. When he gets stronger, I think he’s going to be that much more difficult to guard. He’s got a chance to be really good.”
Iowa is still in the running for Michael Nzei, a 6-7 forward from Centereach, N.Y. , who could still sign this fall but may wait until the spring. Whether he carries over one or two scholarships to the spring, McCaffery is considering all options.
“A transfer, or a fifth-year transfer, a junior-college kid or a high school kid that emerges,” McCaffery said. “There’s a lot of players out there. I have had equal success early and late.”
And in the weeks leading up to the start of the spring signing period April 16, McCaffery might have another four-letter selling point: NCAA.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him all season long: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball