IOWA CITY, Ia. — Zach McCabe is in the home stretch of his Iowa basketball career, something that didn’t hit him until a recent conversation he had with a couple of lifelong friends.
“They asked, ‘Do you have any tickets for Senior Day?’” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, that’s coming up real quick.’”
The 6-foot-7 senior forward came to Iowa when the program was at rock bottom. On Sunday, he hopes to help solidify the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament resume in a 1 p.m. Big Ten game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa, 19-9 overall and 8-7 in the league, will be trying to snap a three-game losing streak and reach 20 victories in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2004-05 and 2005-06.
“It just makes me really happy to see where the program is at right now,” said McCabe, who arrived in the wake of a 10-win season in 2009-10.
McCabe will play in his 133rd career game today against the Boilermakers (15-13, 5-10). Saturday’s regular-season finale against Illinois would be a school-record 135th game in the Iowa uniform he dreamed of wearing as a youngster.
“My mom and dad (Beth and Tim) both grew up Iowa fans,” McCabe said. “My grandma and grandpa on both sides of the family were big Iowa fans.”
It took some good fortune for McCabe to achieve his dream. Former Iowa coach Todd Lickliter offered a scholarship to Marshalltown’s Chanse Creekmur instead of McCabe, who led Bishop Heelan in Sioux City to state titles as a junior and senior.
Creekmur accepted, but later opened up his recruitment. Lickliter then offered McCabe, who was weighing a similar overture from Arizona State.
“I guess I can thank (Creekmur) for giving me that chance,” McCabe said.
During McCabe’s four seasons — Fran McCaffery was hired to replace Lickliter in the spring before he arrived — Iowa basketball has made a comeback.
“My dad always talks about how Iowa made the NCAA Tournament every year,” McCabe said. “I remember Reggie Evans, Adam Haluska, those guys making the NCAAs and winning the Big Ten Tournament (in 2001 and 2006).”
Haluska played on Iowa’s last NCAA team in 2006. Iowa had three straight losing seasons before McCabe arrived, logging a 38-57 record. The Hawkeyes are 73-59 under McCaffery. McCabe, a co-captain this season, has played a versatile role in the turnaround.
“He’s been a terrific player for us for four years, a great teammate,” McCaffery said. “A tremendous captain. I use him in so many different ways. But he is clearly underappreciated in many ways.”
McCabe started 30 games as a sophomore, but has come off the bench for 58 of 66 games the past two seasons. He has scored 840 points. His first rebound today will be the 500th of his career.
“I’ve just always been a team guy, and I’ve never been a self-centered person who worries about me, me, me,” McCabe said. “So if coach needs me to come off the bench or tells me to do certain things to help our team win that might not be scoring, or being an offensive presence, that’s fine.”
McCabe, who is averaging 6.1 points and 3.1 rebounds, has scored in double figures 30 times. This season has been a struggle offensively. He scored in double figures in eight of the first 11 games, but none since.
One of his toughest games came in Iowa’s 84-74 upset of No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. McCabe missed all eight shot attempts, five of them from 3. But after the game, McCaffery sent a message. He gave McCabe a chest bump before going through the handshake line, a way of telling his senior he still believed in him.
“It’s nice to know I have a coach who believes in me and knows I’m still fighting for that win,” McCabe said.
McCaffery also rallied behind McCabe when a caller on his radio show questioned the senior’s spot in the rotation. And when McCabe fired back at some negative Twitter chatter after the Feb. 22 loss to Wisconsin, McCaffery defended his senior again.
“You have to appreciate what a guy brings to the table every day,” McCaffery said.
McCabe’s spot at that table is down to its last few meals. At least for basketball. Also an all-state quarterback at Bishop Heelan who had a Division I scholarship from South Florida, McCabe is thinking about playing football for the Hawkeyes this fall.
But that decision is for another day. On Sunday, McCabe will do everything he can to beat Purdue.
“Whether it’s 10, 12, 20 or 22 minutes, I’m going to work as hard as I can to make an impact on the game,” McCabe said.