IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Fran McCaffery worked as an assistant basketball coach at Notre Dame, football coach Lou Holtz gave him some advice.
“He said, ‘You can talk about your problems if you want to, but just remember that 50 percent of the people don’t care about your problems, and 50 percent are glad you’ve got them,’” McCaffery said Sunday. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Six losses in the past seven games were problematic. But Iowa (20-12) still made the NCAA Tournament on Sunday for the first time since 2006, and was assigned one of the First Four games by the NCAA selection committee. Iowa meets Tennessee (21-12) at approximately 8 p.m. Wednesday on truTV in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will be the No. 11 seed in the Midwest and play No. 6 seed Massachusetts on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
“If we had lost our way out of this tournament, now it would feel different,” McCaffery said. “As long as you’re still in it, the seeding is kind of irrelevant. Now we’ve got to go play Tennessee. That’s all we’re thinking about.”
Wednesday’s game is also challenging on a personal level. Patrick McCaffery, 13, one of Fran and Margaret McCaffery’s four children, is scheduled to have surgery to remove a mass on his thyroid the same day. The McCafferys won’t know the time of the surgery until Tuesday. Tests will then determine if the mass is benign or malignant.
McCaffery said he will coach the Hawkeyes in Dayton. The team is expected to fly there today after practice. McCaffery said he’ll iron out his schedule after talking to Iowa athletic director Gary Barta. McCaffery hopes to fly back to Iowa City on Tuesday after practice, be at University Hospitals during Patrick’s surgery Wednesday and then return to Dayton for the game.
“I can only imagine what they’re going through,” Barta said of the McCafferys. “But they have my full support, as well as my prayers.”
Sunday’s bid came in McCaffery’s fourth season as coach. He inherited a 10-win team when he was hired in the spring of 2010.
“In the beginning, some days it seemed insurmountable,” McCaffery said. “But we just kept plugging away and stayed positive.”
McCaffery also earned a one-time $200,000 raise with Sunday’s NCAA bid, according to his contract that was reworked in July of 2012 and runs through the 2018-19 season. McCaffery is scheduled to make $1.8 million in 2014-15. In addition, McCaffery received a $25,000 bonus for meeting one of the incentive clauses in his contract.
“To watch the growth is very fulfilling,” Barta said. “And we’re not done yet. When the season is over, I know, in retrospect, that I’ll feel great about how far we’ve come. But we’ve still got some big goals. And the good news is that we still get to play.”
Three seniors — Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe — have been around for this entire journey.
“This is a fresh start for us,” McCabe said. “A little nerve-wracking watching (the selection show). Now it’s time to get to work.”
Marble, a first-team all-Big Ten guard and the fifth-leading scorer in school history, said he’s just glad to still be playing. Even if it means an extra game.
“Obviously, that’s what they felt like we deserved,” Marble said. “We’ve just got to go out and play, and do what we do. We can’t focus on the seed and stuff like that.”
Basabe, a 1,000-point career scorer like Marble, used words such as grateful and appreciative to describe his upcoming NCAA debut.
“We know who we are,” Basabe said. “Let’s go out and execute and take it one game at a time. Our first game is Tennessee on Wednesday.”
Iowa didn’t lose back-to-back games between the start of the season Nov. 8 and Feb. 25. But a 95-89 loss at Minnesota on Feb. 25 followed a 79-74 home loss to Wisconsin three days earlier, a game the Hawkeyes led with under 40 seconds to play in regulation.
Iowa’s only victory after an 82-70 triumph at Penn State on Feb. 15 came at home to Purdue on March 2.
Iowa got an at-large bid because of what it accomplished during the meat of the season, which outweighed a dismal finish. Iowa beat two top 10 teams — at No. 3 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan at home — for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
The Hawkeyes won four Big Ten road games for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and won three straight league road games for the first time since 1997-98.
Iowa also found its way into The Associated Press poll for the first time since the 2005-06 team was ranked 15th in the final poll.
This year’s team was ranked 15 consecutive weeks, reaching No. 10 on Jan. 20. It was Iowa’s first top 10 appearance since Jan. 1, 2002 (ninth).