This column starts with something sad and disturbing that happened March 3, 2010, in Madison, Wis.
The Iowa men’s basketball team basically rolled over and died on that day, losing 67-40 against Wisconsin.
I’ll never forget the look of helplessness on Matt Gatens’ face as he emerged from the locker room to be interviewed about yet another humiliating defeat. His sophomore season had become a disaster, the strain of losing having sucked the life out of Gatens’ lifelong dream of being a Hawkeye.
Iowa closed the season with two more losses, including an 88-53 beatdown at Minnesota in the Big Ten finale on March 7, 2010. Barely a week later, Todd Lickliter was fired as the Iowa coach after finishing with a losing record in each of his three seasons on the job.
I don’t enjoy bringing up painful memories, nor is this an attempt to criticize Lickliter. His 38-58 record as the Iowa coach, including 15-39 in the Big Ten, speaks for itself, as did the rash of player defections that occurred under his watch.
This is more just a reminder after reading some of the critical responses on HawkCentral about how to fix the Iowa program that the current situation could be a lot worse and was just four years ago.
To the person who said Fran McCaffery should be fired as the Iowa coach: Are you serious, or still just frustrated with how the season ended? Because that’s going way overboard.
I’m not suggesting that fans don’t have the right to be critical, considering how poorly Iowa finished in McCaffery’s fourth season as head coach, losing seven of its last eight games.
But it’s important to remember the mess that McCaffery inherited when he replaced Lickliter as head coach in late March 2010. There was a culture of losing inside the program and a feeling of irrelevancy on the outside. Players were bolting from the program at an alarming rate, while home attendance had dropped significantly, forcing Iowa athletics director Gary Barta to take action.
McCaffery has changed all of that by having three consecutive winning seasons, including back-to-back 20-win seasons and by ending Iowa’s eight-year NCAA Tournament drought this past season. Player defections have been few and far between under McCaffery’s watch, whereas home sellouts haven’t been, with attendance back on the rise.
There is so much to like about the Iowa program right now compared with where it was four years ago. Whether some fans want to admit it, this past season was a step in the right direction with Iowa having made the NCAA Tournament.
How the season ended was maddening and mysterious, a collapse that really came out of nowhere. It showed that McCaffery’s rebuilding project isn’t as far along as once thought, but nothing more serious than that.
Rumors about player dysfunction and internal strife have persisted since the season ended, but that just seems like a convenient excuse for something that can’t be explained. Sometimes, a team just doesn’t live up to expectations, even when it’s so close to doing so.
I still believe that McCaffery has what it takes to win consistently at Iowa and that he will learn from this season’s collapse. A person doesn’t lead four Division I programs to the NCAA Tournament, as McCaffery has done, by accident.
It’s also important to remember that McCaffery is trying to rebuild the Iowa program at a time when the Big Ten is arguably the top conference in men’s college basketball. Five of Iowa’s nine conference losses this season came against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all of whom advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight.
McCaffery has accomplished enough at Iowa and throughout his career to where he deserves the trust of Hawkeye fans that things will keep moving in the right direction.
This season showed that McCaffery has to recruit better shooters because rarely does a team make a run in the postseason without consistently making jump shots. McCaffery also has to upgrade Iowa’s quickness on the perimeter.
In short, he just has to recruit better players.
Landing junior college forward Willie Atwood would be a nice start to the recovery process. He visited Iowa City this weekend and is expected to choose between Iowa, Florida State and Arizona State.
Atwood has more than a dozen scholarship offers and wouldn’t have visited the UI campus without having faith in McCaffery. He also probably wouldn’t have given Iowa a sniff four years ago.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball