No Time for Down Time

May 16, 2013

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s May edition of Hawk Talk Monthly, the UI athletics department’s online publication.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The final horn sounded an hour earlier in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, signaling an end to the National Invitation Tournament and one of the most gratifying rides for the University of Iowa men’s basketball program in nearly a decade.

While Hawkeye players and support staff boarded a chartered flight for Cedar Rapids, Fran and Margaret McCaffery were on their way to Atlanta, site of the Final Four, the NABC Coach’s Convention, and, more specifically for Margaret, the Coaches vs. Cancer Wives’ Breakfast.

It might not have been the epitome of down time for the McCafferys, but it will have to do for now. In fact, it will have to do for the next several weeks. That’s the price of success; that’s the price when everyone wants a piece of McCaffery, who nearly everyone in the basketball community sees as the architect of an awakened giant.

There is little rest for the weary, but the increased number of wins confirms Iowa’s recent progress on the court. McCaffery has taken the Hawkeye program from 11 wins in his first season in 2010-11, to 25 wins in 2012-13.

“We respect the fact that the expectations are high, we welcome the challenge,” McCaffery said. “It’s better than when you’re picked 11th in the Big Ten, where we were my first year, and you’re trying to fight for every positive. Now there is an expectation that we’re going to beat people. Now we have to go out and do it.”

McCaffery seems to enjoy the busy pace, an up-tempo lifestyle that mimics the way his team plays. Less than a month removed from a runner-up finish in the NIT, he is already looking forward to a European summer trip where he can incorporate newbies Kyle Meyer, Jarrod Uthoff, and Peter Jok.

“We respect the fact that the expectations are high, we welcome the challenge. It’s better than when you’re picked 11th in the Big Ten, where we were my first year, and you’re trying to fight for every positive. Now there is an expectation that we’re going to beat people. Now we have to go out and do it.”
UI head coach Fran McCaffery

But before the flight across the big pond, there are I-Club functions to attend, Nike representatives to socialize with…and recruiting.

Even though the season ended April 4, these remain busy but happy times for the popular McCaffery, whose blend of stoic courtside genius sprinkled with a dose of hot-bloodedness, has become cherished by Hawkeye fans across the country. Home attendance has increased 30 percent since his arrival. With six sellouts last season alone, his style is receiving nationwide appeal…to fans and recruits.

“We’re received in a different way,” McCaffery said. “We’re seeing that student-athletes are watching. Because you make a run, you’re on TV a lot more. They are watching and following our team. They are sort of investing in our team and envisioning, `Hey, is this the right place? Where do I fit?”

Iowa averaged 13,625 fans for its 11 home games this season, or 1,335 more than Hawkeye opponents drew for their home contests against Iowa. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was sold out for games against Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana State, and Stony Brook. One date that impressed McCaffery was March 5, when the Hawkeyes defeated Illinois, 63-55.

“We had a winter storm watch and everybody on TV is telling everybody to stay home, and we have (14,566) people show up for the Illinois game,” McCaffery said. “They are Hawk fans.”

In the final game of the 2012-13 season, Iowa was more than 900 miles away from Iowa City. But the NIT Championship against Baylor felt like a home game.

“I walk out on the floor at Madison Square Garden and you hear the `Let’s go Hawks’ cheer, and you look around and it’s all black-and-gold in New York City,” McCaffery said. “To me, that’s the pride in having the Hawkeye on your chest, knowing that wherever we go we’re going to have support.”

While McCaffery has taken the Hawkeyes from point A to point B, the test now is to go from point NIT to point NCAA. A look at the 2012-13 season proves there isn’t a lot of difference between the two postseason events.

“The reality is, we have to get in (to the NCAA Tournament),” McCaffery said. “Once we get in, we could win the same amount of games. There isn’t anybody we can’t beat. Not to be cocky in any way, but it’s a function of the league we play in.”

Iowa was 9-9 in the Big Ten Conference, winning six of its final eight league games. Two teams with 8-10 conference records were selected to the NCAA Tournament.

“You get in, you win a game, and all of the sudden you’re one game from the Sweet 16,” McCaffery said.

It could be argued that in 2013, a Final Four run in the NIT is just as impressive as a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA.

In the first round of the NIT, the Hawkeyes defeated Indiana State, a team that defeated Wichita State by 13 points in Wichita, Kan. The Shockers advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.

In the second round of the NIT, Iowa defeated a Stony Brook team that won a Division I-leading 13 games on the road. Before they could advance to NIT Final Four, the Hawkeyes needed to defeat Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. The Cavaliers had won 19 consecutive home games, including victories against Duke and North Carolina.

“I don’t know if the road (in the NCAA Tournament) is that much more difficult unless you run into a Louisville or somebody like that early,” McCaffery said.

One of the biggest trials that lay ahead for McCaffery next season is managing playing time for a deep roster that is becoming deeper. Senior captain Eric May graduates, and his loss will be felt in a lot of ways that didn’t show up in the postgame statistics.

“We have to figure out who the leaders are going to be,” McCaffery said. “Our junior class is well-prepared to do that. It should essentially become Roy Devyn Marble’s team with (Melsahn) Basabe and (Zach) McCabe as more than solid contributors. It’s a tremendous challenge for all of us, and all we’re going to do is keep grinding and working, staying positive, and teaching.”

Excluding May, nine other Hawkeyes played at least an average of 10.7 minutes in 37 games (freshman point guard Mike Gesell played 34 games, but averaged 25.1 minutes per game).

“We played 10 (players) this year and everybody was comfortable with it, and that’s not always the case,” McCaffery said. “I can’t be more effusive in my praise for the character of those guys. When you watch the guys on the bench cheer for the guys on the floor, and then when they come out, they cheer for the guys on the floor, and it’s genuine. Now how can I manage the minutes where everybody is happy and everybody is comfortable and committed to the end result, which is winning a championship, getting into the NCAA Tournament, and making some noise when we get there?”

That question begins to be answered in the offseason. For McCaffery, it is an offseason with a schedule full of engagements and obligations, not to mention many hours as a fan to three baseball-playing sons and a daughter in softball.

“Hopefully at some point, my wife and I will be able to get a bit of time away,” McCaffery said. “But that’s probably not going to be for the next six or seven weeks.”

When the down time comes for McCaffery, it will be a deserved retreat. Well deserved.