By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — For a season that lasts nearly six months, 23 days is a small sample size. But a 23-day stretch from Nov. 28 to Dec. 21 said a lot about the 2019-20 University of Iowa men’s basketball team.
Two games in Las Vegas, one at Syracuse, the Big Ten opener at Michigan, home against Minnesota, at in-state rival Iowa State, and finally, a neutral site matchup against Cincinnati in Chicago. Seven games, five wins, plenty of road miles…and growth.
“We played a tough schedule in the beginning of the season,” Iowa sophomore Connor McCaffery said. “There are a lot of teams that wouldn’t have been able to handle all that, but we were mentally tough enough and we didn’t worry about the travel or make excuses. We focused on the game, the game plan and the teams we were playing. From that point, I think everybody thought we were really good.”
The Hawkeyes added one more game — and one more win — before the calendar flipped to 2020. On Dec. 29, Iowa defeated Kennesaw State, 93-51, on Mediacom Court in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. By the eighth week of the season, the Hawkeyes (9-3 overall at the time) were ranked No. 25 in the nation by The Associated Press.
It was an indication of good times ahead.
Iowa finished 20-11 and 11-9 in the Big Ten. When the dust settled on one of the most exciting conference races ever, the Hawkeyes were in a tie for fifth with Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers. Three games separated the top eight teams in the standings and six games separated the top 12.
“Any time you win a game in the Big Ten, it is probably a big game,” McCaffery said. “All those home games we won against ranked teams like Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Ohio State. The list goes on.
“Any time you win on the road in the league and nonconference the way our schedule was set up — those are all season highlights. If you take one out, the season is not as fun. That’s why it was so great being able to play the schedule we did and have the success we did.”
McCaffery’s versatility was a big reason for many of those fun Hawkeye moments. The 6-foot-5 point guard/off-guard/small forward/power forward started all 31 games and averaged 6.2 points, 4.0 assists, and 4.0 rebounds per game. At various points of the season, McCaffery could be found guarding Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, a 6-foot-1 guard, or Illinois’ Giorgi Bezhanishvili, a 6-foot-9 forward.
“This year I played with confidence and more of an edge and that is a credit to the teammates around me,” McCaffery said. “Going through it once already (in 2018-19), I learned and adjusted; I was stepping into shots with more confidence, taking on a bigger role and I was good with that.”
McCaffery led the nation in assist-turnover ratio (4.6), was seventh in the Big Ten in assists, and tied for 10th in the Big Ten in steals.
An area of statistical improvement for McCaffery was from beyond the arc. As a freshman, he made 6 of 29 from distance; last season he was 33 of 97. He credits that increase to confidence as well.
“I know the numbers show I made a lot more 3s this year, but it was more of a confidence thing than a huge improvement,” McCaffery said. “Where my game improved most was handling the physicality of the Big Ten: defending better players, making plays down the stretch where I didn’t have the opportunity last year because I wasn’t in the same role.
“This year I did, and the comfortability was the biggest change for me — being in that role as a starter, playing more minutes, being the guy who can feed Luka (Garza), Wiesy (Joe Wieskamp), CJ (Fredrick). Those things are fun for me.”
McCaffery was on top of his game down the stretch. During the final four games he averaged 8.3 points and 5.5 assists and shot 47 percent from 3-point range.
Then he woke to a bad dream. Literally. The Hawkeyes were in Indianapolis on March 12, preparing to face Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. In typical fashion, after a pregame meal, McCaffery went to his hotel room for a nap. He woke to his cell phone buzzing near his face.
Team Meeting Now, the text message read.
“At that point, we kind of already knew,” McCaffery said. “(Wieskamp) was my roommate and I woke him up and said, ‘We aren’t playing.'”
Sure enough. On that day, the Big Ten Conference canceled all competition through the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The news was a double body blow for McCaffery, a dual-sport student-athlete who also plays baseball.
Time is ticking slowly now for McCaffery, who is used to being on the go when March inches closer to April. During most days, McCaffery does a workout or two, lifting weights and getting shots up at home. Other than that, it is video games, eat, sleep, and Netflix.
“It’s nice to a certain extent, but I’m going to get bored soon,” McCaffery said. “I have never had this much free time.”
There also hasn’t been time to contemplate Iowa’s successful men’s basketball season. A finance major with a 3.5 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale), McCaffery was named first-team academic all-district in February by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
“Once we get back together, we’ll reflect on it more,” McCaffery said. “We’ll be able to appreciate that the year was special.”
Then he couldn’t resist looking forward.
“A lot of us are working toward next year,” he said. “We think we can do something special and we’re excited for that.”