I wrote back in December about how it was time for the collective perspective of Iowa basketball to change. The team had shown it was not like teams in years past under Fran McCaffery. McCaffery’s teams in the past never had a player that could knock down the big shot, now you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy on the roster who doesn’t want to take the big shot.
To me, this team showed how different it was in that blowout win of Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones had just cut the lead to 7 and had sent Cyclone Alley into a frenzy. Iowa teams of the past would’ve folded then and there.
Not this team.
Connor McCaffery hit the biggest shot of his career to that point to get the Iowa lead back to 10 with a three. A defensive stop and a Joe Wieskamp and-one layup put the Hawkeyes back up 13, Iowa never looked back as they picked up their first regular-season win in Ames since 2001.
All Iowa continued to do after that was consistently prove that they were a team that Iowans could identify with. It was a team that embodied toughness, physicality, wit, and no fear of anyone. This Iowa team would even talk a little smack if they felt it necessary.
This Iowa team also may have had some of the most interesting individual story-arch’s in college basketball.
The obvious story was the next-level jump of Luka Garza, who averaged 13.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.5 BPG as a sophomore in 2019. Garza became the best player in college basketball in 2020, averaging 23.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG and 1.8 BPG.
Garza’s tireless work ethic and game on the court made him a favorite for basketball analysts all over the country, from Dan Dakich to Jon Rothstein to Dickie V himself. No one could get enough of the former three-star recruit from Washington D.C.
Another story-arch, and my personal favorite story, was the rise of Connor McCaffery. McCaffery was endlessly ridiculed as a redshirt freshman for lack of an offensive game, most notably his hesitance to shoot the three, where he only shot 20.7%.
All McCaffery did as redshirt sophomore is shoot 34% from three, led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.59 assists-to-turnovers and became the quintessential “glue guy” for college basketball. The coach’s son took a lot of heat still, but those who aren’t blinded by their despise for Fran or Iowa in general have nothing but respect for the way Connor plays the game.
As the team transitioned into Big Ten play, the physical and mental toughness of the Hawkeyes continued to shine: A three-point loss to Penn State at the Palestra with virtually no CJ Fredrick, an 18-point smacking of Co-Big Ten Champions Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye, and three straight grind-it-out wins over Michigan, Rutgers and Wisconsin to close out January.
The month of February is normally a month of pain for Iowa basketball fans with the so-called “Fran Fade” that has seen Iowa flame out every other year. Everyone knew that Iowa’s season would be looked at by how they performed down the stretch.
So what did they do? They didn’t try to wow anyone, maintained, and scored a 5-3 February record. In the toughest conference in America, no one is going to complain about a record like that.
While Iowa did drop their last two against Purdue and nearly completed a 16-point comeback on the road against Ilinois, everyone was excited to see the Hawkeyes perform in tournament play.
But before anyone knew it, the season was over. Another fatality to the coronavirus pandemic.
Before Iowa could even get to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on the Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament, it was canceled. Two days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled as well.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. It wasn’t the way Iowa was going to send out Ryan Kreiner, Bakari Evelyn and Riley Till.
The college basketball world was going to be fully introduced to Luka Garza and solidify his case as the national player of the year. This was the team that was going to take Iowa to it’s first Sweet Sixteen since Tom Davis’s final season in Iowa City.
But it wasn’t to be.
As much as the season ends with bitter disappointment, it has opened up to the wild imagination of what next year can bring. This season was the breakthrough Fran McCaffery has worked for 10 years for, and with every starter returning from this season’s team, the sky is the limit for the Hawkeyes in 2021.
As much as it hurts for many to see this Iowa team end their season without a chance to prove to the nation who they really were, next season should show a hungry Iowa team that will want to prove that they are among the nations elite in 2021.