Fran McCaffery has had his ups and downs during his time at Iowa and it has been polarizing for all Iowa fans. Some thought he should be fired (they are awfully quiet right now), some think Iowa should accept making the tournament most years. Iowa Basketball in his nearly decade tenure has made the NCAA tournament four times, the NIT three times including a runner up in 2013. But, Iowa has never finished higher than 3rd in the Big Ten in his tenure and has besides one season has never been of really any national relevance.
And for a while, the improvement and making the tournament were enough. After the Steve Allford controversies and Todd Lickliter debacle, Iowa fans were simply happy to be “competing” in the Big Ten. Iowa never truely contended but the Big Ten has been top to bottom the best or second-best conference so to be fair, contending in the Big Ten most years would mean contending nationally. But that was nearly a decade ago and Iowa under Fran has never made a sweet sixteen, never been higher than a seven seed and has made the tournament just once in the last three years.
Iowa fans were getting restless coming into this season and a lot was being made on whether or not it was time to move on and take the program in a different direction. The Hawks have answered thus far but some Hawk fans have stayed cautious due to the “history” of Fran McCaffery teams in February. I decided to do dive into Fran’s entire tenure and see how Iowa teams have finished.
Let me preface with I think this Iowa team is different. We have never had a player as good as Luka Garza, ever. We have shooters, both who seemingly have ice-water running through their veins and Connor McCaffery has really come into his own this season and is leading the country in assist to turnover ration. The defense hasn’t been great this season but at times, has shown the ability to lock down and get stops. But I still have to look at the rest of the season with cautious optimism as we enter February.
The schedule lines up well, we get Ohio State at home, a struggling Purdue team twice, Nebraska at home for a chance to avenge a bad loss. There is a real chance for Iowa to make some serious noise through the rest of the season but Iowa needs to avoid the late-season slide.
The most notable seasons of Iowa fading in February (or early March) is last season where Iowa lost on the road to Nebraska and being blown out by Rutgers at home and on the road at Ohio State and Wisconsin. Iowa lost six of their last eight and fell all the way down to the 11th seed.
The other collapse that is remembered is the 2015-2016 season where Iowa was at one point ranked as high 3rd in the AP Poll before losing six of their last eight including home losses to Wisconsin, Indiana and an Ohio State team in a down year. It was bad. Things were extremely bright, there was a buzz around the program. I say again, this was bad. Iowa eventually fell to the 7th seed, which isn’t terrible but things just looked SO good. This was easily the best chance Iowa had to make a deep run in the tournament.
The scary thing is? Despite how this team is different is and how bright the future seems with young talented pieces and a seemingly complete team with a player of the year candidate (favorite?). The late-season collapses have broken my heart a few too many times. I am terrified that it’s going to happen again, again I hope not. But, researching big ten basketball from over a decade ago did not help my hopeful mental thinking that this team is different and will be just fine.
So here is a breakdown of all the February (and early March) of the Fran McCaffery era:
2010-2011: Iowa was terrible. All season long from the opening day loss at home to South Dakota State to going just 4-14 in Big Ten play. Not necessarily Fran’s fault, it was his first year and expectations was low. The Hawks lost seven of their last eight with the only win over #6 Purdue at home. Never even sniffed the tournament.
2011-2012: Finished above .500 (17-16) for the first time in half a decade, finished 8-10 in the conference. The Hawks ended up in NIT but was swept in February by Northwestern who was nothing special that season. The Hawks won two home games over ranked teams in February to get into the NIT winning their first-round game. I have to give credit to Fran this team wasn’t good but there was a serious improvement from year one to year two.
2012-2013: Finished 21-12 on the season, finished on the bubble but closed out Big Ten play solid with winning four of their last five games to get a three-seed in the NIT. Iowa eventually went on to play in Madison Square Garden before falling to Oregon in the NIT championship.
2013-2014: The beginning of the Fran February Fade narrative, Iowa was 17-5 heading into February and just played #7 Michigan State to overtime in its last contest of January. Iowa was ranked #15 and looked poised to make the jump into relevance. Instead, Iowa lost four of their last five in the regular season then was upset by Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and eventually was beaten by Tennessee in the 11-seed play in-game.
2014-2015: This is one year where you can look at Iowa in Feburary and March and say they finished strong. The Hawkeyes finished off Big Ten play with six straight wins, granted it was against the bottom of the barrel including Northwestern twice, but still finishing off the regular season winning eight of their last ten should not be overlooked in an always competitive Big Ten. Iowa was again upset in the first round of Big Ten tournament but managed to get their first tournament win of the Fran McCaffery Era beating Davidson before being beaten by second-seeded Gonzaga.
2015-2016: This one is bad and going over this season gives me nightmares (should of known when a top google search rendered the exhibition loss to D-II Augustana) but Iowa at one point in time had won twelve of thirteen including sweeping #1 Michigan State, a road win over Top 15 Purdue and the only loss of the stretch? On the road to #8 Maryland. Iowa reached all the way to #3 in the AP Poll and was rolling. Instead of finishing the season even halfway decently, Iowa lost six of their last eight and AGAIN was upset in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa eventually went on to get a 7 seed and we all remember the Adam Woodberry buzzer-beater over Temple before getting blown out by Villanova.
2016-2017: Iowa finished on the bubble this year, actually right on it and was the #1 seed in the NIT. You can’t really fault anything here, losing to Illinois at home was bad but Iowa did win their last four in the Big Ten regular season. But and I feel like I’m repeating myself at this point, was bounced in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in blowout fashion falling to Indiana 95-73 where a win would have likely got us into the tournament.
2017-2018: Lost Peter Jok so it was a down year. Iowa was 1-6 in February but to be fair, they didn’t win a lot of games in January or December, or even November, okay you get it we sucked. These seasons realistically shouldn’t happen but it did so I guess we move on.
2018-2019: Ugh last year. So many potential and talented players and so little accomplished. Losing six of the last eight games, most of them in blowout fashion. Rutgers at home in the Ron Harper game, blown out by Wisconsin and Ohio State on the road even though they were both average teams. Finally won a big ten tournament game, then got blown out (again) by Michigan. A solid win over Cinncinatti in the tournament and then the all-time comeback against Tennessee… almost.
2019-2020: What a year. Iowa won their last eleven games including a road win over Michigan State. Ran through the Big Ten tournament, flawlessly navigated their way through the tournament winning the national championship over Kansas. Oh sorry, this hasn’t happened yet but we can all dream can’t we? Can’t we?!