IOWA CITY — They’ll see London, they’ll see France, come November they’ll advance.
It’s almost a cliche of college basketball that teams taking overseas trips in the summer are better for it in the winter. But there’s merit to it. How could there not be?
The Iowa men’s basketball team seems to be on the precipice of scratching a 7-year itch by reaching an NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. It won’t hurt a bit that the Hawkeyes are going on a 6-game tour of England and France in August.
Last week, I interviewed Hawkeyes' coach Fran McCaffery. The gist of the questioning (you can hear it in its entirety in my podcast at TheGazette.com) was on where he cut his teeth as a coach and who and what has influenced him as a coach. But other ground was covered, including the importance of the summer trip to Iowa’s fortunes in the 2013-14 season.
The NCAA allows college basketball programs to make a trip out of the country once every four years. With that, teams are allowed 10 extra days of practice.
“Using practice twice a day for 10 days, three hours a practice if you want,” McCaffery said. “We won’t do that. It won’t be that intense, but it will be more intense (than a normal summer).
“It enables us to really make sure our guys are in phenomenal shape and do a lot of skill-development work so we can take individuals that we think need shooting off the dribble, ballhandling work, working in the post — any of those types of things, and spend time breaking that down.”
In pre-trip practices, McCaffery said “We’ll be getting everything in. We might make some changes in terms of offenses and defenses. We’ve got a bit more size this year so there are some things we can do defensively that may be a bit differently than in the past.”
Then there are the games themselves. Six is typically a lot of games for a foreign tour. In 2009, the Hawkeyes scheduled four games on a trip to Italy and Greece and ended up playing three. But with a squad that has suddenly become deep and fairly experienced, McCaffery wanted more room for experimentation.
“We can see if we like (something), we can tweak it, get rid of it, maybe,” he said. “What a great advantage that gives you going into next year.
“I think what you do is you look at players and you put them in situations where you might want to put them later, and see how it goes. Like in Jarrod’s (Uthoff) case. I think he could play the 3, 4, 5. ... We don’t really need him to play as much 5 (center), obviously, because we have Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni. But we might want to play him and four guards at some point. We might do that overseas and go small.
“We might go big and play him at 3. We might play him and Aaron White and two other bigs with a point guard at some other point in time and play a different kind of defense, probably a zone type of situation and take advantage of length. We’ll see.”
It sounds as if those six contests in London, Paris and Nice may be boxes of chocolates for Hawkeye followers. They don’t know what they’ll get in terms of personnel and packages in any given game.
“That’s the beauty of it,” McCaffery said. “I’ve taken teams over in the past. We played a game, and I sat my four best players. I forced other guys to go win a game, and forced guys who were complimentary players to be primary scorers, two in particular. ‘I want you to get 30, I want you to get 35. We’re running plays for you. You’re shooting the ball.’
“I think that really helped them in terms of their confidence level.
“There might be games where I say ‘OK, these eight guys are the only guys playing tonight. You’re all going to play the bulk of the game, you’ll get all the shots. If you turn it over, you’re staying in the game. You’re going to play through your mistakes and you’ve got to figure it out because I’m not putting those other guys in.’ “
McCaffery seems to be the current pied piper of Hawkeye fans after Iowa’s 25-win season and appearance in the NIT title game. He willingly joins in his fans’ excitement and optimism for the coming season and seasons, but with both feet remaining on the ground.
“I think what we have done here, my staff and I, the administration, we are slowly building a program. ... What I came here to do is build a program that can legitimately contend for a league-championship year in and year out, get to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re substantially better. But can we beat Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana on a regular basis? Can we beat them enough to get in the tournament? Because there’s no doubt in my mind if we get in the tournament we can do some damage. If we’d gotten in last year, we could have been Wichita State.”
Wichita State beat Iowa 75-63 in Cancun last November. The Hawkeyes led by a point at halftime. The Shockers went on to advance to the Final Four.
“They were, defensively, maybe the toughest team we played all year long,” said McCaffery. “And defense is what really helped us get to 25 wins. It wasn’t our offense.”
The coming season? “I do think we’ll be better offensively.”
And, “I think we’re a much-more physically and mentally tough team than we’ve ever been.”Who’s ready for November? After London and Paris, that is.