IOWA CITY — Iowa’s slow build to basketball respectability began a pledge from Fran McCaffery nearly four years ago.
McCaffery sat in front of a packed room during his introductory news conference and issued a value statement of sorts for his era of Iowa basketball.
“I can promise you this: We’re going to compete,” McCaffery said in 2010. “We’re going to play the game the right way. I’m going to coach with passion, but our players are going to have fun. They’re going to enjoy what they do on the floor, and this place is going to be rocking again.”
McCaffery has delivered on his promises. The Hawkeyes won 25 games last year, 15 more than in 2010. Before McCaffery, Iowa averaged 60.5 points a game. Last year the Hawkeyes scored more than 70. Nine scholarship players with eligibility left the program under predecessor Todd Lickliter, followed by two more shortly after McCaffery’s arrival. Under McCaffery, just two opted to leave. Iowa’s season-ticket totals now could soar past 10,000 for 2013-14. In 2009-10, Iowa’s average paid attendance was 9,550.
Iowa’s basketball culture has changed. It’s relevant locally and nationally. Nearly every preseason publication ranks the Hawkeyes. They return 93 percent of their scoring following an NIT runner-up finish and a 9-9 Big Ten record. The expectations are real, not a dream. It’s something the current players appreciate while reflecting on their humble beginnings at media day.
“To be honest with you, when I signed as a high school kid, that wasn’t really on mind,” said junior forward Aaron White, a third-team all-Big Ten selection last year. “I didn’t think I was even good enough to help turn a program around like we have. I take great pride in that, and it’s something I’m always going to look back on and be proud of.”
“I’ve seen those guys (the coaches) work from the bottom,” Iowa senior forward Melsahn Basabe said. “We were losing, we lost seven consecutive games in the Big Ten my freshman year. Different low points. But I seen how hard they consistently worked and put into this. I think it’s a testament to all the people here that’s put into the program and the players.”
Senior point guard Devyn Marble had to deal with his own legacy before coming to Iowa. His father, Roy, is the school’s all-time leading scorer. Devyn Marble signed with Iowa before McCaffery arrived. He recommitted after McCaffery was hired. Now, a third-team all-Big Ten selection, Marble has thrived under McCaffery’s tutelage.
“I wanted to make a difference, be remembered for some way,” Marble said. “Some guys like to go to the big-time programs, and that’s cool, too. To each his own. But I feel like when you can go and change a program, the culture ... that means a lot more. I feel like after this season, if everything goes the way I have it planned, I definitely will be very happy the way my four years went here.”
McCaffery still has one step to go. In his 2010 opening statement, McCaffery said it was his “responsibility” to lift Iowa to the NCAA tournament, where he’s placed three other schools. He’s built an impressive resume, but taking Iowa to the NCAA tournament would be a pinnacle achievement in his 18 years as a head coach.
“No question,” McCaffery said Wednesday. “I think anybody who gets into this business hopes to be in that position. How great is it to have the opportunity to coach in the Big Ten. Not everybody gets to do that. I’m very thankful to President (Sally) Mason and (athletics director) Gary Barta for giving me the chance and believing in me that I could be the guy that got it going again. But I believed it from the beginning.“I had people tell me I couldn’t do it. It couldn’t be done. But I knew if I get the right staff, and we go after the right players and we get the right mix of players, we can win. We can have fun, and we can do it the right way. We’re not going to cut corners. But little by little, we’ve had players that have come because they wanted to be Hawkeyes. You’ve got to get guys who want to be here. To a man, that’s what we have.”