On the eve of last month’s Big Ten Basketball Tournament, Archie Miller was discussing Iowa and Coach Fran McCaffery during The Field of 68’s “After Dark” show.
“Fran McCaffery doesn’t get enough credit for how he evaluates, recruits and develops players, and his style of play,” the former Indiana coach said.
Keegan Murray, a finalist for both the Naismith and Wooden Awards, is the latest Exhibit A. Luke Garza, who won both of those awards in 2021, was Exhibit B. And it runs deeper than that. First-team all-Big Ten players Devyn Marble, Aaron White and Peter Jok weren’t recruited by any other Big Ten schools. Another first-teamer, Jarrod Uthoff, transferred to Iowa from Wisconsin.
Point guard Jordan Bohannon, who didn’t have significant Division I options as a senior at Linn-Mar of Marion, got his only Big Ten offer from Iowa. He left as the program’s third 2,000-point scorer, the Big Ten’s most prolific 3-point shooter and the Hawkeyes’ all-time leader in assists.
McCaffery offered Garza a scholarship as an overweight sophomore. Garza left Iowa City as a consensus all-American, national player of the year and two-time Big Ten player of the year.
Murray, with one Division I offer as a senior at Cedar Rapids Prairie, was also a consensus all-American and a unanimous first-team all-Big Ten selection. He also won the Karl Malone Award as the nation’s best power forward.
McCaffery and his coaching staff deserve some praise for helping those lightly-recruited players take their games to the next level.
McCaffery looks for players who fit his up-tempo system, and doesn’t worry about how high they rank in the nation’s list of Top 100 prospects. More times than not, those guidelines have been spot on.
And recent roster fluctuations give McCaffery another chance to upgrade his 2022-23 roster.
Murray’s jump to the NBA and the transfers of scholarship players Joe Toussaint, Josh Ogundele and Austin Ash means there are some roster vacancies.
Iowa will definitely try and add a big man through the transfer portal. And though McCaffery and his staff are still sorting through their options, there’s a good chance the Hawkeyes will add second player this spring if the right one is out there.
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This will be in addition to point guard Dasonte Bowen and big guard / small forward Josh Dix, who signed letters of intent last November. Bowen reminds McCaffery of Ronald Moore, who played for him at a high level at Siena.
Finding the right pieces, and making sure they fit with the returning players on the roster, is the challenge that McCaffery and company face going ahead.
“I know how to put together a roster,” McCaffery said. “I know what I’m doing.”
McCaffery is an old-school coach in the sense that he builds his program with high school freshmen and rides their development throughout the course of their careers. He’s not against the transfer portal. In fact, McCaffery is looking there for a big man.
“I’ll take anybody,” he said. “But you can only do it if the guys leave. There’s a reaction to every action. “
In other words, don’t look for him to try and pluck someone out of the portal at a position where he’s got a significant number of returning players.
“If you go into the portal and get a guy, you might lose three of your guys,” he said.
At last count there were 1,255 players in the transfer portal, a number that includes walk-ons. That is more than three per Division I program.
McCaffery went to the portal and got Filip Rebraca from North Dakota last season. Now, Murray’s departure puts Iowa in serious need for a big man. But remember this. Numbers alone won’t determine who the Hawkeyes pursue. The player has to be a good fit with the returning players, and have the skills to play an up-tempo style of play.
Iowa has been linked with several centers, most notably 6-11 Fardaws Aimaq from Utah Valley. He averaged 18.9 points and 13.6 rebounds in 2021-22. Aimaq, who started his career at Mercer, said last week he was considering Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas Tech, Washington, Gonzaga, Texas and Arizona. He has set up visits to Iowa, Houston, Texas Tech and Washington.
The competition to find a quality big man will be challenging, especially with Aimaq, who may also test the NBA Draft waters. But Iowa has a legitimate selling point with the success and national recognition that Garza and Murray have had in the program over the past three seasons.