IOWA CITY, Iowa — The crater that was Iowa basketball never was larger than in mid-March of 2010.
The Hawkeyes dropped a program-record 22 games, with losses and statistics that fall below any standard. The home opener ended with 12-point defeat to Texas-San Antonio. The Hawkeyes allowed Texas to make all 17 two-point baskets in the second half of a CBE Classic game in Kansas City. There were double-digit losses to in-state foes Northern Iowa and Iowa State.
It was worse in Big Ten play. Only one of Iowa’s 14 league losses was within two possessions. Twice Iowa scored 40 points in defeats at Purdue and Wisconsin, the program’s lowest outputs since 1949. Illinois’s vaunted Orange Krush section took advantage of the attendance woes and buried Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the world to see. The finale was an 88-53 pounding at Minnesota — the worst loss to the Gophers in 108 years — that was less competitive than score indicated.
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta fired coach Todd Lickliter with four years left on his contract, which cost the department $2.4 million. Barta then hired Fran McCaffery to start the rebuilding process.
With McCaffery entering his seventh postseason with Iowa, it’s difficult for some to remember the program’s state in 2010. Or that the Big Ten is a perpetual snake pit in basketball. No fan base — outside of Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern — seems thrilled with its current situation. But, of course, Gophers fans couldn’t wait to fire Richard Pitino after last year’s eight-win debacle, and Matt Painter had his detractors three years ago when Boilermakers were in last place.
Under McCaffery, Iowa made steady growth as a program. In his first year, Iowa lost 21 games. In his second and third seasons, the Hawkeyes advanced to the NIT. In years 4-6, Iowa qualified for the NCAA Tournament and won two games. In 2015, the Hawkeyes destroyed Davidson 83-52 in the NCAA opener, the largest victory margin for a 7-10 matchup in tournament history. Last year, Iowa beat Temple on an overtime buzzer-beater before losing to eventual national champion Villanova.
Building a program from the bottom in a league like the Big Ten is difficult. But McCaffery has done it. Iowa (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) has the potential to earn a fourth straight NCAA bid for the first time since its powerhouse run through the 1980s. If it happens — and Iowa will need to at least beat Indiana (5:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2) in Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament — it marks McCaffery’s best single-year coaching job.
The Hawkeyes lost 392 starts and 59 percent of their scoring from last year’s team. That is starting over. With only one senior starting and one junior in the rotation, this season had rebuild stamped all over it. The first month of the season made it obvious. Through eight games, Iowa averaged 16.8 turnovers a game. That would have crushed the previous school mark. It was a shocking change considering the Hawkeyes gave up only 10.3 per game last year, the lowest in school history.
In the last 23 games, Iowa has averaged 13.3 turnovers per outing. That’s hardly a program talking point, but it’s a major improvement.
Through eight games, Iowa surrendered 85 points per game. Over the final 23, Iowa’s opponents averaged 74.3. Again, that’s far from perfect. The Hawkeyes never will lead the Big Ten in that category because of their style of play. But it shows tremendous growth.
“We definitely had defensive struggles early in the year,” said Iowa forward Nicholas Baer, winner of the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award. “It’s kind of one of those things we had to go through, especially with a young group. I’m really proud of these guys and how they’ve developed so far. I always had a feeling we’d be playing our best basketball in March with a younger group, guys coming along later in the season as they have, just putting together everything, just offensively and defensively.”
Early-season losses to Memphis and Omaha showed clear defensive deficiencies. Iowa made strides in those areas. It’s not easy to make that kind of progress in the Big Ten with five freshmen in the rotation. Every league program has taken a dip after it loses a run of talent. Most people expected Iowa to do the same. Until two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes were in that spot.
Then they rallied and won four straight games. They beat Wisconsin and Maryland on the road. They won with defense. It’s the hallmark of talent accepting coaching. It’s also the result of McCaffery coaching this group a little differently from his previous, veteran versions, senior guard Peter Jok said.
“He’s been positive since the freshmen got here last summer, really,” said Jok, a first-team all-Big Ten selection. “I told them coach really changed this year. He’s been always been positive, but just the way he doesn’t yell as much at guys. At the same time, he holds them accountable.
“That’s why a lot of people have got confidence. He stays with them. He plays them a lot. He plays them through mistakes. When I was freshman and if I made a mistake, I would come out just because I’ve got a lot of upperclassmen. This year, he let them play through it, and they’re clicking and they’re right on their pace.”
McCaffery still is the fiery coach on the sidelines. With a core of young players, the Hawkeyes look like a force in the Big Ten next year and beyond.
But from leading the program from the ashes to now on the brink of a fourth straight NCAA Tournament spot, McCaffery this year has produced his best coaching job. That’s saying something considering from where Iowa sat just seven years ago.