Fran McCaffery Leading Iowa Basketball Through COVID-19
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fran McCaffery is fortunate that he has a veteran roster. That’s especially true now that his team is working through adversity like everyone else during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iowa’s basketball coach is doing his part to keep his squad unified during the quarantine. And he’s leaning on experienced players like Luka Garza, Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, Jack Nunge and his son, Connor McCaffery, for promoting chemistry and togetherness.
Iowa holds regular video conferences with the coaching staff and players so everybody is on the same page with training and expectations. For the coach, it’s when he sees his guys playing video games together and interacting from their respective homes that he gains confidence in a bright future whenever they can come back together in person.
“This is a self-motivated group. They put the time in, they take care of their bodies, they live their life the right way,” Fran McCaffery said during a video press conference on Thursday.
“Most importantly, they’re connected, as friends, as teammates, as competitors. That’s when it’s fun to coach, when you have a group of guys that show up and work hard every day and support each other and challenge each other, and try to get better and come back to do the same thing the next day. That’s when your team has success. When it’s disjointed and selfish and egotistical, then you don’t.”
The Hawkeyes were enjoying a season that saw them spend most of the campaign in the Top 25 during 2019-20. Then, while at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis on March 12, the pandemic shut down the sports world. The event was canceled and so was the NCAA Tournament.
McCaffery admitted that the feeling of abruptly ending what could have been the school’s first Sweet 16 run or more since ’98-99 lingered. Then, some of the sadness lifted.
“You can’t dwell on it forever. It happened. It happened the way it happened. We’re not the only ones that were disappointed. Our thought process immediately shifted to, OK, let’s look to next year. Let’s make sure we maximize the time that we have together and prepare for next year with the schedule that we have and try to accomplish this next year,” the coach said
In his first press conference since the season ended, McCaffery touched on a number of topics. He talked about Cordell Pemsl transferring, the progress of players injured last season, preparing a group of five incoming freshmen during the pandemic, hosting a tournament at Carver-Hawkeye Arena next season, Garza going through the NBA Draft process, recruiting numbers for the next few cycles and more.
Here are some highlights:
-Iowa is one of the few high-major programs nationally and the only one in the Big Ten that hasn’t scheduled an exempt tournament this coming season. Those are events like the Maui Invitational, Battle 4 Atlantis and the NIT Tip-off.
McCaffery announced on Thursday that the Hawkeyes likely will host their own tournament. He did not give any more details.
“I don’t know that it’s all finalized yet, but I think we have some teams. We’ll know more about that moving forward,” he said.
As of April 25, these were the only other schools nationally yet to commit to a exempt event for next season: Georgia Tech, Washington, Georgia, Fordham, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s, East Carolina, SMU, Tulane, Loyola Marymount, Pacific and San Diego.
Programs can enter one exempt event each season.
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-Bohannon, Nunge and Patrick McCaffery, Fran’s son, all missed the majority of last season with various ailments. The coach said they have done well in advancing their recovery during the pandemic.
“All are in very good positions,” Fran said.
The coach said Bohannon has been diligent in rehabbing since his second hip surgery this winter.
“He’s probably felt the best he’s felt in a very long time. He’s really gotten his body to the point where it needs to be in terms of strength and weight and what he eats. His discipline has been, as you would expect it to be, incredibly professional. I’m really proud of him for that,” Fran said.
Nunge is working out on an indoor court at his Indiana home these days as he continues recovery from a torn ACL. He’s also rehabbing in the pool.
“He’s had no setbacks from his knee. He’s been running. So, that’s a good sign. We’re not rushing anything. We’re making sure we’re going at the pace he needs to go,” the coach said.
Patrick McCaffery lost last season to residual effects he was feeling from his battle with thyroid cancer when he was in junior high. The freshman struggled with strength and stamina before shutting it down. Doctors and trainers have been working on a formula of diet and exercise that meshes with medications he takes following his illness.
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Patrick and Connor McCaffery have been lifting weights and working out at their house. The younger brother has been progressing.
“Patrick is coming along really well. He’s up over 200 pounds, the first time he’s ever been over 200 pounds. So, that’s that’s a good sign,” Fran said.
-Cordell Pemsl, who battled injuries throughout his Iowa career, came on at the end of his junior season this past winter. Then, he announced he was transferring and ended up committing to Virginia Tech.
Fran McCaffery praised the Dubuque Wahlert product for his contributions to the Iowa program and understood why he wanted to move on.
“He thought long and hard about it. He loved his time here. He loves his teammates. They love him. I told him that we would not have won 20 games last year without him,” the coach said.
Pemsl underwent major surgery in high school and then had two more of them in college. It second one cost him the ’18-19 season, when he took a medical redshirt.
“I always had a soft spot in my heart for him because he fought through all that in a very professional way. I was very proud of him for that,” McCaffery said.
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“He wants a bigger role in his last year. He’s capable of that. He found a place that he thought could provide that, and he’s excited about that. And I’m excited for him.”
-Garza, a consensus first team all-American and national player of the year from several services, entered the NBA Draft evaluation process without hiring an agent, leaving open the door for him to return for his senior season.
McCaffery is guiding his star through it and keeping his mind open to the possible outcomes.
“We prepare as if he’s coming back with an eye on the fact that he might not come back,” the coach said. “They’re certainly thought going into it. When we went into the recruiting class last year, we knew it was a possibility that Luka might put his name in. That’s why one of the most important things we needed was to get (British big man) Josh Ogundele to come. The thought process was how do put our team together if Luke is not back?
“Right now, I’m just trying to give him the space he needs to make the decision he needs to make. We’ll plan on him coming back. And if he doesn’t, we feel good about the rest of the roster to try to figure out how we can play without him, which is obviously going to be a huge hole.”
-A few recent reports indicated that Iowa had reached out to recruits for the ’20 class, including Jaylon Gibson, who recently got out of his Wake Forest letter of intent following a coaching change. McCaffery shot that down on Wednesday.
“We obviously have a full roster right now at 13. So we’re not trying to sign anybody late. We’re not looking at transfer pools or anything like that. We have 13. We’re set at 13,” the coach said.
If Garza returns, he and Bohannon would open up two scholarships for the ’21 recruiting class. That aids Iowa when it can’t get out to see prospects in person right now because of the dead period created by COVID-19.
“When you’re only really look into sign two, there’s not as much pressure. We’re involved with some good players that we think we’ve establish a relationship with. If we get one (commit in ’21), maybe we want to carry one (scholarship) to the following year because we may my red shirt a guy in this class. So, there’s a lot of ways to look at it,” McCaffery said.
Iowa is thought to be in good shape with ’21 Waukee wing Payton Sandfort.
You can listen to the whole McCaffery press conference below: