As the teams headed to their respective benches for a timeout with 2 minutes 33 seconds remaining in the first half of Iowa’s game at Ohio State Feb. 28, Jordan Bohannon was one assist shy of becoming the Hawkeyes’ career assists leader.
That was about to change, thanks to a second opinion.
In the huddle, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery called an in-bounds play. It was vetoed by guard Connor McCaffery.
“I said, “Run stack back,’ ” the coach said. “Connor said, “No, run stack back counter, because they jumped the screen last time. Wiezy will be wide open.’ I said. “OK, run stack back counter.’ Boom.”
Wieskamp in-bounded the ball from the left sideline, free-throw line extended. After he passed it to Bohannon, Wieskamp ran toward the left baseline, then cut back to his right. Luka Garza and McCaffery had set a double screen for him. He was wide open. Wieskamp buried the three-pointer, and Bohannon had the record.
That one play touches on one of the reasons for Iowa’s success this season. It’s an experienced and unselfish team that shares and takes care of the ball better than any other team in McCaffery’s 11 seasons as Iowa’s coach.
“It starts with starting four guards, and two point guards,” said McCaffery, whose team takes a 21-8 record into Saturday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game with Grand Canyon. “But I think it’s the character of the individuals involved, and their understanding of sharing the ball, and moving the ball, that leads to their success.”
Iowa has a reputation for being an offensive-minded team. It ranks sixth nationally in scoring, with a career 2,000-point scorer in Garza and 1,000-point scorers in Bohannon and Wieskamp. But the Hawkeyes’ ability to share the ball as well as score it is why Iowa is a No. 2 seed. This is a team that leads the nation in assist-turnover ratio, at plus 2.01 (555 assists, 276 turnovers). The Hawkeyes are also first in assists per game (19.1), and fourth in fewest turnovers per game (9.5).
Connor McCaffery, who led the nation in assist-turnover ratio last season (plus 4.6), is second this season (3.93) with 110 assists to 28 turnovers.
“I just think we have a lot of really good ballhandlers,” Connor said. “We have smart players. And we’ve played together for so long now. I feel like we have really good chemistry. We know where each other wants to go, the moves that everyone is going to make. We know the situations we want the ball in. And as a veteran team, we value each possession.” Garza is third nationally in scoring at 23.7 points a game, and he’s shooting 54.7 percent from the field. One reason is McCaffery’s ability to get him the ball after he seals his defender on the block. CBS analyst Bill Raferty called Connor the best post-entry passer in the country during last week’s Big Ten Tournament.
“I think he’s always been somebody that understands how to move it and pass it, and angles,” Coach McCaffery said. “He played at a variety of positions (at Iowa City West High School) under Coach (Steve) Bergman. He had some very talented guys on that team, and that helped. We he got here we had Luka, Tyler Cook, Ryan Kriener, Jack Nunge. That was something we focused on and worked on. He’s always been particularly good at it, and it’s a critical part of our offense.”
Iowa’s ability to share the ball has stood out in several victories. The Hawkeyes had 21 assists on 24 field goals against Purdue, 27 assists on 31 field goals against Minnesota and 20 assists on 26 field goals against Rutgers.
“They’re all really good with the ball making plays,” Coach McCaffery said. “They understand how to feed the post, they understand how to read screening action, read switching action, whatever comes your way. They’re all just really good with the ball, and know how to move without the ball as well as getting open.”
Taking care of the ball has also been an important part of Iowa’s success. The Hawkeyes have had less than 10 turnovers in 14 of their 29 games this season. After having eight turnovers in the first half of its Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal game against Wisconsin, Iowa had none the second half. No previous McCaffery team had more than 11 games with single-digit turnover totals.
This team’s assist-turnover ratio, turnovers per game and assists per game are all better than any previous McCaffery team.
“I just think as an experienced team, a veteran team, we value every possession,” Connor said. “We know how important the ball is. We know we can’t afford to have dumb turnovers that lead to fast-break points for the other team. That also takes away our ability to get a shot off on every possession, which is something we really need to do with the scoring options we have.” As for voicing his opinion in the huddle about a play, Connor said he’s usually comfortable doing that.
“He’ll ask me a lot,” Connor said. “He’ll come up to me and say, “Is there anything you see? What do you think’s going to work?’ And usually I’ll have something. Maybe it’s a play we haven’t run yet, or something based on how (teams) are playing us. I think that’s good, to have someone who trusts what you see. He does the same thing with other people, too. I feel that’s a good relationship to have with your coach.”