The Outlet: Former Siena coach McCaffery has Iowa men’s basketball off to fantastic start

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery talks with his team during a recent game against North Carolina Central. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery talks with his team during a recent game against North Carolina Central. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, College Sports, Sports

It’s shaping up to be a special season for a coach with a special connection to the Capital Region.

Fran McCaffery’s team has arguably the nation’s best player, its offense scores more efficiently than any in the country and two of the key players on the Iowa men’s basketball team are his own kids.

And McCaffery, who led the Siena men’s basketball program to its greatest heights, doesn’t shy away from the hype regarding the type of season his program looks capable of producing during this college basketball season.

“You have to embrace that,” McCaffery said Tuesday in a phone interview. “You work really hard to be a team that’s recognized on a national level.”

In his 11th season leading Iowa, McCaffery has a team at that level. His group is ranked No. 3 in the country and is averaging more than 100 points per game, and the eyes of the college basketball world will be on McCaffery’s Hawkeyes when they play Saturday against No. 1 Gonzaga at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in a game that will be televised nationally on CBS.

Iowa is 6-0 on the season, while Gonzaga is 3-0 after needing to cancel several games because of a pandemic-related pause. Iowa is coming off a 106-53 win against Northern Illinois, a doubling-up that included lead star Luka Garza scoring 23 points in 20 minutes to record his fifth game this season in which he’s registered more points than minutes.

“He’s a tremendous leader, a phenomenal teammate, a great student, a hard worker,” McCaffery said of the 6-foot-11 senior. “And he’s the best player in college basketball.”

Connor McCaffery, now a redshirt junior, starts for Iowa, while redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffery is one of Iowa’s top reserves. Both were familiar faces around the Siena program when their father led the Saints for a five-season run that closed with three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, serving as ball boys for the team, and frequenting practices and team meals.

While Connor and Patrick were around their dad’s program at Iowa before joining it, their involvement and presence lessened during their high school years as their own athletic careers grew more serious. Not having the two of them around as much for those years, Fran McCaffery said, has made coaching them even more special for dad.

“There’s just nothing better,” McCaffery said, who said the best part about coaching his sons is seeing them “having a positive experience playing with their friends.”

And this season has the chance to end in memorable fashion for McCaffery, who inherited an Iowa program coming off three losing seasons when he left Loudonville after guiding Siena to a 97-38 run following his 15-13 debut season with the Saints. There were ups and downs during McCaffery’s first decade leading Iowa, and the coach is still trying to secure his first-ever trip to a Sweet 16 after nearly bringing Siena to one in 2009 when the Saints threatened to upset overall top Louisville to get there. But more than pressure, McCaffery said he feels pride in the way Iowa has rebuilt itself.

“I wanted to be a part of rebuilding it, and rebuilding it the right way,” McCaffery said. “It’s very important to our fan base, to our administration, to our alumni that we do it the right way — and we’ve done it the right way.”

There will be pressure later this season, for sure, for Iowa and McCaffery to make the most of a team seemingly as talented as any in the country. But, for right now, the focus is on a matchup Saturday with a Gonzaga team with “stars at every position,” on a game that Iowa can use to cement its status as a program expected to do more than win a couple NCAA tournament games later this season.

“You want these opportunities, right?” said McCaffery, whose team’s season-opening rank of No. 5 was the highest preseason ranking in program history in 60-plus years. “You want these challenges.”

PAUSED ONCE MORE

Just days after her team’s season had started and as the school’s men’s basketball program was wrapping up its second pause of in-person activities, Siena women’s basketball head coach Ali Jaques got the phone call with word her team again needed to pause because of a positive COVID-19 test result as its Monday practice came to a close.

Later, Jaques said she knew her players understood what news she was getting before she was even off the call.

“If I’m being totally honest, I was extremely emotional when I got that call,” Jaques said. “That was so hard.”

Why?

“Because,” Jaques said, “I knew I had to deliver terrible news to our kids.”

Jaques has not been shy about discussing the mental toll her players are dealing with this season as they try to play a season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Lots of people “don’t see [Division I athletes] as kids,” Jaques said Monday, but it’s hard to see them as anything else when they’re dealing with the heartbreak of more lost chances to practice and play the sport they love.

“They’re young,” Jaques said, “and this is a real challenge for them.”

LOTT HONORED

Selena Lott, a senior guard at Marquette who starred at Columbia High School, was named Monday the Big East Conference Player of the Week.

In a pair of wins for the Marquette women’s basketball team, Lott averaged 22 points, 8.5 rebounds and four assists per game. Lott scored 26 points in a win against Cincinnati, and had a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds in a win against Belmont.

Marquette next plays Wednesday against St. John’s.

LEAGUE SEASON CANCELED

The Northeast-10 Conference announced Tuesday it won’t play its league season, which was supposed to start next month, but Saint Rose’s Division II basketball teams will try to play “contests against outside competition” during the 2020-21 academic year.

While the conference cited the “ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic” as the reason for canceling its season, each member school “shall retain the autonomy to determine if it will engage in independent athletic contests this winter,” and Saint Rose announced it will seek such opportunities.

Saint Rose announced it plans to resume in-person team activities on Jan. 19.

Its basketball teams last practiced on Nov. 16.

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