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McCaffery leans on May when it’s crunch time

[ 0 ] March 31, 2013 |

Fran McCaffery’s mood changes frequently and sometimes dramatically depending on what’s happening around him.

He can go from administering a dose of tough love to one of his players to praising that same player just seconds later.

What never will change, though, is his approach to his job.

McCaffery will rely on the same work ethic, the same philosophies, the same passion and the same principles that helped him rebuild the Iowa men’s basketball program in just three seasons to try to soar even higher.

“I think it’s better (to coach with higher expectations); I don’t know if it’s easier,” McCaffery said. “To me, it’s the same if you have low expectations or high expectations. It’s always the same. You don’t change your approach.

“You can never relax. You can never relax in recruiting. You can never stop coaching your guys and you can never cut corners. By that I mean you can never take guys with bad character because they come back and get you.”

McCaffery then used his lone senior on scholarship, Eric May, as an example of the kind of player and the kind of person he wants representing his team, which faces Maryland in the NIT semifinals Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“I’ll go to battle with Eric May every single day of the week because I know what I’m going to get,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes, you say this guy; I think he’s better than his problems.

“Well, they’re rarely better than their problems.”

The 6-foot-5 May is not only arguably Iowa’s best defender and without a question its best dunker, he’s the leader of the team. He’s a source of inspiration for his younger teammates who are determined to send him out on a high note.

The NCAA Tournament fell short of their grasp, but May and his cohorts are doing the next best thing by making a deep run in the NIT. They look forward to checking out the Big Apple, but not at the expense of any preparation.

“I think everybody agrees and the coaches will tell you this is a business trip,” May said. “We’re going there to win a championship.

“We’re going to have some fun as a team. We all get along well. But at the end of the day, we’re in there to win games.”

At the end of the day, that’s why McCaffery is at Iowa; to win games and to graduate players and hope that they enjoy the experience.

McCaffery is perhaps best described as an in-the-moment coach who is determined to stay the course no matter the circumstance. Much like Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, McCaffery doesn’t get too high or too low.

He might pound his fist on a scorer’s table in a momentary fit of rage, but that’s just his immediate reaction to what’s unfolding on the court. He doesn’t necessarily wear his passion on his sleeve, but more so on his face.

Win or lose, McCaffery always wants to learn from the experience and then move on. He doesn’t dwell on anything, but the next challenge.

McCaffery is pleased with Iowa’s 24-12 record and that his team has won 10 of its last 13 games. This marks only the fourth time in school history that Iowa has won at least 24 games in a season.

McCaffery also is proud that Iowa has won more games in each of his three seasons as head coach, going from 11 victories in his first season to 18 last season and now to the current total. He considers that a sign of progress, but hardly a reason to say that Iowa has overachieved or has reached a point where the players and coaches can ease up on the gas.

“You never say, `Wow, this is great, we have 24 wins,’ ” McCaffery said. “I’m thrilled. I’m happy that we have 24 wins. That’s great. But we’re not at any point in time going to stop continuing to work every day on all aspects of the program because we’re not just building a basketball team; we’re building a program.

“And how are we perceived on a national level? How are we perceived in the state? And how do prospects that are considering where to go to school and they have plenty of options, how do they look at us?’

McCaffery has clearly upgraded Iowa’s recruiting by landing heralded prospects such as 7-foot-1 freshman center Adam Woodbury, who picked Iowa over North Carolina.

But recruiting still is a work in progress and always will be, especially for a program like Iowa, which has a low in-state population and still is building after suffering through four consecutive losing seasons from 2007-11, including two seasons with at least 20 losses.

McCaffery will try his best to land the blue-chip recruits that get courted by all the elite schools. But he also knows the value in finding hidden talents such as May and 6-8 forward Aaron White, who was lightly recruited out of Ohio, but made third-team all-Big Ten as a sophomore this season.

White was a year behind former Ohio State star Jared Sullinger in school, but even more so as a recruit coming out of Ohio. Sullinger, who now plays for the Boston Celtics, but is injured, picked the Buckeyes over a long and impressive list of scholarship offers.

“Yeah. I’d like to be able to walk into a gym and say, `Okay, I’ll take Sullinger,’” McCaffery said. “Right now, I can’t do that. So we’re going to have to get guys that can beat Sullinger, and that’s not easy to do.”

May was recruited to Iowa by McCaffery’s predecessor, Todd Lickliter, although it’s wasn’t as if May had a long list of scholarship offers coming out of Dubuque Wahlert High School.

“When he was recruited, it was like, ‘is he a Big Ten player?’ ” McCaffery said of May. “I don’t know. Is he good enough to play at Iowa? He’s good enough to play at Iowa because he’s a warrior. He’s a champion. He’s a worker. He became a student of the game.”

Junior guard Devyn Marble also was lightly recruited in high school, but is now playing at an all-Big Ten level. The 6-6 Marble made third-team all-Big Ten this season and has since taken his game to a higher level in the NIT, scoring 24, 28 and 24 points, respectively, in Iowa’s three victories.

Marble said last week that he plans to return for his senior season. He’s enjoyed this NIT run. But just like McCaffery, he’s hardly satisfied because there are more steps to take.

“It’s not going to change anything for next year regardless if we win (the NIT) or don’t win it,” Marble said. “We still have goals to work on. It’s not like we would have won the NCAA national championship.

“There is another stepping stone even if we win the NIT championship for next year. So you won’t see a team with less desire coming in to next year.”

McCaffery’s message apparently is being heard.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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