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Fran McCaffery lands Iowa back on national recruiting map

[ 0 ] September 2, 2013 |

Fran McCaffery fell in love with point guard Tyler Ulis and his skill set long before it became a national fad.

Some questioned Ulis’ height – 5 feet 9 inches. Not McCaffery, who became the first coach to offer him a Division I scholarship after the star guard at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, Ill., completed his AAU schedule in 2012.

The same Ulis who has narrowed his long and impressive list of suitors to the Hawkeyes, Michigan State and Kentucky. The same one who visited the Iowa campus last weekend. He visits Michigan State this weekend, then Kentucky.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery starts a drill during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. (David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery starts a drill during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Aug. 5, 2013. (David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Reflect on that for a moment: Iowa, a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, mentioned in the same sentence with Michigan State and Kentucky. One more sign that Iowa’s riches-to-rags program is in serious recovery mode under McCaffery.

Entering his fourth season, McCaffery has Hawkeye hoops fans drinking the black-and-gold Kool-Aid again. And now he’s knocking heads with a couple of college basketball bluebloods. McCaffery is winning style points, even if he loses Ulis to the Wildcats or Spartans as most national observers expect.

McCaffery has shown he has a keen eye for talent. No other Big Ten school considered giving Aaron White a scholarship. How has that turned out? Anthony Clemmons is another under-the-radar player who showed in his freshman season that he can survive in the Big Ten. Incoming freshman Peter Jok is the next in line.

Ulis was outside the national Top 100 when McCaffery offered him. He’s now a consensus Top 50 recruit in the Class of 2014. Tyler Smith is the only consensus Top 50 player to sign with the Hawkeyes in the last decade.
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Both Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell , entering their sophomore seasons, were Top 100 guys. Woodbury was McCaffery’s biggest catch yet, outrecruiting North Carolina for the 7-footer. But Woodbury is from Sioux City, and a lifelong Hawkeye fan. Gesell grew up just across the river from Woodbury, in South Sioux City, Neb.

Getting a kid from suburban Chicago, one that Tom Izzo and John Calipari want, would be a huge shot in the arm. McCaffery’s reputation has already improved by making the final three.

But if Ulis goes elsewhere, that would seem like little consolation after investing hundreds of hours, and thousands of recruiting dollars, chasing the fleet point guard around the country this summer on the AAU circuit. Hours of conversations, and establishing a close relationship to the point that it will be hard for Ulis to tell McCaffery thanks, but no thanks.

Michigan State has a great national reputation, and their own ace card. Former Spartan Travis Walton is Ulis’ cousin. The Spartans offered Ulis in May. Kentucky didn’t offer until last month, when Ulis made an unofficial visit.

When Emmanuel Mudiay, the Wildcats’ top point guard recruit, selected SMU on August 24. Ulis moved to the center of Calipari’s target. Izzo recently offered Quentin Snider , who backed out of a commitment to Louisville. Iowa doesn’t have a backup plan. Ulis is McCaffery’s guy. When it comes to time and effort, the Hawkeyes are the five-course meal, complete with dessert. Kentucky is the fast food drive thru.

When he got the Iowa job in 1975, Lute Olson worked to establish recruiting connections in Chicago. He started recruiting a point guard at Chicago’s Dunbar High School before anyone else, and got his man. Ronnie Lester became one of the greatest players in Iowa history, and a first-round NBA Draft pick.

There were hard-luck stories, too. Olson got an audience with Isiah Thomas, but was a bridesmaid. And there was Terry Cummings, who told Sports Illustrated that “my heart said Iowa, but the Lord said DePaul.”

Will Ulis elect to pass on established tradition, sign on with a rising program and be the next Ronnie Lester? Will he shock the recruiting world, like Mudiay did by selecting SMU?

Only one guy, all 5-9 of him, knows for sure.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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