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Coaches build Cyclones, Hawkeyes in their own way

[ 0 ] December 12, 2013 |

AMES, Ia. – Fran McCaffery and Fred Hoiberg share a lot in common.

They were hired a month apart in the spring of 2010 to rejuvenate a pair of once-proud college basketball programs. Iowa was coming off three straight losing seasons, and fan apathy was at record levels, when McCaffery arrived. Hoiberg returned to his alma mater, Iowa State, with Hilton Magic on life support after four straight losing seasons.

Friday night, when Iowa meets Iowa State at 8:30 p.m. in sold-out Hilton Coliseum, losing and apathy will not be in uniform. No. 17 Iowa State is 7-0. No. 23 Iowa is 10-1. It’s just the second time since the inception of the Associated Press poll in 1949 that the Cy-Hawk game has featured two rated teams.

“I think this is a big-time game,” former college coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. “Two really good coaches, and two places that have great pride and tradition that I’m not sure people respect or understand. The way they’ve built these programs, great storylines there. This is an elite matchup.”

Coaches Fred Hoiberg, left, of Iowa State and Fran McCaffery of Iowa will lead their teams into Friday night's Cy-Hawk game at Hilton Coliseum. (Register photos)

Coaches Fred Hoiberg, left, of Iowa State and Fran McCaffery of Iowa will lead their teams into Friday night’s Cy-Hawk game at Hilton Coliseum. (Register photos)

As similar as the challenges facing McCaffery and Hoiberg were, they’ve reached the Top 25 in different directions.

“They both did it in their own personalities,” Greenberg said. “And in a lot of ways, from their own depth of experiences.”

Hoiberg returned to Iowa State with a wealth of NBA experience, as a player and executive. He leaned heavily on transfers to make the Cyclones relevant again, and continues to do so. But he’s also been able to attract top high school talent now that Iowa State is winning again.

“His mindset was to rebuild the program like he would rebuild an NBA roster,” Greenberg said. “How do you do that? You attack free agency and you go through the draft. And that’s what he’s done. Fred has the rare ability to communicate and get the best out of people. Not everyone wants to take many risk-reward kids. He had enough confidence that he would be able to get those guys to buy into the bigger group, to trust him, and embrace roles.”

McCaffery had already taken three programs with losing records – Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro and Siena – and coached them into the NCAA Tournament before he arrived at Iowa.

“Fran has been in the business a long time,” Greenberg said. “His mindset, first and foremost, was, “Let’s build a foundation. Let’s recruit to our geographic footprint. And let’s build this, because I don’t want to do it over and over again.’ He’s done a great job of doing that, and playing a style like Dr. Tom Davis played. He’s gotten ownership of the program back, and the community is back and involved.”

THE HOIBERG WAY

Fred Hoiberg took the Iowa State job without a how-to manual.

“I came in with such an open mind,” said Hoiberg, who had been vice president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. “I didn’t really put a time frame on it.”

After hiring his staff, Hoiberg’s next mission was to find some players.

“We had to try and get as much talent here as possible, where we could compete for the top of the Big 12,” Hoiberg said. “It just happened to be transfers. I didn’t have a plan on how many I was going to take. It just kind of worked out that we got some very high level kids that first year. They sat out, they bonded, and they developed great chemistry.”

Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State), Royce White (Minnesota) and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) had to sit out as Hoiberg’s first team went 16-16. But they got the Cyclones back in the NCAA Tournament a year later, finishing 23-11.

“I felt we had a chance to be pretty darn good,” Hoiberg said. “And we were.”

Hoiberg, whose third team finished 23-12 and made the NCAAs again, has brought in nine transfers during his time at Iowa State, including Abdel Nader from Northern Illinois and Jameel McKay from Marquette next season.

“I’d never coached before,” Hoiberg said. “I didn’t really have a back story to go on. We went with what we thought could get the program going in the right direction. It just happened to be with transfers.”

Rolling the dice with transfers doesn’t always work. At Iowa State, it’s been the foundation of the Cyclones’ revival.

“No. 1, you talk to them about why they are leaving their respective schools,” Hoiberg said. “You talk to them about the opportunities in front of them, and to buy in and worry about winning as opposed to individual statistics. If they do that, you’re going to have a great chance because of their talent level. A lot of them left because the system wasn’t right. A couple left because they didn’t get along with the coach. It was a fresh start here. They’ve bought in, and I’ve had no issues with any of them.”

Hoiberg has also signed eight high school players, including Top 100 prospects Georges Niang in 2012, Monte Morris and Matt Thomas in 2013 and Clayton Custer, who will be a freshman next season. And he’s also supplemented his roster with four junior college players, most noteably Tyrus McGee and Dustin Hogue.

“I think he’s done a tremendous job in finding the pieces that fit,” McCaffery said. “There are different ways to do it. It doesn’t matter if you take high school kids or transfers or junior college kids. You’ve got to find the pieces that fit. And you’ve got to fit them into your system. And that’s what they do.”

Hoiberg’s NBA background has helped both in recruiting and style of play.

“He’s so good with matchups,” Greenberg said. “And let’s face it. That program is run offensively like an NBA team. It’s strictly a spacing, attacking matchup system.”

THE McCAFFERY WAY

Fran McCaffery has taken a patient approach at Iowa, and he never felt the need to speed up the process.

“The administration never put any pressure on me in that regard, in terms of a timetable or anything like that,” McCaffery said. “They want us to do it the right way. And that’s the only way I know how to do it.”

It’s a system that’s worked at all four of his head coaching stops, where he inherited a losing program and won at least 20 games by his third season. At Iowa, the victories have increased from 11 to 18 to 25.

“This is a blueprint for methodically building a program,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.

McCaffery has followed the same formula at every stop.

“You look for guys who want to compete, guys who are student-athletes, people with character, so it’s not only position and skill sets,” McCaffery said. “It’s the right character and the right mix. Because you need guys who ultimately are going to accept a role. You recruit too many of the wrong guys, and the minute they don’t play 36 minutes a game they want to transfer. You’ve got to be careful about that. That’s how you get everyone to fit. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”

McCaffery inherited Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe. He signed Melsahn Basabe as his first recruit and went to the junior college ranks to find Bryce Cartwright. Aaron White, Josh Oglesby and Gabe Olaseni followed in McCaffery’s second recruiting class, and the rebuilding was in full swing.

“You don’t have to get a lottery pick every time you sign someone,” McCaffery said. “But it’s got to be somebody you can win with.”

MCaffery’s third class included Top 100 prospects Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell. But getting highly touted prospects is not the most important thing to him.

“Because a guy is rated a certain place doesn’t mean he’s that good,” McCaffery said. “It’s not like I don’t want Top 100 players. I’d love to have some. But there’s guys I look at and I don’t want, and I don’t care if he’s rated. If I find a guy that I think is better and not rated in the top 100, I’m going to take that guy.”

Lightly recruited players, like White, have thrived in McCaffery’s system by playing with a chip on their shoulder and fitting perfectly into his up-tempo style of play.

“He’s finding guys that can play at a high level in a big-time program, guys coming out of high school that weren’t getting the same due as others,” Marble said. “He has that eye for talent.”

McCaffery has signed 12 players from the high school ranks, including Brady Ellingson and Dominique Uhl who will be freshmen next season. He’s also added a transfer, Jarrod Uthoff, and a junior college player (Cartwright).

“He’s done a tremendous job of getting very talented players that fit the system he runs,” Hoiberg said. “I can’t tell you how impressed I am with that team and how those players continue to develop and get better. I just think the world of Fran and how he’s built the program up.”

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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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