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Pat Harty: Is Fran still the man with the plan?

[ 0 ] May 7, 2014 |

Not until the mysterious and maddening collapse at the end of this past season had Fran McCaffery been questioned about his performance as the Iowa men’s basketball coach.

Fran was the man with a fail-proof plan heading into the season, which ended with Iowa losing seven of its last eight games and barely making the NCAA Tournament. And although many Iowa fans — I’d go as far as to say a large majority — still believe in McCaffery, some have acknowledged that there might be a chink in his armor, especially when it comes to recruiting.

Results have been mixed for McCaffery on the recruiting trail, the trend continuing with the hits and misses during the past two months.

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery

Iowa signed junior college point guard Trey Dickerson to a letter of intent in April, received a verbal commitment from high school junior forward Brandon Hutton in March and another verbal commitment from Dubuque Wahlert sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl last week.

But on the flip side, Iowa failed to land junior college forward Willie Atwood, who signed with Arizona State, and Nevada transfer Cole Huff, who picked Creighton over Iowa on Sunday. McCaffery’s crew also lost the recruiting battle for Chicago native and four-star prospect Joseph Toye, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who recently made a verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

This pattern of inconsistency, coupled with Iowa’s season-ending collapse, has triggered a debate.

On one side are those who feel that McCaffery has been more than adequate as a recruiter and that landing Dickerson, Hutton and Pemsl is enough to offset the recent near misses.

On the other side are those who now question McCaffery’s ability as a closer, especially with recruits from out of state who have multiple scholarship offers.

“My sense is that some of the frustration is simply a carryover from the way the basketball season ended,” said Tom Kakert, publisher of HawkeyeReport.com, a Rivals.com website. “I think everyone would agree that the way Iowa’s season finished up in the last month or so was disappointing and frustrating for everyone involved (coaches, players and fans). Then you get a couple of misses on the recruiting trail where prospects opt for schools that some fans see as inferior to Iowa, and the frustration continues.”

Both sides are right to a certain extent.

Swinging and missing with recruits is the nature of the recruiting business, especially at Iowa where it’s never been easy to entice the top prospects to climb aboard.

It can be done, though.

George Raveling did it throughout his three-year run from 1983-86, as did Tom Davis during parts of his 13-year reign from 1986-99, although to a much lesser extent than Raveling. Davis also had some lean years in recruiting and that probably contributed to the controversial decision to let him go.

Iowa has made significant progress in four seasons under McCaffery, going from one of the worst teams in the Big Ten when he was hired in March 2010 to now being in the middle of the pack. That wouldn’t have happened without McCaffery and his three assistant coaches, Kirk Speraw, Sherman Dillard and Andrew Francis, doing something right in recruiting.

Seeing what other Big Ten coaches didn’t see in senior-to-be forward Aaron White is a feather in McCaffery’s cap, as is Adam Woodbury’s decision to come to Iowa despite having a Who’s Who list of scholarship offers.

The 7-1 Woodbury still is very much a work in progress, but that shouldn’t be held against McCaffery as a recruiter. McCaffery fought off some of college basketball’s most storied programs to land Woodbury out of Sioux City, and did so at a time when the Iowa program still was in a state of flux.

McCaffery also believed that 5-9 high school senior point guard Tyler Ulis was special long before most other coaches did. McCaffery was among the first coaches to offer Ulis a scholarship, and McCaffery busted his rump trying to land the pint-sized star from the Chicago area only to finish second to mighty Kentucky. It’s hard to blame McCaffery for that.

Veteran recruiting analyst Van Coleman ranks McCaffery’s 2014 recruiting class of Dickerson, high school forward Dominique Uhl and high school shooting guard Brady Ellingson as average at best, its biggest flaw being the absence of an athletic, physical front line player.

“If there is a complaint, they needed an athletic, front-court guy, that physical finisher around the basket,” said Coleman, who now lives in Las Vegas after calling Eastern Iowa his home for decades. “That was the miss.”

Coleman isn’t thrilled about Iowa’s 2014 class, but he points out that it’s just one class and that McCaffery has a history of finding players who fly under the radar.

“He’s been right on almost every kid he’s taken,” Coleman said of McCaffery. “They’ve turned out to be as good or better than what most people thought they’d be.”

Kakert gave a similar assessment, saying that “Iowa isn’t doing all that badly on the recruiting trail.” He likes the pieces that McCaffery has added this spring and he keeps the losses in perspective.

“There are very few programs in the country that get just about everyone on their wish list every year, so you are going to miss more than you hit,” Kakert said. “Certainly, Fran McCaffery has to continue to recruit better players, and he and his staff are doing just that. They are in on some very good players in the next two classes and I think they will get a few of their main targets and probably end up missing on others because that is the nature of recruiting.”

My opinion will appear as if I’m trying to appease both sides. I still believe in McCaffery as a recruiter because he’s done well enough as the Iowa coach to have earned that faith.

But I also thought that recruiting would come easier for McCaffery and for his three assistants. Assistant coaches play a vital role in recruiting because much of it comes down to their connections and having the ability to make a lasting impression before the head coach steps in.

Iowa’s 2014 class fell short of my expectations on paper. But, like Coleman said, it’s just one class that still has some intriguing pieces, most notably Dickerson, who will try to help fill the void left by all-Big Ten guard Devyn Marble.

“The ’14 class in my mind is this: One. You have a piece that you had to have, a ball-handling guard who can come in and compete with the guys that are there for major playing time,” Coleman said of Dickerson. “That was the biggest key, because what’s your biggest lost?

“You lost a ball-handling guard who can score. You have a ball-handling guard who can score, maybe not with the same numbers as Devyn Marble. But you also have the other guys in the program who should have a step-up.”

Landing Hutton was another key development because he lives in Chicago, where Iowa has struggled to recruit for much of the past two decades despite the city’s abundance of talent and despite its proximity to Iowa City.

Missing out on Toye, however, was more fuel for the doubters who wonder why Iowa is losing recruits to the likes of Vanderbilt.

The challenge for McCaffery will be to take Iowa’s recruiting to another level. He already has lifted the program to a higher level on the court, but it’ll take better players to lift it even higher.

I think we all can agree on that.

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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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