Howe: McCaffery Out of Mulligans

Fran McCaffery has rebuilt the Iowa basketball program in the last four years, returning it to the NCAA Tournament after a long absence. The success has raised the bar for expectations. Anything less than the Big Dance and run at the Big Ten title will ring hollow in Hawkeye Nation.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - College sports media days spring hope eternal. They resemble the opening of Major League Baseball's spring training. Anything is possible even when, deep down, we know it's going to be an uphill battle to glory.

Iowa basketball held its annual gathering here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Thursday afternoon. Attention was focused on the positives surrounding a program rebuilt by head coach Fran McCaffery. The four-year rise has been admirable.

While the Hawkeyes return a lot of talent from last season and are formidable, an elephant sat squarely in the room for those people being honest with themselves. The metaphoric pachyderm represents last winter's epic collapse.

The excitement of Iowa reaching its first NCAA Tournament since 2006 was squelched by the team losing seven of its last eight games. The setbacks included a Senior Night loss to Illinois (7-11 Big Ten) and a first-round conference tournament exit, falling to lowly Northwestern, a team it twice defeated by 26 points during the regular season.

The campaign closed with a 78-65 overtime setback to Tennessee in the First Four of the Big Dance in Dayton. While not technically a "play-in" game, many fans viewed it that way considering their team never made it to the traditional March Madness that tips off Thursday and Friday with 12-hour stretches of hoops hysteria each day.

The Hawkeyes' crash was magnified by the heights they reached in late January. After blasting Minnesota, they rose to 10th in the country with a 15-3 overall record and 4-1 mark in the rough and tumble Big Ten. Some national analysts were tabbing them as a Final Four sleeper.

Perhaps the pressure of its first real expectations in the McCaffery Era weighed too heavily on Iowa. It only won four of its final 15 contests with three of the victories coming against Illinois, Penn State and Purdue, teams at the back end of the standings.

"A lot of us had never been in that situation; a lot of us had never been ranked," Junior Guard Anthony Clemmons said. "Now we know what it's like to get there. Now our expectations as players is to get back where we were. And when we get there, to keep building. It's not once we get there to be happy and satisfied with what we'd done."

The Hawkeyes puzzled people further with their 85-67 domination of conference champion Michigan on Feb. 8. Instead of it energizing them, they turned around and lost to Illinois at home and Northwestern on a neutral court.

Iowa fell to Final Four participant Wisconsin twice. The first time occurred in the Big Ten opener when McCaffery lost his mind, was ejected and subsequently suspended following a four-point loss at the Kohl Center. The Badgers escaped Iowa City with a 79-74 win in late February, the Hawkeyes again held their own only to come up short.

In primetime ESPN home games, the Hawkeyes dropped a 71-69 overtime decision to Michigan State and then lost 76-69 to Ohio State, a team they beat by 10 in Columbus earlier in the season. The close losses in eagerly-anticipated match-ups with perennial league powers along with inexcusable defeats to conference doormats after the fast start dampened an overall move in a positive direction by a long-suffering program.

"It's definitely one of the most frustrating things I've ever been through," Junior Guard Mike Gesell said. "We're Top 10 in the country, loving ourselves and then all of a sudden you hit a wall and you can't quite get over the hump. You can't figure out why."

McCaffery took over a team that sunk to historic lows under his predecessor, Todd Lickliter. The Hawkeyes return to relevance last year cemented McCaffery's reputation as the rebuilder of programs. He'd performed the same reclamation projects at Lehigh, UNC-Greensboro and Siena.

What McCaffery has accomplished in Iowa City should be applauded. It was a shame the team faded last year because it overshadowed how far forward the coach had brought the program.

"I think obviously we had a lot of work to do four years ago," McCaffery said. "And we got to work and made great improvements.  Our fan base became reengaged and that's been a big help to our program.  We've got more exposure on the television level that is going to help manifest itself in a lot of different ways.  So I think what you hope to do is continue to improve."

Such is life in the what-have-you-done-for-me world of sports. Accomplishments soon are forgotten and new ones expected.

That leads us to the 2014-15 campaign. For the Iowa faithful, the rebuild is over, the nightmare of Lickliter faded. The mulligans allowed in the wake of the program's destruction by its previous regime are exhausted.

"The reality is you get to a certain point, that becomes a lot harder because there are a lot of BCS teams that view themselves as top 25 programs.  So that's the challenge before us, to continue to recruit, continue to coach and make sure we have enough talent, enough depth to succeed in the toughest part of the country," McCaffery said.

The McCaffery calendar has turned to Year 5. While the positive vibes of media days past centered on hope, they're now filled with high expectations.

It's the evolution in professional and major college athletics. Coaches are awarded grace periods when righting the ship and then are judged by results. Average will not do. If it occurs, the process starts again.

The Hawkeyes were celebrated for their run the NIT Final Four two years ago. They were applauded for finishing in the middle of the Big Ten. Those days are done.

Anything short of an NCAA berth and competing for the conference title will disappoint the majority of the fan base. It's a reasonable outlook for a well-compensated coaching staff expected to maintain a high level of success a half decade into its tenure.

"There's no bigger tournament than the NCAA Tournament so we've got to go farther than we did last year; go as far as we can," Junior Center Adam Woodbury said. "We have the talent. We have the returners. We have the experience. We really don't see why we can't make a further run than we did last year."

The overall strength of McCaffery's program will be tested this winter. Iowa moves on without its best player from a year ago, guard Roy Devyn Marble, now with the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan, the class of the Big Ten, lose pro talent annually. They reload. That's the Hawkeyes' task.

"I feel very good about where we are, but you never -- you don't ever develop any level of complacency like we've arrived, you've never arrived," McCaffery said. "You're constantly trying to improve what you already have and improve what's here."

The cupboard is stocked. Two-time all-Big Ten selection Aaron White returns as the face of the Hawkeyes for '14-15. Juniors Woodbury and Gesell need to step up production after arriving here as Top 100 recruits. Upperclassmen Gabe Olaseni, Josh Oglesby, Jarrod Uthoff and Clemmons are McCaffery signees who've been developed in this program.

This group must take the baton from Marble, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe, three key building blocks for McCaffery, and at minimum maintain the level they've reached. It's what sells tickets and hope for recruits the staff is trying to land. An NIT season could damage those two main target areas.

"I think that's the kind of the players that we've gotten.  We don't have any McDonald's All-Americans.  So the guys we're getting are typically going to be four-year guys that have character, work hard and improve. Eventually maybe we'll get a guy like that or two and if that happens that will be great.  But up until then, you know, I'm satisfied with what we have and where we are," McCaffery said.

It won't be easy. The Big Ten, once again, boasts giants on the college basketball landscape. Wisconsin is loaded. In addition, teams like Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois are competing with Iowa to move up the ladder. Maryland joins the league with a rich hoops history.

That's the hand dealt to McCaffery and company. It's not a surprise. It's the standard at this level.

When Athletics Director Gary Barta hired McCaffery four years ago, he and the fans expected, over time, that the Hawkeyes would compete annually for the NCAA Tournament and conference championships. That time has arrived. Nothing less will suffice.

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