Iowa Basketball Recruiting: Fran McCaffery in the Friend Zone

By Patrick Vint on July 10, 2018 at 9:00 am
"Whaddya mean you're dating John Bielein?"
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Five-star Bettendorf point guard D.J. Carton pared his top six list to a top three on Sunday, and none of those three teams were Iowa.

To objective outside observers, this was not a surprise.  Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana were always thought to be the front-runners for Carton's services.  Iowa coaches had told local recruiting guys that they had a great relationship with Carton that could see them through.  It didn't.  Tradition did.  Winning did.

This isn't an indictment of Fran McCaffery for failing to land a guy that never really seemed that interested in Iowa.  McCaffery's staff did a fantastic job of identifying Carton as a top target before anyone else had and getting in early, and I'm not about to go full-on Tom Davis and claim the inability to keep away the rest of the world is grounds for termination.  Firing Davis based on recruiting alone was wrong in 1997, and it would be even more wrong today.  Kids are going to go where they want to go.

Make no mistake about it: Iowa desperately needs help at the point.  Jordan Bohannon played 80 percent of all minutes last year because he had to, which limited his effectiveness on offense (dude's a two-guard in an ideal world) and the team's effectiveness on defense (his difficulties guarding the ball led to all that 2-3 zone nonsense, which led to the second-worst defensive efficiency of any team in the Power Six conferences).  His backup for 2018-19, Connor McCaffery, is a projected small forward who took three shots in four games.  Iowa needs a guy who can guard the ball and disrupt a defense by getting to the rim. 

As of eight weeks ago, it had a few options, most of them players "that they had a great relationship with" because of Andrew Francis's dogged recruiting work or Pat McCaffery's AAU time or some other reason.  Iowa back-burnered them all to chase Carton, and now that Carton has cut Iowa loose, the backup options have all gone elsewhere.  Tyrell Terry has committed to Stanford.  Rocket Watts was always headed to Michigan State.  Noah Hutchins is apparently not the answer to any question.  Neither, it seems, is Des Moines North's Tyreke Locure, which Iowa strung along with the Wes Washpun Strategy until he finally committed to South Alabama.

The problem is that this guy never really seemed that interested in Iowa, and yet it didn't stop McCaffery and his staff from putting all their eggs in one Carton.  But we knew him before anyone else! they say.  We have a great relationship with him! they tell us.  It might look for all the world like he's deciding between Michigan and Indiana, but we really know the kid, and he'd never do that to us! we're led to believe.  And then, when he in fact does go with Michigan and Indiana, we're supposed to be shocked and hurt.

Fran, take it from me: You got Friend Zone'd.

In the immediate aftermath of Carton's announcement, the pro-Fran contingent immediately turned to the staff's "great relationships" with other highly-coveted 2019 players, guys like Indiana five-star Keion Brooks.  He has offers from Kentucky, Michigan State and Indiana, but Iowa got an unofficial visit from him this summer, so we're supposed to be in play.  Dude's spending a weekend in Iowa City with no strings attached, and we're immediately thinking marriage.  Hello, Friend Zone.

We knew Trayce Jackson-Davis when he was still in braces.  Now he's a borderline five-star forward who obviously prefers Michigan State, Indiana and UCLA, but we're hoping that our enduring friendship will blossom into something more.  #FriendZone.

Zeke Nnaji is a 6'10" power forward that Iowa started recruiting as a sophomore, but he's been making eyes at Wisconsin for as long as we've known him.  Wisconsin?  Pfff, we're better than Wisconsin.  Can't he see we're better than Wisconsin?  Why is he still looking at Wisconsin?  Welcome to Friend Zone.

We've done this every year under Fran.  We did it with Adam Woodbury, only he really was interested in us and we got him that time.  We did it with Marcus Paige that same year.  We did it with Tyler Ulis -- we were totally cutting out Tyler Ulis pictures and taping them to our walls, even though mom told us it would peel off the paint -- and he left as soon as Kentucky gave him that come-hither look.  We have had more recruiting classes blown up by overcommitting to unattainable talent than is worth counting.  It keeps happening, and it's happening even more for 2019.

It's time that Iowa takes a good look in the mirror and accepts what it is, a 14-19 team whose recent history amounts to two NCAA Tournament seven-seeds in the last twelve years and no Sweet Sixteen runs in these players' lifetimes.  Longstanding relationships are great.  Deep emotional attachment is how you make a relationship stronger, how you make a marriage last.  But these are high school kids playing in one-and-done, transfer-crazy college basketball.  They aren't looking to get married.  They are looking for a hottie, and Iowa isn't a hottie, and hasn't been one for about 30 years now.  

The two aren't wholly analogous, but compare basketball's predicament to the football program.  Iowa football has long since accepted that it's not the sexiest date for the dance, and while it will readily do its due diligence on any five-star in its orbit -- hello, A.J. Epenesa -- it's not going to buy an engagement ring while that player is still playing the field.  If Kirk Ferentz gets the hint that he's not really in play, he doesn't waste his time.  There are plenty of perfectly decent defensive ends in Pella who aren't going to play hard to get.  Say what you will about Ferentz's recruiting practices, but he's nobody's fool.

Which brings us to the saddest part of this: That Fran is just about as good at identifying under-the-radar talent and developing it into something useful as Ferentz is.  Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White were nobody's recruiting wins, but they're still playing professional basketball because McCaffery and his staff turned them into all-conference players.  Peter Jok was taken off the recruiting scrap heap and turned into the Big Ten scoring leader.  Jordan Bohannon wasn't coveted by anyone -- Iowa had offers out to six point guards ranked above him that didn't come in -- but almost immediately became one of the most important members of this team.  This staff is unmatched at identifying talent early -- how else do you get in on so many four- and five-star recruits by being their first offer? -- and is nearly as good at taking the guys it can get and turning them into legitimate college players. 

But by being unreasonable in its expectations with the nation's top recruits, by telling itself that what it has is special when everyone else seems to know it's really not, Iowa is likely missing out on guys it can actually transform, the guys with the skills and work ethic necessary to become the next Marble or White or Jok.  Because those guys know when they're wanted.  They're not playing games.  They're not getting Friend Zone'd.


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