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Monday, March 29, 2010
Can McCaffery make Iowa hoops fun again?

By Eamonn Brennan

Reading the Associated Press' description of the Iowa basketball program under Todd Lickliter, you'd be forgiven for confusing the former Butler coach with the Grinch Who Stole Fun. For example:
Fran McCaffery
Fran McCaffery takes over a Hawkeyes program that fans weren't coming to watch this season.
Iowa introduced the 50-year-old [Fran] McCaffery as its new coach Monday, ending a 13-day search to replace the fired Todd Lickliter after one of the most disastrous seasons in the history of the once-proud program. McCaffery said he's up to the challenge. "Our players are going to have fun, they're going to enjoy what they do on the floor," McCaffery said. "This place is going to be rocking again."

... Of course, Iowa is counting on McCaffery to be more than a responsible manager. Lickliter's teams were remarkable only for their predictability. He brought a grinding, plodding offense to Iowa that allowed the shot clock to tick down while players looked for the best shot. Hawkeye fans weren't receptive. [...] Iowa was bad last season, but most disheartening were listless, double-digit losses to rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota. Attendance slumped to just 9,550 per home game. ...

Todd Lickliter wasn't just bad. The former coach's style was apparently so excruciating that he managed to bore Iowans. Think about that. (And yes, as an Iowa native, I'm totally allowed to make that joke. Nice try, angry Midwestern commenter. No East Coast bias here.)

Of course, had Iowa had the same success with that "boring" downtempo grind-it-out style that Brad Stevens and Lickliter's former program is currently having, I doubt Iowa fans would have minded. But there is a tradition, especially among the younger Iowa fan in their 20s and 30s, to feel particularly passionate about uptempo basketball. Dr. Tom Davis, the man who took over three years after the Lute Olson era ended, went to nine NCAA tournaments in his 11 years at Iowa by pressing his opponents for entire games and subbing a flurry of players in and out of the game to maintain a physical advantage. Davis also had fun little quirks in his style, like the fake-shot-alley-oop pass that fooled Iowa's opponents until the very end. (Why did this work? I have no idea. Theoretically, if the defense boxes out on every shot, it shouldn't matter whether the shot was a fake or the real deal. But it always worked.)

In other words, Fran McCaffery is on the right track here. Iowa basketball was interminable these past three years. If McCaffery can appeal to the Iowa fan who grew up in the Tom Davis era and make Iowa hoops fun to watch again, he can count on plenty of support in the Hawkeye State. Even if he doesn't win right away.