By John Bohnenkamp
Billy Taylor got on the elevator on the second floor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, post-game pizza in hand, smiling after a day’s work done well.
“I’m too tired to walk up the stairs,” Taylor said, laughing.
The Iowa assistant coach had just finished guiding the Hawkeyes to a 71-59 win over Minnesota on Sunday, working as the acting head coach in Fran McCaffery’s absence.
It wasn’t a new role for Taylor, who has been a head coach for 424 other games in his long career at the college level.
There was something about Sunday’s game, though, that was different.
McCaffery, Taylor’s long-time mentor and friend, was out after testing positive for COVID-19. Taylor was given the task of leading the Hawkeyes in a key February Big Ten game.
Iowa, which had lost back-to-back games and was coming into the game with a 14-7 overall record and 4-6 in the conference, needed a win in the crucible of the final full month of the regular season, when resumés that can appear somewhat tenuous can’t afford another blemish.
“You would like to say that, that it’s any other game,” Taylor said. “But it means something — a chance to represent the Hawkeyes, and representing my mentor, my friend, and representing the student-athletes. You would like to think it is another game, but it is important.”
It took some time for the Hawkeyes to adjust. They trailed 38-34 at halftime after falling behind 7-0 at the start, then outscored the Gophers 37-21 in the second half.
“I was really proud with how we responded,” Taylor said.
It had already been a disjointed week for the Hawkeyes. They lost in overtime to Penn State on Monday, had their game on Thursday at Ohio State postponed because of weather and travel issues, then got the news about McCaffery on Friday.
“Any time you have a little bit of a change in your routine, it takes an adjustment period,” Taylor said. “I’m not the normal voice that they hear from. So it took us a little bit of time to get into our rhythm.”
“Obviously it was a lot different,” forward Keegan Murray said. “Obviously Fran, he set the standard for the program, and how it’s supposed to be run. Coach Taylor did an excellent job prepping us for this game.”
Taylor said the Hawkeyes, like everyone else in college basketball, have learned to be flexible over the last couple of seasons, when a virus could force a game to be postponed, or a positive test could keep someone out of a lineup.
“Fran likes to say, ‘Every game is like a snowflake,’” Taylor said. “It’s completely different. For us, (this game) was a different approach. We tried to make it as normal as possible for our guys, so that they wouldn’t feel the impact or the effect. We wanted the guys to understand, let’s get the game plan, let’s figure out what we need to do, let’s handle our responsibilities.”
“We can’t help health issues, travel issues,” sophomore guard Ahron Ulis said. “Just go out there and be ready to play whoever is in front of us.”
It helps that McCaffery has a staff that has remained mostly stable over the years, and has a depth of experience. Sherman Dillard and Kirk Speraw, Taylor’s fellow assistants, have head coaching experience as well.
“So there were really no nerves, in terms of ‘What are we going to do?’” Taylor said. “Everybody knew what to do. Do your job. That’s really what we asked our guys to do — come out and do your job. We’re not changing our values in the next 2-3 days Fran is out. Just do our jobs, come out, play the game the right way, and honor our coach.”
“(Taylor is) a coach who’s really confident,” Murray said. “He really sets the standard for what we’ve got to do to get the job done. He’s just been a guy I’ve really respected in my two years here. I think the whole team really latched on to what he was saying the last couple of days at practice. He’s just really a great coach overall.”
Any win in February is important. This victory was something different.
“I’ll be honest,” Taylor said, smiling. “Any win feels good.”
A MCCAFFERY ON THE BENCH
There was a fiery McCaffery voice on the Iowa bench, and it belonged to senior guard Connor McCaffery, Fran’s son.
Connor was out after suffering a deep contusion in his shoulder in the loss to Penn State, but he was one of the more vocal voices on the bench during the game and timeouts.
“He’s a great leader,” Murray said. “He’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around as a player. I think that with Coach McCaffery gone, Connor kind of stepped into that role. I felt like it really benefited our team.”
Connor McCaffery has been a starter throughout his career, but he’s proven to be a key reserve with Iowa’s second unit in the rotation, an experienced voice among some of the younger players.
“Connor’s got such a great mind for the game,” Taylor said. “He sees one play ahead, he’s looking at matchups. He certainly has a bright future in this, if he wants. I know his mother might not like me saying that. He’s really got a great basketball IQ. Understands the game, can communicate, and doesn’t rattle.”
Photo: Iowa assistant coach Billy Taylor (left) is doused with water during the locker-room celebration after Sunday’s 71-59 win over Minnesota. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)