By John Bohnenkamp
There was no hesitation.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery turned to his bench with 11:48 left in the first half of Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament championship game against Purdue and signaled to center Josh Ogundele to get into the game.
Filip Rebraca, the starting post player for the Hawkeyes, had come out of the game five minutes earlier with one foul and had been struggling with Purdue’s inside presence. Kris Murray, Rebraca’s substitute, had just picked up his second foul.
With Purdue centers Zach Edey and Trevion Williams having their way inside, McCaffery went to Ogundele, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound sophomore who, to that point, had played just 10 minutes the entire tournament, and all of those came in Iowa’s 36-point win over Northwestern in the second round.
Twenty-four seconds after his arrival, Ogundele bottled up Edey inside, forcing a three-second call. Twenty-eight seconds after that, Ogundele scored his first points on a layup. A minute later, Ogundele played a role in another turnover, containing Edey so Joe Toussaint could sneak in and get a steal.
The decision to get Ogundele into the game was out of necessity, but it was also because of the trust McCaffery has in his entire roster. And the way he used all of those pieces helped the Hawkeyes win their conference tournament title since 2006.
The 75-66 win over the Boilermakers was the latest part of McCaffery’s masterpiece, a season in which the Hawkeyes went from questions to answers, becoming one of the hottest teams in college basketball heading into the NCAA tournament.
Iowa, the fifth seed in the Midwest Regional, has won 12 of its last 14 games, having roared through the conference tournament in Indianapolis, four wins in four days, with little time to rest and prepare.
That’s why it was important that the Hawkeyes were a deep team, but how McCaffery used that depth was just as important. McCaffery used 12 players in the first half of Sunday’s game, every you’re-in point coming just at the right time.
“We have so many guys that are able to step up in big moments,” sixth-year guard Jordan Bohannon said. “Coach calls a lot of guys off the bench and they’re ready for their number to be called. I think that’s what makes our team special because we have a lot of guys that can step up.”
“The moves that he’s made, the buttons he’s pushed this year, it’s been cool,” said McCaffery’s son Patrick, a starting forward. “There’s nobody else I would rather play for, and everybody else in the locker room would say the same thing. He gives us so much confidence. I think he’s very underrated, criminally underrated, on the national scene, the way he’s looked at.”
The know-your-role culture that Fran McCaffery has developed has been accepted by this team. Putting in a player like Ogundele, who has played just 97 minutes all season, or center Riley Mulvey, who came in after Ogundele and gave the Hawkeyes three minutes later in the first half despite playing just 77 minutes all season, requires a certain level of trust.
“I think my main responsibility as their coach is to develop each individual and get them to the point where they can play with supreme confidence,” McCaffery said. “Understand and know your role. What are you coming in to do? Josh knew he was coming in to play two of the best post players in the country and he knew he was going to have to move his feet. He knew he was going to have to be physical. He makes two huge buckets for us and he played with ultimate energy and was one of the main reasons we won the game.
“I think it’s an expectation we have when we go to our bench. They read the scouting report, they go through the scouting report. Sometimes they’re on the scout team, we’ll ask them questions in preparation — how are we guarding this play, how are we guarding this action if they do this, what are we working on on offense? Make sure they understand the game plan so when they go in they’re not confused, they’re not tentative, they’re coming in to impact the game. Clearly they did.”
It was that trust that caused McCaffery to make a lineup switch in early February, taking Joe Toussaint out of the starting lineup, bringing in Tony Perkins, and shifting Bohannon to the point guard spot. Not coincidentally, that’s when the 12-2 run began.
“Clearly that was … that was important,” McCaffery said. “It worked, it really established Tony, put the ball back in J-Bo’s hands and Joe Toussaint was great coming off the bench, so everybody accepted their role.”
McCaffery never wavered in his confidence with Bohannon earlier when the player who has made so many big shots in his career — he’s the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-pointers — was struggling with his shots.
McCaffery played Bohannon like a baseball manager using a hitter with the thought that he’ll run into a fastball at the right time and pound it out of the ballpark. Bohannon had made just 15 3-pointers in a 10-game stretch from late December to early February, then, still in the starting lineup, made 10 in a road win at Maryland.
And it was Bohannon who had the biggest shot of this tournament, banking in a 3-pointer with one second left in the semifinal win over Indiana.
McCaffery showed his confidence all weekend in Indy, seemingly secure in the knowledge that he had a team poised to be around for a while in March.
“He’s usually pretty even-keel,” said McCaffery’s son Connor, a fifth-year guard, after the quarterfinal win over Rutgers. “You don’t see much out of him. He always says never get too high, never get too low. I would say his demeanor on this stretch that we’ve had, of however many games we’ve won, his demeanor has not changed. He’s pretty level-headed. I think that’s a strength of his.”
The demeanor cracked after the championship game, when Fran McCaffery broke down in tears hugging his wife and kids in the post-game celebration.
“It’s been a long journey with them, going to tournaments and traveling with the team and then participating for the team,” McCaffery said. “But to celebrate at this level together on this stage, it’s really difficult to describe how awesome it was and how emotional it was.”
No explanation was necessary. With 26 wins so far and a Big Ten tournament championship, this season, the 12th for McCaffery at Iowa, has been his finest work.
Photo: Iowa’s men’s basketball team celebrates after winning the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)