By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Connor McCaffery didn’t consider it a demotion.
McCaffery is in his sixth season at Iowa, but he worked in the summer and in preseason practices with a lineup that included freshman guards Dasonte Bowen, Josh Dix and Amarion Nimmers and either sophomore center Riley Mulvey or junior center Josh Ogundele.
McCaffery didn’t have a problem with that. He didn’t mind being the mentor.
It’s McCaffery’s final season, and it means a bit of a different approach.
“I think a lot about it,” he said. “This is it for me. But I need to bring somebody along who’s going to be a vocal leader. Who’s going to be the guy all the freshmen turn to when they don’t know what’s going on? … I’m, like, kind of that guy that they come and ask questions of. But I’m not going to be here next year, so what happens when that next freshman class comes in?”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, Connor’s father, appreciates what his son is doing.
“He really enjoys it,” Fran said. “In the very beginning, it was hard. But that was the challenge.”
Connor’s decision to come back for a final season granted by the NCAA during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t as easy as everyone thought, he said.
“I think everyone assumed I would be back,” he said. “I definitely mulled it over a lot more.”
Connor went back to what several people told him — if you have a chance to stay in college a little longer, take it.
Connor’s college career has been about playing two sports at Iowa — basketball and baseball. But his baseball career has ended. It’s all about basketball now, and his father can see the difference.
“He’s in more basketball shape, so that helps, especially when you’re playing more than one position,” Fran said. “But I think from strictly a basketball standpoint, he’s been way more aggressive offensively, shooting the ball really well, which is understandable. When you’re playing more, you’re more comfortable. Certainly, he’s been around, so he knows what we need. He knows what he’s capable of. He’s been playing primarily with the younger guys, so he’s been doing a really good job with the leadership aspect with them, while at the same time he feels a need to be more productive offensively, so he has been. That’s been good to see.”
“I’ve been completely focused on basketball,” said Connor, who took a while to get into a rhythm last season after coming off offseason surgeries to both hips. “I feel healthy, I’m playing well for the most part. I’m maybe in the best shape I’ve ever been.”
Connor did say he missed playing baseball.
“I played in the summer, just for fun,” he said. “It wasn’t any good, because I hadn’t played in a while.
“I miss taking (batting practice), taking hacks, throwing every day. The little things that I definitely miss out on, for sure.”
Fran has always considered Connor a voice of experience and that, he said, is important when dealing with young players
“He has the respect of the guys in the locker room. He says the right things at the right time,” Fran said. “But he just thinks about the game at a whole other level in so many different ways. Like anticipating what teams are going to do to us, especially in the league. Michigan State plays different than Indiana, plays different than Wisconsin. He knows what we’re going to see from all those different teams, from all those different coaches, and having him out there …we always talk about there’s a difference between talking and communication. So when somebody is out there on the floor, you want chirping out there. You want guys talking.
“But you’ve got to be saying the right things. It’s got to be valuable information that’s being translated from one person to another, not just making noise so it looks like you’re playing hard. That doesn’t do anybody any good. You’ve got to communicate. That’s what he does.”
“He brings leadership,” Bowen said. “He’s like another coach on the floor. Anything that’s confusing, he’s there to clarify for you.”
Connor, at 6-foot-6, can play just about any position for the Hawkeyes. He’s spent much of the offseason battling with Kris Murray at the power forward spot, and he’s taken a leadership role there, he said, by being physical with Murray.
“Get him ready for what’s coming,” Connor said. “Because I feel if I can do that, the rest of the game will be easy.”
Connor has had a plus-3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career. His role as a facilitator won’t change, but he wants to be more offensive-minded. He had 12 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting in last Monday’s 118-72 exhibition win over Truman State. He also had five rebounds and five assists.
Asked if he needed to provide more offense, Connor said, “I think I need to be, at certain times and with certain lineups. I need to be capable and ready when it’s needed. But I’ve also been in games where I don’t attempt a shot because Keegan (Murray) is getting 30 (points) or something like that. I need to find a balance. That is where I have to be most successful, finding that balance.”
Photo: Iowa’s Connor McCaffery shoots during last Monday’s exhibition game against Truman State. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)