Men’s hoops not stepping down from a fight

The Iowa men’s basketball team is playing with a certain toughness this season, and that comes straight from the top.

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Men’s hoops not stepping down from a fight

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call made during a men’s basketball game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 72-65.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call made during a men’s basketball game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 72-65.

Nichole Harris

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call made during a men’s basketball game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 72-65.

Nichole Harris

Nichole Harris

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call made during a men’s basketball game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 72-65.

Robert Read, Sports Editor

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A team often takes on the identity of its head coach. That’s the case for the Iowa men’s basketball team this season.

The Hawkeyes have a toughness, a competitive edge that past teams under head coach Fran McCaffery have lacked. That’s been very evident this season, especially in conference play.

“Fran’s done an unbelievable job of resurrecting this team,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “He’s not getting enough credit nationally, with all the guys leaving. This is a better basketball team than they were a year ago. They’re tougher.”

Iowa came back from down double-digits to beat Wisconsin at home on Jan. 27. The Hawkeyes have pulled out close wins against ranked teams on three separate occasions of late.

That’s not something the Hawkeyes have always done under Fran McCaffery. There’s no quit in this year’s team.

“Fran’s a tough son of a gun,” Underwood said. “It’s a mindset. He’s got his kids believing, and that’s 99 percent of the battle today in college. Coaching is getting your team to believe in you and take on your characteristics. He should be really proud.”

Center Luka Garza has blown kisses to the crowd and pounded his chest throughout this season — just as guards CJ Fredrick and Connor McCaffery have not been shy with their trash talk.

It’s the type of behavior that makes the home crowds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena stand up and cheer, or the opposing fans yell with full force in disgust at the Hawkeyes.

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What’s important is that the way Iowa plays on the court backs up those antics. Not all players can.

“I think you can help that a little bit, but that’s either in you or it’s not,” Fran McCaffery said. “There’s the physical side of the game and the stamina required to play the game. It’s up and down, it’s intense. At the same time, you have to process a scouting report; it’s very intricate.

“Being able to execute the offense and whatever your job description is. You can get sideways when a game gets a little sticky and make mistakes. You’ve got to be able to execute under pressure, under duress.”

In Iowa’s victories against Wisconsin and Illinois, words have been exchanged frequently during the game and even after the final buzzer sounded.

Connor McCaffery was front and center for both situations.

“Everybody talks, that’s how you play,” Connor McCaffery said. “We’re talking, they’re talking. We’re playing with that competitive edge, and that’s why we are where we are.”

Playing in the Big Ten requires a competitive edge. The Hawkeyes continue to show that they have that.

This year’s Iowa team is not one that’s going to be intimidated by adversity. The Hawkeyes won’t be stepping away from any fights, either.

“We have a tough mentality,” Connor McCaffery said. “We all do. You want to say, ‘Hey, why are they talking, why are they trying to start something,” that’s not what it’s all about. We’re not taking anything. We’re right here, we’re going to stand our ground. CJ [Fredrick], Luka Garza, everybody is the ultimate competitor. We’re all really competitive, and that’s what it comes down to. Us being as competitive as we are, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s why we win.”

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