When it comes to basketball, Connor McCaffery was a student of the game before he was even a full-time student.
By the time he had reached kindergarten in Greensboro, N.C., Connor’s obsession with basketball went beyond just playing it with his friends. He was so consumed by the game that a pattern developed.
“Connor would literally walk down the hall from his kindergarten class in the Greensboro Day School and he would call every day. He would call my office or he would call my cell and he’d say, ‘Dad, what time is practice and can I come?’ ” said Connor’s father, Fran McCaffery. “And I’d say, ‘Yeah.’
“I would send my graduate assistant to get him from school, pick him up and he would come to practice. He would watch the whole practice. He would watch film after practice. And he would sit there and watch film with the team. None of my other children were like that.”
A decade later, Connor McCaffery is still a student of the game, but on a much larger stage as the starting point guard for perennial power West High, despite being just a freshman. The Trojans will face rival City High in a Class 4A substate final tonight at Cedar Rapids Prairie with a berth to the state tournament on the line.
Fran McCaffery is now in his fourth season as the Iowa men’s basketball coach. He was the coach at North Carolina-Greensboro when Connor was in kindergarten.
Iowa has a game at Michigan State on Thursday with huge postseason ramifications, but that likely won’t prevent Fran McCaffery from watching Connor play tonight. Connor appreciates that his father has missed only two or three of his games this season despite his busy schedule.
“It means a ton,” Connor said. “I love that he comes to my games, and my mom, too. I love when both of them come to my games and see me play.
“I’ll always ride home with him in the car and talk to him about it instead of having to call him up and talk about the game.”
Fran McCaffery made a promise to himself when he became a college coach three decades ago that his family always would come first. That hasn’t changed despite the demands that come with coaching at a Big Ten school.
“So many guys in the generation before me, they didn’t go,” Fran McCaffery said. “And then all of a sudden, it’s over. I can’t believe he’s playing in high school. A minute ago, he was calling me to go to practice when he was in kindergarten.”
Connor, who towers over most other high school point guards at 6-foot-5, wasn’t born dribbling a basketball, it just seems that way.
His two younger brothers, Patrick and Jack, also enjoy playing basketball and associating with members of the Iowa basketball team. But they’re more into competing and just shooting baskets, whereas Connor enjoys studying the nuances of the game.
“He has been exposed to so much in basketball since a very young age,” Fran McCaffery said of Connor. “But a lot of times, it’s a function of what you want to be exposed to. My son Jack is in first grade. He doesn’t want to watch film with me. He doesn’t want to come to practice every day and watch film with the team. It is different.
“The other guys — and they love sports and they love to play — but with Patrick and Jack, if the team was going in to watch film, they would go shoot. They would want to go shoot every day. They would come some days. But it’s rare for a guy who’s in kindergarten to want come to practice every day.”
A youthful point guard
Connor is the second freshman to start at point guard for West in the last four seasons. Current all-state senior guard Wyatt Lohaus also earned that distinction during the 2010-11 season. Lohaus is now considered one of the top high school players in the state and has signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Northern Iowa next season.
“I feel like his position is pretty much exactly the same as mine was four years ago,” Lohaus said. “So with all of my experiences, I’m just trying to help him because I know he’s a freshman. He has a lot of stuff to learn, just like I did four years ago. I’m just trying to help him to know what to expect.”
West coach Steve Bergman said Lohaus was more reserved and unsure of himself as a freshman than Connor McCaffery.
“They’re different kids,” Bergman said. “Wyatt is a quiet kid. They both play basketball at a high level and they both grew up around the game. They probably had a ball in their hands as soon as they could toddle.
“They’re both great kids, but I think they have different personalities. Connor is real outgoing and very confident. And Wyatt, it took him a little bit of time to grow into that, where I think Connor was ready confidence wise.”
Connor leads 19-3 West with 106 assists while committing just 44 turnovers. He also is averaging 6.2 points per game.
“His assist-to-turnover numbers are phenomenal for a senior, much less a freshman,” Bergman said.
Setting up the veterans
Lohaus knew right away that Connor was a gifted passer and floor general.
“I was more of a distributor during my freshman year, and he does that really well,” Lohaus said. “I think he does that better than I did. I think he’s a student of the game also. He’s always trying to get better. And that’s something I tried to do when I was a freshman.”
Connor expects his role as a facilitator to change as he gets older. But for now, he’s content with being more of a set-up guy for his older teammates. Connor’s father also was a standout point guard in high school and college, earning the nickname “White Magic” for his passing ability.
“I think I’ll be able to shoot more and more as I get older,” Connor said. “This is my role on this team right now as the point guard, throw the ball ahead on the break and just set up guys for open shots.”
Connor has plenty of scoring options at his disposal. Lohaus is averaging 19.8 points per game, while 6-5 junior forward David Dileo and 6-6 senior center Chike Ukah are averaging 12.7 and 9.1 points per game, respectively.
“I like to give David the ball,” Connor said. “He makes a lot of shots. Wyatt makes a lot of shots. I get a lot of assists. They really help me out.”
Fran McCaffery said the circumstances at West were ideal for Connor to step in as a pass-first point guard.
“He sees it and he’s unselfish,” Fran McCaffery said. “And he’s got some guys to throw it to. With Wyatt, David, and Chike, he’s got some guys that can score. It’s been good for him.”
Making a commitment
Fran McCaffery also likes that Connor plays for one of the most successful programs in the state and for a coach who demands a lot from his players. West has won four state titles under Bergman, including the last two in a row. The Trojans had won 60 games in a row before losing at Dubuque Senior in January.
“It’s a different level of competition and he chose to go to a place that has a level of expectation of being a legitimate contender for the state championship,” Fran McCaffery said.
Connor was reminded about the difference in late November when he couldn’t attend the Iowa basketball team’s three-game trip to the Bahamas over the Thanksgiving holiday. Connor was used to traveling with his father’s teams on holiday trips to popular vacation spots, but that was before he entered high school.
Bergman expects all his players to attend every practice and he didn’t make an exception with Connor. Fran and his wife, Margaret, arranged for an adult to stay with Connor while they were in the Bahamas. Connor also ate Thanksgiving dinner with David DiLeo’s family.
“You’ve got to grow up,” Fran McCaffery said.
Connor said he enjoys playing for Bergman because he challenges him every day to work hard and to play the game the right way.
“Coach is really cool,” Connor said. “I like playing for him. He’s demanding, yes, but that’s why we’re good.”
Connor’s knowledge of basketball has helped him adjust to high school. It was the same way for Lohaus as a freshman.
“The hard part has to do with their game and jumping from eighth-grade basketball and AAU basketball, which is more advanced, but it’s still not varsity basketball,” Bergman said. “So it’s just a matter of getting in and learning. And those two kids, what they have in common is an extremely high basketball IQ and they’ve been around the game a lot.”
Connor credits his older teammates for embracing him and for helping him make the transition to high school basketball. It also helped that Connor already knew most of his teammates just from being around West High.
“It made me feel a lot more comfortable, especially when we started playing,” Connor said. “The first game I was pretty nervous, but I knew a lot of them from before from coming around here and playing with them. But they really welcomed me to the team and that made me feel a lot more comfortable.”
Still a freshman
What’s happening with the Iowa men’s basketball team is always a hot topic with Connor and his teammates at West, although, they’re more sensitive to Connor’s feelings after a loss.
“If we lose a tough game, the guys are pretty cool about it,” Connor said. “They don’t really come up to me and talk about it because I’m usually pretty down after a loss, especially after a tough loss. The guys don’t really come up and talk about it unless I say something about it.”
As much as he loves basketball, Connor also has a passion for baseball, where he excels as a hitter and a left-handed pitcher.
“Right now, it’s whatever I’m in season with I usually focus on a little bit more,” Connor said. “But once baseball season starts, I’ll like that more, too.”
Connor’s teammates often have to remind themselves that he is just a freshman.
“He’s huge,” Ukah said. “I always catch myself saying it’s crazy thinking this kid in three more years is still going to be here. It’s crazy thinking how young he is.”