When Iowa reached the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament in April, Andrew Francis knew the exposure could only benefit the Hawkeyes basketball program.
In the weeks since, the Iowa assistant coach has gained an appreciation for just how much playing in Madison Square Garden as the culmination of a 25-win season can mean.
“When you go out and talk with young people now, people know our program and are intrigued,’’ Francis said prior to an appearance at the recent Scott County I-Club banquet. “There’s an awareness out there that good things are going on with Iowa basketball. The young people, they want to know more about what we’re all about.’’
Francis is more than happy to oblige.
Tangible signs of growth such as reaching the finals of the NIT and winning more games than all but two other teams in Iowa history have provided Francis and other members of the Hawkeyes staff with more to sell than hope and ideas when they speak with recruits.
“Coach (Fran) McCaffery came here with a very specific plan,’’ Francis said. “We’ve always been able to talk about that. But now, people are having a chance to see that plan in action.’’
Francis can point to significant victories and the season-by-season growth the Hawkeyes have had during McCaffery’s first three seasons.
He can also point to increased national exposure.
“When we call someone now, they know who we are and most of those players have seen us play,’’ Francis said. “They’ll say, ‘I saw how you played against Maryland’ or ‘I watched you play at Virginia and I like the style of game you play’ and that tells you there is a bit of buzz out there that probably didn’t exist in the past.’’
Francis said recruits also commented about the sellout crowds Iowa played in front of during its home games in the NIT and how those compared to empty seats elsewhere.
“That left a great impression with those players. One of the welcomed byproducts of playing in the NIT is that those games were pretty much the only games that were being played and televised at that time,’’ Francis said.
“Young players typically are watching whatever game is on and this year, at times that game was an Iowa game. While the goal will always be to get to the NCAA Tournament, the experience we received this year in the NIT was invaluable.’’
He said that level of exposure is opening doors.
Francis said Iowa has been able to talk with “a different caliber’’ of player than it had been able to in the past.
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“We’re becoming part of the discussion with players that we may not have been able to talk with in past seasons. That’s a step forward and it’s an important step,’’ Francis said. “Coach McCaffery always talks about building a program, not just a team, and with growth comes the opportunity to build at a higher level. We’re seeing that growth.’’
That growth helps Francis and the rest of the Iowa staff as they work to fill Iowa’s future recruiting needs.
The Hawkeyes have one open scholarship for the 2013-14 season following freshman guard Patrick Ingram’s decision last month to leave the program and seek opportunities closer to home.
McCaffery has indicated Iowa could fill that spot now, perhaps with a transfer, but only with a player who would complement the large number of returning players the Hawkeyes have.
He also said it is possible the vacant scholarship could be used as part of 2014 recruiting class which would then number four. Iowa will remain a fairly young team next season with just three seniors on its roster — Melsahn Basabe, Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe.
There are another three players in Iowa’s junior class next season — Josh Oglesby, Gabe Olaseni and Aaron White.
“Those guys have all helped us move the program forward and their continued growth and the success we have as a team, that only leads to more exposure and more familiarity with young players,’’ Francis said. “Iowa basketball is back on the radar screen again. Keeping it there is part of the responsibility all of us in the program share.’’