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IOWA CITY — One could make a strong case that Fran McCaffery's biggest win at Iowa took place over the phone in 2011 rather than on the basketball court last March.
McCaffery spent more than a year recruiting guard Mike Gesell and center Adam Woodbury. McCaffery was at every single one of the four-star duo's AAU games for two years. Finally, McCaffery's diligence paid off when they committed within one month of each other in 2011.
Four years later, Woodbury and Gesell are seniors together with the Hawkeyes. They've combined to start 201 games. Before they arrived, Iowa squeaked into the NIT and finished 18-17. Since their arrival, Iowa has posted a 67-38 record with two NCAA appearances, including last year's 22-12 performance.
The program's perception changed when both arrived on campus. As the record suggests, Iowa has shifted from Big Ten afterthought to contender both on the court and the recruiting trail. Nobody would suggest either one was the catalyst for Iowa's success. There were other players — all-Big Ten stars Devyn Marble and Aaron White among them — who were instrumental in the team's success. But McCaffery concedes, 'I do think that we felt like that was a major step' when he landed Gesell and Woodbury. They immediately became starters.
'They had been previously winning players,' McCaffery said. 'So we had every expectation that we would win with those guys in the starting lineup. We won 67 games in three years with those guys in the starting lineup. So that was not a major surprise. It wasn't only because of them. They had a lot of help. A couple of draft picks in there and so forth.
'But they understood and could fill the roles that we defined for them. They competed, they prepared, they worked in the summertime, they worked hard to get better. So now what you're expecting is them to have the kind of senior year that we all hope that the great ones have, and that is to play the best that they possibly can.'
Gesell and Woodbury grew up in the Sioux City area; Gesell was raised in Nebraska and Woodbury in Iowa. They both competed together on the same AAU squad at a young age and traveled the country with the All-Iowa Attack. McCaffery's relentless pursuit won them over. Gesell was the first to commit in August 2011, and Woodbury picked Iowa in September.
'It's crazy, it seems like yesterday we were talking on a bus in an AAU trip deciding to come together,' Gesell said. 'Now we're seniors ready to make some noise in our last year. We've pushed each other each and every step of the way and it's been fun.'
They've dealt with lows along with the highs together. Woodbury averaged career highs with 6.6 points and 5.2 rebounds last year. Gesell put up 7.4 points and 4.0 assists. Both are solid numbers but expectations were so high for both that anything short of all-Big Ten status was a letdown.
But more than numbers, they want to be known for is winning. That's their legacy. They get one more chance to enhance it, and they're confident they can.
'We've won a lot of games in my career here,' Woodbury said. 'We still have a year left to win a lot more. I think it's all about winning.'
'It's the last go-round. We don't get another shot after this,' Gesell said. 'We're just looking to make the best of it. You don't do that by looking at the season as whole; you do that by getting better each and every day. We have tons of experience, we've played in big games, we know what it's like to play on the road, we've got all the makings of being a great team. It's just putting it all together. Just playing confident and playing to our potential.'
Iowa has taken another step each year in its tenure. As freshmen, they advanced to the NIT title game. As sophomores, they played in the NCAA's first round. Last year, Iowa won an NCAA game. To take the next step requires urgency, and Woodbury knows it.
'I think if you don't play every game with some urgency, you shouldn't be playing,' he said. 'Last year we were playing for the seniors that were with us. The year before we were playing for Dev and those guys. So we're always playing for the seniors. Every time we step on the court there's a level of urgency to win the game, and so I think this year won't be any different. Hopefully, subconsciously, I hope. We'll see what the future holds.'
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