Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Indianapolis. Northwestern won 67-62. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The highlight of coach Fran McCaffery's career at Iowa so far coincides with a serious family health issue.
The Hawkeyes play their first NCAA tournament game in eight years tonight against Tennessee in Dayton, Ohio. While fans spend the morning getting ready, McCaffery will be in an Iowa City hospital praying for his 13-year-old son, Patrick.
The younger McCaffery will have surgery to remove a thyroid tumor, just hours before Iowa (20-12) and fellow No. 11 seed Tennessee (21-12) tip off for the right to play UMass on Friday.
McCaffery planned to fly to Dayton with his team on Monday, return to Iowa City for Patrick's surgery and then get back to Ohio in time to coach against the Volunteers.
"My hope is...if I can, fly back for the surgery and then fly back for the game if I can work that out," McCaffery said Sunday. "We'll see, logistically, if we can pull all that together."
The overriding concern for Patrick -- combined with losses in six of its last seven games and an unceremonious spot in the First Four -- have threatened to take some of the joy out of Iowa's return to the NCAA tournament. It's still a huge deal for McCaffery and the Hawkeyes, though.
It's easy to forget just how far Iowa has come in the last four years.
The Hawkeyes were largely in shambles following the three-year tenure of Todd Lickliter, who was fired after averaging just five Big Ten wins a year and going 10-22 in 2009-10.
Iowa hired McCaffery away from Siena after he led that team to three straight NCAA tournaments. McCaffery immediately injected some energy into a program that had gone stale, and his up-tempo style was a hit with fans used to the run-and-gun days of former coach Tom Davis.
McCaffery also remade a roster previously decimated by turnover, with Devyn Marble and Aaron White the cornerstones of his rebuilding effort.
Iowa began to show signs of progress in 2011-12, McCaffery's second season, by winning 18 games and reaching the NIT. The Hawkeyes took it a step further last season, as Marble and White led them to 25 wins and the NIT title game.
The Hawkeyes ultimately lived up to their preseason expectation of making the NCAA tournament this season -- even if they backed into their bid.
Iowa earned a spot in the Top 25 in December with strong non-conference play, and then came a win at then-No. 3 Ohio State in January. Close home losses to Michigan State, the Buckeyes and Wisconsin dampened expectations.
Still, the season that began 19-6 proved to be good enough.
"These guys have worked so hard since they've got here, especially the seniors," White said. "From where we've come to where we are. I know people are frustrated with maybe how the season ended. But at least we're in."
It's been a trying few weeks for McCaffery, who won't know if Patrick's tumor was benign or malignant until further tests are conducted. McCaffery has acknowledged being overcome with emotion more than once, including when the Hawkeyes told him they planned to support Patrick with T-shirts emblazoned with "P-Mac."
If the Hawkeyes can rediscover the defensive intensity they've lacked in recent weeks, McCaffery has a chance to finish a rough few weeks on a high note.
"We're thrilled. It's been a long journey to get this team to continue to improve. Our fan base has been phenomenal in supporting us every step of the way," McCaffery said. "Last year we were sitting right on the bubble and a little disappointed. And now we're in. It's a great accomplishment."