IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa had hit a historical low point. Athletics Director Gary Barta fired Coach Todd Lickliter in March of 2010 after three lackluster seasons. Fewer and fewer fans were showing up for games.
The Hawkeye program had nowhere to go but up in the Big Ten. A conference doormat, Barta searched for the right coach to return a once-proud team to national spotlight.
Barta settled on Siena's Fran McCaffery, an accomplished coach known in coaching circles but lacking a big national reputation to excite fans or recruits. Viewed as the rebuilder of programs, the Philadelphia native had his work cut out for him.
McCaffery's first order of business was to re-recruit the four players signed to national letters of intent by the previous staff. The coach boarded planes and met with Roy Devyn Marble, Ben Brust, Cody Larson and Zach McCabe to sell them on his Iowa vision and gauge his chances of keeping them.
"It was evident early that Cody Larson and Ben Brust weren't going to come," McCaffery recalled this week. "It was going to be a struggle and it wasn't going to happen."
"It was obvious that Zach was going to come, so he came," McCaffery said.
Marble was unsure. The son of Iowa's all-time leading scorer, Roy Marble, he agreed to stick with his Hawkeye commitment when McCaffery visited him at his Michigan home. Then he wavered.
"I'm very respectful of the importance of that decision in his life, and I wanted to make sure he gets it right," McCaffery said. "He had just met me and Coach (Andrew) Francis. He was getting comfortable with the two of us, and the recruiting process typically goes a lot longer. He didn't have that luxury at that time."
It was April. Marble would be heading off to college in two short months. McCaffery and Francis returned to Michigan.
"We had to go back up there and make sure that he knew and understood just how important we thought he was; what we were going to try to accomplish; our vision; what my vision was for him," McCaffery said. "I think he was intrigued by a number of things. He knew, No. 1, our style of play was going to be perfectly suited for him. He knew he was going to have an opportunity to play right away. Those two things were important for him."
Marble re-committed to Iowa. He and McCabe provided McCaffery with two key pieces for his rebuilding project. The coach had another one in mind.
Melsahn Basabe played for loaded AAU and high school programs with the New York Gauchos and St. Mark's School of Southborough, MA, respectively. Flying under the recruiting radar, the forward from Glen Cove, NY was committed to Siena.
McCaffery asked Basabe to join him at Iowa. He did.
"Basabe, there was no doubt in my mind he was going to be a thousand-point scorer and get us a ton of rebounds and be a great player for us," McCaffery said. "I knew him. I knew his character."
It was settled. McCabe, Marble and Basabe would comprise McCaffery's first recruiting class at Iowa.
"Melsahn, he came here to play for me, plain and simple," McCaffery said. "That is an unbelievable feeling as a coach. As far as Dev and Zach, it wasn't fashionable to come here then. It just wasn't. They didn't know me. Their careers were in the balance. It was in many ways a leap of faith."
The trio's time at Iowa is coming to a close. Seniors now, they wrap up their final regular season at Michigan State Thursday before Senior Night inside what should be a raucous, emotion-filled Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday against rival Illinois.
"Obviously I can feel it winding down," McCabe said. "Senior Day is coming up. I didn't really look forward to that because I knew it would be over. But it will be fun. I've had a lot of great memories here. It will be an exciting time."
The seniors will leave Iowa in a lot better shape than it was in when they arrived. The Hawkeyes sit at 20-9 (9-7 Big Ten) and on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the '05-06 season.
Marble, McCabe and Basabe have accomplished what they set out to do when they put their careers in McCaffery's hands four years ago, sight unseen. The Hawkeyes have positioned themselves to be the No. 4 seed, getting a first-round bye, in next week's Big Ten Tournament. They were No. 10 and 4-14 as freshmen.
"I take a lot pride in it," Marble said. "Whenever you're a part of something, you want it to be as special and successful as possible. I think I've done a good job of trying to make the most of it and the best of this opportunity."
Marble finds himself in the discussion for Big Ten Player of the Year. He's seventh on the school's all-time scoring list after scoring 20 or more points in five of the team's last six games.
Basabe eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring mark McCaffery predicted earlier this season. A member of the league's all-freshmen team in '11, Basabe experienced highs and lows during his college career. He's played consistently well as a senior, providing a stabilizing presence on the inside and doing whatever the team needs in a given game to help it win.
"I've been taking pride this whole year in trying to be a winning player, whether I'm scoring, rebounding, defense, whatever it takes," Basabe said. "I think the whole team has. We built something special and realize how talented each other are. We owe to each other the success that has come; the coaching staff, too. I never doubted it. That's why I came here."
The story still needs an ending. The No. 24 Hawkeyes boast the depth and talent to go deep in March.
"We're going to try to make it as many games as we can," McCabe said. "It's our mindset for the Big ten and NCAA Tournaments to get a run going."
No matter how it ends up, McCabe, Marble and Basabe have positively impacted and helped revive a program. For that, McCaffery believes his connection with the trio stretches beyond the basketball court.
"I think any time a coach takes over, and a player recommits to you and gives you a chance, you're always going to have an incredible bond for the rest of our lives," he said.