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Iowa fighting for berth; Alford fighting for much more

3/14/2005 - Iowa Hawkeyes

CHICAGO -- With 30 seconds left in Iowa's 71-52 victory over Purdue Thursday, a Hawkeyes assistant coach sent a breaking bubble bulletin down the bench:

Clemson had beaten Maryland in the ACC tournament.

"I got kind of excited," Iowa guard Jeff Horner said.

When you're the Hawkeyes, you watch your scoreboard and everyone else's, too. You tune into the Big East tournament Wednesday night to watch Notre Dame fold against Rutgers, and you gain a little hope. You hear that the Terrapins somehow have pulled the choke-ola trifecta against Clemson, and you can hardly believe your good fortune.

You know you must help yourself to make the NCAA Tournament, and that it's probably not a done deal yet. But you're also keeping your eyes open for a little help from your friends.

"You watch that kind of stuff and hope that you get in, but you don't know if it's going to be true," Horner said. "The only thing that will be true is what happens on Selection Sunday."

What happens with Iowa on Selection Sunday could be the most fascinating story of the day.

Start with the fact that the NCAA selection committee is chaired by Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby. He'll have to leave the room when the Hawkeyes are discussed, but the rest of the bubble brethren will be hoping this doesn't turn into New Mexico Revisited. In 1999, with New Mexico AD Rudy Davalos in his final year on the committee, the Lobos miraculously came in the back door with an RPI in the mid-70s.

Whether Iowa is in or out, Bowlsby will be asked about it.

Now consider the team's resume. After ending Gene Keady's great run at Purdue, the Hawkeyes have 20 wins. That includes victories over likely Tournament teams Louisville, Texas, Texas Tech and Minnesota, and over bubble teams Northern Iowa, Iowa State and Indiana. A good body of work, to use the committee's term.

"We haven't been talked about enough, in my opinion [as a potential Tournament team]," Alford said. "We did the things we were supposed to do from a scheduling standpoint. We're at 20 wins right now. We just need to keep doing the things we've been doing all year."

But here comes the great complicating factor: None of those quality victories has happened since Steve Alford suspended and ultimately dismissed Pierre Pierce, the troubled star who might ultimately be the coach's undoing in Iowa City.

Without Pierce, Iowa is 5-5. The positive side of that is the Hawkeyes' current four-game winning streak. The negative side of that is the fact that those four victories have been over teams with cumulative Big Ten records of 16-48. And that one of the losses without Pierce was to this train wreck of a Purdue team.

In other words: Iowa has staved off collapse without Pierce, but hasn't yet demonstrated that it can play NCAA Tournament-level ball without him. The Hawkeyes will get their chance to prove that Friday when they play No. 10 Michigan State in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

An NCAA bid could be on the line. So could Alford's job.

Bowlsby hasn't said what he'll do with his sixth-year coach. In an interesting twist, Alford arrived in Iowa City the same year as football coach Kirk Ferentz. Alford was hailed as the golden-boy hero who would elevate the Hawkeyes to new heights; Ferentz was viewed skeptically because he didn't have the name appeal of Iowa alum Bob Stoops.

Today, Ferentz is the state hero and Alford is twisting on the griddle. He has a roster full of players who will be back next year -- but will he be back to coach them?

Alford has experienced his first significant setbacks as a college coach or player, making just one NCAA Tournament and finishing with a losing Big Ten record for the fifth time. And then there is the Pierce debacle.

Alford stood by Pierce three years ago, when he was charged with sexual assault. He kept Pierce in the program but sat him out for a year, and defended him publicly on several occasions.

Alford survived a series of protests over that, and Pierce seemingly put the controversy behind with an incident-free 2003-04 season. Then he was arrested again this year, again for alleged violence toward a female.

Pierce was charged with sexual assault and burglary after allegedly attacking a former girlfriend in late January. This week he entered not-guilty pleas to a number of serious charges, but Alford was in no position to wait on jurisprudence; he dismissed Pierce from the team in early February.

Since then, criticism of Alford has mounted, and the losses scuttled a 15-5 start. For a guy who never took a wrong step, as a star player at Indiana and a young coach at Division III Manchester and then Southwest Missouri State, it's been a humbling six weeks.

"I've always been somebody who controls what he can control," Alford said. "I can control this locker room, not what's outside it. The past two years we've had a whole lot of bad luck, tough luck, things outside of a coach's control.

"All season, we've been prepared. There's been some things I wish we could've done differently, but the kids have really worked, really battled.

"That's why I'm in the profession. Those other things, I don't have much control over, so I don't worry about them."

For a guy who says he isn't worried about his job, Alford is ready to promote his successes.

"We've had five straight winning seasons for only the third time in the history of Iowa," Alford said.

He needs to bone up on the history of Iowa. In fact, there have been five previous streaks of at least five straight winning seasons: from 1943-48; a seven-season run from 1949-56; 1978-83; 1984-89; and 1994-99 -- the season before Alford arrived and promptly broke the streak with a 14-16 record.

Alford is ninth in Iowa history in winning percentage at .571. He trails, among others, his three immediate predecessors: Tom Davis (.658), Lute Olson (.651) and George Raveling (.587). So it would be hard to argue that he inherited a program unaccustomed to winning.

The best argument Alford can present -- on his behalf as the Iowa coach, and on his team's behalf as an NCAA entrant -- will be on the United Center floor Friday. With a win, they might be in. And then the Hawkeyes don't have to be watching everyone else's scoreboards as closely.