Chemistry, experience have Iowa feeling good
For a moment, we're going to take the name of the school out of the equation and simply lay out some facts about this Big Ten team:
• This team returns five starters from last season. And those five players averaged a combined 52.6 points per game a year ago. All told, this team returns 84.6 percent of its scoring and 90.9 percent of its rebounding.
• This team won its final three regular-season games and then won two games in the Big Ten Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
• This team has three senior starters and four seniors in its top six or seven players.
In most cases, that would be enough of a reason for this team to enter the season with extremely high expectations. There would be talk of a conference title, a top-10 national ranking and a deep NCAA tournament run.
But when it comes to the Iowa Hawkeyes, the preseason buzz isn't quite there yet. When the Big Ten announced its preseason top three teams at last weekend's media day, Steve Alford's Hawkeyes were nowhere to be found as Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois received the most votes. In the first ESPN/USA Today Top 25 of the season, Iowa can be found at No. 20 -- not bad, but not exactly elite either.
Why the lack of love? Let's call it a wait-and-see attitude. It has a little bit to do with that whole saying of "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," because for much of Alford's tenure at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have started fast and then faded into mediocrity.
Sometimes the slide has been the result of injury. One season was a bad chemistry experiment. The legal woes of former Hawkeye and current registered sex offender Pierre Pierce haven't helped either. Whatever the reason, the dead of winter in Eastern Iowa has been largely about drama in one form or another.
• In 2000-01, the Hawkeyes went 11-2 in the nonconference season, but then lost seven of their final eight games in the Big Ten regular season. That Iowa team, however, won four games in four days at the Big Ten Tournament in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
• In 2001-02, Iowa again went 11-2 in the nonconference season and, again, things went south. Chemistry was the issue as Reggie Evans and Luke Recker failed to live up to expectations. The Hawkeyes went only 5-11 in league play, losing 6 of 7 to end the regular season in the process.
• In 2002-03, Iowa finished the regular season by losing 6 of 9 games and 9 of 13.
Last season, the Hawkeyes had victories over Louisville and Texas in the Maui Invitational before losing the title game to eventual national champion North Carolina. The result was a Top 25 ranking and optimism entering the Big Ten season. But Iowa was derailed midway through the league season when Pierce was dismissed from the team after he was accused of assaulting a woman. Immediately after Pierce's departure, the Hawkeyes lost 5 of 6 games. The difference was that they then won their final three regular-season games (at Penn State, vs. Ohio State, at Michigan), and snuck into the NCAAs after winning a pair of games (over Purdue and eventual Final Four participant Michigan State) at the Big Ten Tournament. Three of those five wins were by two points each.
Because of Iowa's inconsistency, Alford's record since entering the Big Ten is filled with contradictions. The Hawkeyes have five consecutive winning seasons -- the second-longest streak in school history -- but they have finished above .500 only once in six seasons in Big Ten play under Alford. In a combined 25 seasons at Iowa, Lute Olson, George Raveling and Tom Davis combined for five losing seasons in Big Ten play; Alford already has four in six seasons.
While Iowa has reached the NCAA Tournament twice under Alford, the Hawkeyes have only one top-five finish in league play and zero top-three finishes. While Alford has won 57 percent of his games at Iowa, his league winning percentage is only .427. The month of February -- when many teams traditionally either play their way in or out of the NCAA Tournament -- has been especially difficult for Alford (15-27 overall).
"I don't know that it's been up and down. I think we've been able to progress in the last few years," Alford said. "We've had a chance; last year ranked [in the] Top 25 for nine straight weeks, we were 12-1, we were 15-4. We've had that opportunity to really take it to being an exceptional year, but there have been things that have kind of hit us that have been out of our control -- the situation with Pierre was totally out of our hands. There's been some things that have kind of come from left field that you've got to deal with.
"Have we moved forward as fast as we'd have liked to? No. But we've moved forward and we've done it in adverse situations."
There are signs, however, that this team might be different. The biggest of which was how the Hawkeyes fought back when things went bad last season.
When Pierce was dismissed, the Hawkeyes immediately slumped.
"Playing Michigan State and Wisconsin after you lose your best player isn't going to be a very fun time," guard Jeff Horner said.
However, Iowa soon seemed to figure things out. Instead of hanging their heads and resigning themselves to the NIT, the Hawkeyes adjusted to life without Pierce and started winning.
Adam Haluska, who started his college career at Iowa State, made the biggest strides after Pierce left. While he averaged 14.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game for the season, he averaged 16.8 points and 4.7 rebounds after Pierce's departure. He also was more assertive and looked much more comfortable in the Iowa offense at the end of the season.
"Adam did a good job," said hard-nosed forward Greg Brunner. "He was on a hot streak and when you're on a hot streak, shooting the ball well, you've just got to put it up. That's what he did and he made a lot of shots."
That Iowa rallied was significant, especially for the senior class of Horner, Brunner, Erek Hansen and Doug Thomas. Now they won't enter their final season with the burden of never having played in the NCAA Tournament.
"Last year was probably our finest year," Horner said. "We've been through a lot of stuff. Making the NCAA Tournament was a pretty big step for us. Hopefully this year, everything stays away."
And Alford hopes last season was also a lesson and an inspiration.
"The experience they got in the last month of the season, it turned the light on that there's another level out there that they haven't reached," Alford said.
"Last year it was the enthusiasm in the locker room of a team being selected. Now I think the next step is to watch that show and not be the enthusiasm of being selected, it's the enthusiasm of what seed you are. Last year, no one in that locker room was concerned with seed -- and really, to advance in the NCAA Tournament, you have to have a good seed. When we won it [at Indiana] in 1987, we were a No. 1 seed and we played two games in Indianapolis and two games in Cincinnati -- both less than an hour and a half from our campus. Seeding has everything to do with it. Now the next step is can we work the whole year and try to get a seed where we have an opportunity to advance."
With significant experience returning, the Hawkeyes are optimistic that this season will be even better.
"I think with the team we have, we have to maintain the energy and the enthusiasm we had at the end of the year," Brunner said. "If we can do that for the entire year, we'll have a great record. We play extremely hard, we're going to get out and get into you on the defensive end. We're going to rebound and push the ball.
"It's one of those situations of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
The Hawkeyes do have reasons for optimism. In Horner, Haluska and Mike Henderson, Iowa has one of the better backcourts in the Big Ten. Brunner repeatedly plays bigger than his height of 6-foot-7 and 6-11 center Hansen has shown signs of improvement. The Hawkeyes aren't going to win by pounding the ball inside, but Iowa does spread the floor and shoots the ball well from behind the 3-point line.
This team also appears to be more mature than recent groups of Hawkeyes. And that's a good thing for a coach who would like this season's headlines to be about basketball and little else. Asked if the Hawkeyes are due for a drama-free season, Alford responded with a laugh.
"I hope," Alford said. "I'd take it if it was a drama-free year. I'd be the first to take it."
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.