April 26, 2004
On Monday, Iowa basketball coach Steve Alford sat down with hawkeyesports.com to go over the previous season, his returning players, and the next season. The following is a transcript of the interview, conducted in his office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
hawkeyesports.com: How would you describe last season on the whole?
Steve Alford: I thought the guys did an incredible job, not just this year. The things that have hit us the last two years, other than the injuries, have been non-basketball related. So, the thing I’ve appreciated is that every time I go into the locker room, they’ve had their heads up. They’re ready to go to battle. And we’ve had to go to battle shorthanded for two straight years, and yet we’ve had winning seasons. And there are two sides of it. We’re upset that we haven’t been in the NCAA for three years, but we’ve made progress in our own league, which is a very demanding league – regardless of whether the outside people say it’s down this year or up this year, the Big Ten is the Big Ten and it’s a very difficult league – and each of the last three years we’ve made a climb in that league. So, from that standpoint, it’s a positive. We’ve made strides on the road; we’ve won more road games in the Big Ten. So to have a depleted roster, and still create winning seasons, you know, we’re one of four teams – Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin – who have won championships in our league that have had winning seasons the last four years. Some of these teams that have not had winning seasons have not had near the things thrown at them that our program’s had thrown at them. So, in that regard, I’m very excited and very pleased with what our guys have done the last two years. But with that said, I know we’re driven for more than that. So we’re just hoping to have a normal year, keep everybody healthy and really get after it next year. But on the whole, I was very, very pleased with what they were able to do.
hawkeyesports.com: Do the last-second losses last season at all characterize the season, in that you came so close so many times?
Steve Alford: I don’t know how many last-second losses we actually had, but we won at Indiana, last second, we won at Purdue, last second, so I didn’t see a trend with our guys losing last-seconds. What I did see was a group of guys that fought like crazy. We got a last-second shot against Wisconsin, if that goes down who knows what happens? We lose on a last-second shot at Northwestern, the kid hadn’t made a shot the whole game and makes the shot. Those are tough breaks. We got the shot we wanted against Wisconsin, I thought we defended the way we wanted to defend against Northwestern, and then the St. Louis game. The St. Louis game more mirrored everything that’s happened to us in two years as far as tough breaks, because we don’t talk about excuses or things, but that was the game where you had a guy keeping time, who’s never kept time before in his life, he doesn’t know college basketball rules. That didn’t hurt us in the first half, but it killed us at the end of the second half. They got a basket at the end of the first half the exact same way with the clock not stopping. It was just really tough breaks. Hopefully, the guys can learn from it and keep their head up and keep plugging away, that’s about all you can do.
hawkeyesports.com: What can you say about the intangibles of the team, especially with Jeff Horner and Pierre Pierce?
Steve Alford: Well, we like what that sophomore group adds. Our leaders going into next year are going to be Pierre, Jeff and Greg (Brunner). Those three individuals have shown incredible improvement. What Pierre did from his freshman year to his sophomore year is incredible. He’ll maybe shoot 75 percent from the free throw line, and he’s an 18-point scorer in the Big Ten, about the third-leading scorer. He’s top five in scoring. He’s one of the harder guys to matchup with in our league. He’s very competitive. Every weakness Jeff had as a freshman he’s turned into not just an average but a strength. He’s up leading the league in foul shooting. His assists stayed up again. He and Pierre are the only two players if not in the history in a long, long time in their first two years to amass 200 points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists. So we’re talking about two special individuals here. Jeff’s shooting, his 3-point shooting, everything, didn’t just improve from his freshman year but became a big-time strength. There wasn’t anybody shooting the ball any better in our league through 16 games than what Jeff did. And then Bru is up being the second-leading rebounder in the league. And with (Minnesota’s Kris) Humphries going pro, he’s the leading returning rebounder. So it gives us a real influence in the post with a power forward guy like him. I think those three guys really lead us. And then you kind of look for a positive, when you get a tough break like losing Jared (Reiner), and we wish we wouldn’t have lost him. But when we lost him, it gave a guy like Erek Hansen a chance to play. And all Erek did was lead the Big Ten in blocks, in about 15 minutes per game. Of all the stats you look at with us, I still think that’s the most amazing. For somebody who redshirted his first year, had to transfer to Kirkwood, comes back in his third year with sophomore status, not playing a lot, and through injuries and departures is just thrown into game four of the Big Ten season and now in the 13-game season where he averages 15 minutes, he leads the league in blocks. That’s amazing. I think he’s gained confidence, and now he’s hungry. I think that experience is really going to help him.
hawkeyesports.com: What are some of the things Hansen is going to have to work on this summer in order to take over that center position?
Steve Alford: He’s got to keep getting stronger. I don’t think he’s ever going to look like he’s Hercules. I think he’s got that body build where he’s always going to have that thin frame. But he’s got to continue to work on strength – hand strength, lower body strength – continue to work on offensive skills. His defense is outstanding. So it’s more of his offensive game just developing, not that we’re not going to have enough offensive output, but so he can be a threat in there. His pass-catch ability is a weakness. So I think strength, his offensive game, and his pass-catch game have got to improve over the summer.
hawkeyesports.com: Talking about aspects of improvement, have you started working with Pierre Pierce on turnovers?
Steve Alford: He’s watching an awful lot of tape, and I think it’s kind of a catch-22. It’s something we definitely work on and talk to him about, and I don’t like having that many turnovers in a given year, but in saying that, he’s kind of a mustang. We don’t want to put too many ropes on what he’s done. His 116 turnovers are way too many. I thought he had a phenomenal year, but he had two weaknesses. He was careless with the ball, and his foul shooting. Those are two areas he’s really got to concentrate on this summer.
hawkeyesports.com: Do you pay a lot of attention to the Prime Time league over the summer?
Steve Alford: It’s getting better. I really appreciate all the efforts of Randy Larson because it’s phenomenal the effort and time he’s got to put into it. Just for an area like this to have a summer league is good. So it gives our guys two times a week an opportunity to play five-on-five, and I think in the last five years it’s gotten more competitive. We’ve been getting more players from Northern Iowa, from the Kirkwood area, so we’re getting a lot of former players who are still in shape – Dean Oliver has played in it, and a lot of guys who are still in good shape – these guys can still go up and down the floor well, so it helps. I don’t pay attention to it as far as the numbers, but if I hear of something out of the ordinary, wild play or not doing the things they need to be working on. I spend more time not on asking them how Prime Time went but how their individual workouts are going. It’s their individual workouts that I’m most concerned about.
hawkeyesports.com: For you, you have to go back out on the road for recruiting and camps. Anything on that end you might want to share?
Steve Alford: We’re pretty much done for this class. We signed four in the fall and we just signed Doug Thomas here. We’ve completed this class, and we go into the year without any seniors, but we have a few scholarships. We’re out hitting the junior class pretty hard, and the sophomore class even harder because the sophomore class is a huge class for us because we’ve got five guys in that class. That becomes an extremely important class for us. Really, we’re out there looking at as many sophomores and juniors as we can.
“We’ve completed this class, and we go into the year without any seniors, but we have a few scholarships. We’re out hitting the junior class pretty hard, and the sophomore class even harder because the sophomore class is a huge class for us because we’ve got five guys in that class. That becomes an extremely important class for us.”
Head Coach Steve Alford
hawkeyesports.com: The other major aspect of your schedule is I-Club outings. Have you been received well on your trips?
Steve Alford: Oh yeah. The fans and everybody have always been great. Of everything we’ve done through five years, the thing I’ve been most impressed with is how people have always appreciated the way our guys have worked, but I’m sure, like us, not pleased that we’ve missed the NCAA tournament again. But I reiterate, just having winning seasons through the stuff we’ve been able to go through in my mind is very impressive with what our players have done. Now we’ve got great leadership intact with that sophomore group, and I think there’ll be some fun times down the road for our fans.
hawkeyesports.com: One more thing about the last season was the graduation of your first recruiting class. Could you talk about how their absence will play into next season?
Steve Alford: One, those seniors did a great job. Kurt Spurgeon was someone I recruited at SMS. He was a quiet leader, but he always did things correctly. He always showed up early and stayed late. He pushed the starters, and when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it. I appreciated that, and he was a great student. I appreciate the things Kurt did. Jared, unfortunately, was always hurt. He’s had incredible injuries the last two years that slowed his progress. We’re still hopeful we’ll get good news out of him. Regardless, he’s had a very good career, but he could have had an outstanding career if it wasn’t for the injuries. We’ll miss that inside presence. Sean, I thought, was off to a great career. And they had a lot of family issues. I think trying to balance the family, academics and the Big Ten center of attention being the starting center with Jared out was too much. So, I think that affected what he did. I thought Glen was really slowed in the fall with dehydration and an ankle sprain that got him behind. I thought he had some good moments in the Big Ten season; he’s somebody who’s capable of double-doubles, so Bru’s got to fall into that position. Doug Thomas now falls into that position. And then Brody, obviously, was a threat every time he caught the ball. Guys like Adam Haluska, Jeff Horner, the new guys coming in – the Reeds, the Angles – these guys have to prove they can make shots because that’s the one thing Brody, while he was on the floor, people had to guard him and that opened up other things we were able to do offensively because the attention had to be given to Brody.
hawkeyesports.com: A lot of the younger players that highlighted the Big Ten this season have gained experience, Michigan’s NIT championship a good example, is the league going to be harder this next season?
Steve Alford: I think it’s going to be a very demanding. All five schools, the top five finishers this year, really return the heart and soul of their teams. Michigan, winning the NIT, they never played a road game. I think that’s a huge advantage. I wish we would have played St. Louis at home. I think if we would have played St. Louis at home, Notre Dame wouldn’t have had their facility, so then we’re playing Notre Dame at home. I think things could have evolved a lot differently for us in the NIT, versus us not even playing on the road but playing in a facility that doesn’t even have college basketball in it. So, it’s frustrating, for whatever reason why we didn’t get a home game is a mystery to me, but we got to find ways of politicking and working it harder to get home games because those that do it advance. Iowa State got two home games. So I think it makes a difference when you can play at home in the NIT, and we didn’t get that break to be able to do that.
“I think (the Big Ten) going to be a very demanding. All five schools, the top five finishers this year, really return the heart and soul of their teams.”
Head Coach Steve Alford
hawkeyesports.com: Considering the only venues at which you haven’t been able to win are Michigan, Michigan State or Illinois, is there anything about those teams or those particular venues that have caused trouble?
Steve Alford: I think you look at all three of those teams and they’ve very athletic teams. And the teams we have struggled with in the last two years have been very athletic teams, and I think that’s why it’s key to add an Adam Haluska or Carlton Reed or Alex Thomas or Doug Thomas. We’ve added athleticism to our team next year, and that’s going to be a big key for us because Illinois and Michigan State have been very good through my five years here, and Michigan has been very athletic. I think the only place we haven’t played well is Michigan State. We’ve been in games at Illinois and Michigan, but we haven’t gotten the win.
hawkeyesports.com: Adam Haluska is a new player who is likely to see time next winter. Is he set to take over for Brody Boyd?
Steve Alford: I think that’s safe to say right now. He’s still got a long ways to go as far as learning our system and things. Adam gives us a 6-5 athlete. He’s a big-time athlete, who can shoot it. He was on the all-freshman team at Iowa State in the Big 12 his first year of college basketball. So to get a year of learning our system has really helped him. He has deep range, and he’s more of a physical guard than Brody. So from a defensive standpoint, we like going into next year knowing if you start things out with Horner, Pierce and Haluska, you’ve got three solid defenders, and you have a Mike Henderson to throw in the mix right away or a Carlton Reed right away, you have five guards who can really guard. And I think teams that hurt us this year were teams that broke us down in the backcourt. It should be more difficult to do that next year.
hawkeyesports.com: Considering your own experience as a guard in college and the fact that your teams have really been led by guards, do you have a special affinity for that position?
Steve Alford: Obviously, I played that position, but I think I have a good understanding that you have to complement each other. If you’ve got good big men and the guards play badly, then the big men suffer. If you have good guards and the big men aren’t very good, it’s hard on guards. I think you have to have a complementary inside-outside approach. And I played the position but I knew and still know that your best teams, offensively, go inside-out and not outside-in. Any time you’re just living by 22 feet instead of getting things two or three feet, I think, if you look at our offensive stats this year this is the most efficient we’ve been offensively. That’s because we were very good at inside-out. We did that with Greg Brunner being a sophomore, Erek Hansen being a sophomore with 13 games experience. It’s not like we were real experienced inside, with a post presence. But we did a good job attacking in transition and getting the easy baskets. Of our five teams, this team did the best job of getting the easy scores, and I think that’s why offensively we make more free throws than our opponents shot. That’s a phenomenal stat. We’re second in almost every offensive category. I think all our numbers were up because we did a much better job of getting the easy scores. Now if we eliminate our mistakes with the ball, and turnovers, if we can get those turnovers to where we’re averaging 11 to 12 turnovers per game as opposed to 16 or 17, now you’ve got not only a highly efficient offense but it really affects your defense too.
hawkeyesports.com: Will the trip to Maui next year be the centerpiece of your schedule?
Steve Alford: It will be early. It’s in November, obviously, when you’ve got eight teams in the Maui Classic. I don’t know where we’ll be predicted, but BYU’s lost a lot, Chaminade, being a lesser-known school that’s in it, I think the other six schools, not knowing where we’ll be, so the other five schools will be top 25 teams. And we’re probably somewhere after that. I think it’s an incredible field, and whoever we play, they’ll be big-time contests. So, there’s definitely some marquee matchups for us, and it’s great to be in a classic like the Maui Classic and we’re really looking forward to it.
hawkeyesports.com: Does playing in those tournaments yield any significant benefits for the team?
Steve Alford: Yeah, I think it does. You play three games in three days, and if you want to win a Big Ten tournament, that’s what you’ve got to do. That’s something you can always build on. It gives you exempt games. If we had exempt games, we might have gone to the tournament. Purdue was on the bubble all the way until the end when we beat them. We were ahead in the standings, but it was because they had wins. They had 17-18 wins, late into the year. We could never get to that point because we didn’t have those exempt games. If you get exempt games, where you play three games and they only count as one, even if they’re losses, they’re going to help your RPI if they’re against better opponents. That’s why Purdue was on the bubble so long. They went to the Great Alaskan shootout where they beat Duke. So these exempt tournaments are big. I wish we could have played in an exempt tournament this year, but because of a rule we weren’t able to. So going into this it’s big, but playing Texas Tech in Chicago is a huge game, and starting at home with St. Louis – and there’s no one we’d like to play more than St. Louis at home – to get the in-state schools back, Iowa State and Northern Iowa in here. Iowa State making it to the finals of the NIT, Northern Iowa having a great run and making it to the NCAA tournament, playing at Drake, as our lone road game. Playing Air Force, who had a great run and made it to the NCAA tournament, plays a lot like Northwestern, so it’ll be good prep going into that. So we really have got some Southern Miss with (Larry) Eustachy taking over that job. We’ve really got some great matchups in our non-conference schedule. Note: All games are still subject to the approval of the Board in Control of Athletics.
“We’re hoping, as this team improves, a lot of good things can be on the horizon.”
Head Coach Steve Alford
hawkeyesports.com: Is having five straight winning seasons achievable in this next season?
Steve Alford: We hope. We’ve had a lot thrown at us, and he we are at the brink of doing something that’s happened only four other times in Iowa’s history of men’s basketball. Back in the ’50s they had seven straight and since that time there’s been three programs win five in a row, if you go back to 1957 and then go 50 years forward, and it’s only happened three times, then there’s been some losing seasons in there. And we were right there in year one, and with a much more depleted roster than we’ve had in the last two years. Three of our five years we’ve had depleted rosters, so it would be nice going into this next year to stay healthy during the summer, get a lot of experience – we’ve got some guys attending some good camps – we’re hoping to get them some USA basketball experience and a lot of different things. We’re hoping, as this team improves, a lot of good things can be on the horizon.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com