This is “finals week” at the University of Iowa, which means there will be no sports competition, which means the men’s basketball team has an eight-day break between games. That’s good news for Steve Alford’s club, which just ended a rugged stretch of nine games in 22 days.
“We’re going to give the kids a couple days time off,” Alford said after his team wiggled past two in-state opponents last week. “They need to take a break and get some rest. This has been a tough grind.”
The coach is right about that, and his team met the tough challenge by winning eight of the nine games. Three of the contests were played in Hawaii against opponents ranked in the Top 15. The Hawkeyes have reason to be fatigued.
The early-season success by Iowa has not gone unnoticed. Unranked when the season opened, it is now included among the Top 25 in both national polls.
There is a lot to like about this Iowa team, a collection of good shooters who produce balanced scoring. At least four Hawkeyes have hit double figures in eight games. The only time that didn’t happen was against Centenary, when reserves played a lot of minutes and scored 39 of the Iowa’s 88 points.
The starters – Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce, Greg Bruner, Adam Huluska and Erek Hansen – average between 16.1 and 9.3 points. All but Hansen have been the leading scorer in at least one game.
That makes Iowa a hard team to defend. When Iowa State decided to concentrate on Horner Saturday night, Huluska burned his former team with 20 points. Four nights earlier, Bruner had 23 in a victory over Northern Iowa.
As a team, the Hawkeyes are shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from the three-point line. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is good, and their free throw shooting is a decent 71 percent.
“Barring injury and ineligibility, this team has a good chance to make a successful run in the Big Ten. It has experience, leadership, balance and seemingly good chemistry. The team should make steady progress because of the fact it has no seniors. The starting lineup is solid and the bench, with real potential, should be an asset.”
Alford believes his team’s man-to-man defense is steadily improving. “When we had to have some big stops (last week) we got them,” he points out.
If the Hawkeyes have a soft spot it might be rebounding. They’ve lost the battle of the boards four times, and after nine games are dead even with their opponents, both averaging 37 rebounds a game. If the 6-11 Hansen were to improve his rebounding as much he has his offense, he would become a real force around the basket.
The Hawkeyes have gotten some strong play off the bench from Mike Henderson and Doug Thomas, plus freshmen Carlton Reed and Alex Thompson. They give Alford flexibility and depth, and the top reserves should get more valuable playing time in the four remaining games this month before the Big Ten opens in January.
The schedule immediately ahead looks inviting, and it’s conceivable the Hawkeyes will be 15-1 when they go to Illinois Jan. 20 to play the team now ranked No. 1 in college basketball. The only road games before then are with Texas Tech on a neutral court in Chicago Dec. 21, and at Ohio State Jan. 8.
Fast starts have not resulted in strong finishes for some recent Hawkeye teams, however. The 2000-2001 club won 14 of its first 16 games, but lost seven of its last eight regular season Big Ten contests to finish sixth in the league. Then a highly unlikely string of four wins in four days of conference tournament action earned a berth in the NCAA tournament.
In December of 2002, the Hawkeyes won by eye-popping margins of 25 points at Iowa State and 18 points at Missouri, then managed only five Big Ten victories and settled for an NIT bid.
Barring injury and ineligibility, this team has a good chance to make a successful run in the Big Ten. It has experience, leadership, balance and seemingly good chemistry. The team should make steady progress because of the fact it has no seniors. The starting lineup is solid and the bench, with real potential, should be an asset.
But if the Hawkeyes are going to be a Big Ten contender, they’ve got to lock up the home court, as Iowa’s football team has its home field. Under Alford, Iowa is 23-17 in conference games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and no team can be a league contender by winning 57.5 percent of its home games.
After beating UNI and Iowa State last week, Alford said, “We can wake up Monday morning and know we are a Top 20 team with eight wins and beat all three in-state schools. It’s a great way to start the year.”
Yes it is. His Hawkeyes are winning and they are entertaining. Let’s hope they sustain success, have a strong finish, and the coach can say in March, “This was a great way to end the season.”
Editor’s Note: George Wine, the University of Iowa’s long-time sports information director who is now retired and living in Coralville, Iowa, is the author of George Wine Online. George has remained very close to the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI since his retirement and, in fact, has authored two books during that time. The first was a collaboration with the subject of today’s editorial, Hayden Fry, and named “A High Porch Picnic.” The second, “Black & Gold Memories, The Hawkeyes of the 20th Century,” included many of the essays George originally wrote for “The Voice of the Hawkeyes.” As he wrote in the book, “Collectively, they serve as a historical reference, and hopefully provide entertaining reading.” “Black & Gold Memories” is currently available at Barnes & Noble book stores across Iowa and on the world wide web.