Alford Likes Experience, Talent

Oct. 13, 2005

Ask virtually any college basketball coach what they’d like to have most on their roster and the answer could be a unanimous: “Experience.”

Perhaps that’s why Steve Alford appeared very relaxed and very confident of his 2005-06 Iowa Hawkeyes when he visited with the media today in the Big Ten Room of the UI’s award-winning Carver-Hawkeyes Arena.

“We’re experienced. We’re strong. We’re healthy. We’ve had a very good summer,” Alford smiled. “We know what we want to do this season. We’re excited…but we’ haven’t played a game and we know we have work to do.”

The Hawkeyes are experienced. Five starters and 11 letterwinners return from a team that won 21 games a year ago and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

“We want to improve on last year,” said Alford, who is beginning his seventh season as head coach of the Hawkeyes.

“We’re experienced. We’re strong. We’re healthy. We’ve had a very good summer. We know what we want to do this season. We’re excited…but we’ haven’t played a game and we know we have work to do.”
Steve Alford

“We’re very talented, but we need to continue to progress, to grow if we’re going to have the season we’d like to have.”

Alford said the Hawkeyes are also a hungry bunch.

“We had a taste of it last year and this group of seniors, in particular, want more,” he said. “This could be a special year for the them and they are aware of that. (Jeff) Horner and (Greg) Brunner have provided great leadership through last year and into the summer and fall.”

The Hawkeyes started fast a year ago, finishing second in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, defeating ranked opponents Louisville and Texas before a loss to eventual national champion North Carolina in the championship game.

They’ll have the same chance this year. The Hawkeyes open with the Guardians Classic. A pair of wins in Iowa City would send Iowa packing for Kansas City with, perhaps, Texas, Kentucky and West Virginia. The Classic is just a piece of what Alford termed a “demanding schedule.”

Posting a 12-1 non-conference record, Iowa was ranked for nine straight weeks, moving as high as 14th in early January. The Hawkeyes also enjoyed a five-game winning streak at the conclusion of the season, advancing to the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa defeated Michigan State in the quarter-finals before a last second loss to Wisconsin. Iowa ended its season with a loss to Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year marked the second time in five years Iowa has won 21 games or more under Alford. The five straight winning seasons matches the second longest streak in school history. Iowa’s longest streak, seven seasons, occurred from 1950 through 1956.

Asked, Alford was reluctant to put a number of wins on the table as a target. “I’ve never believed in putting a number out there because I don’t want to cap us,” he said..

Asked if the Hawkeyes were legitimate contenders for a Big Ten title, Alford said of course…and so, too, are the other 10 teams in the league.

“I don’t think there’s a coach in our league thinking today his team can’t win the league,” he said. “The next step for us is obvious: To legitimately be in the race to the end and to improve our finish nationally.

“I think the positives with this group, especially the seniors, is that they have been through an awful lot,” he continued.

“They’ve been a resilient group, and they’ve grown each season. Looking at our seniors, especially the three who have been here the longest, Jeff, Greg and Erek (Hansen), have made great strides since they were freshmen. I think they are as fully prepared as a group of seniors could be, for what is thrown at them throughout a college basketball season. Hopefully, their experiences have prepared them for the expectations now before them.”

The 21 victories, a year ago, came against a very strong schedule. Iowa was the only team in the nation to meet all Final Four teams during the season, posting a 2-4 record while defeating Louisville and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes had three wins over Sweet 16 teams and played eight games against teams in the Elite Eight.

Iowa will again rank high in schedule strength. In non-conference action, Iowa travels to Northern Iowa and Iowa State, along with a trip to Saint Louis. The Hawkeyes will host North Carolina State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and Arizona State of the Pac 10. Iowa will take part in the Guardians Classic, which could include a final four of Iowa, Kentucky, West Virginia and Texas. The Hawkeyes start early, hosting the first round of the Guardians Classic on Nov. 14-15. Iowa’s own invitational, the first weekend in December, includes Tulane, Valparaiso and Fairfield.

“The strength of our schedule played a key role in our selection to the NCAA Tournament last year,” noted Alford. “This year’s schedule is a bear. The positive thing is that, like a year ago, we have a chance to play additional non-league games because of the exempt tournament. That gives you a good opportunity to get some wins under your belt before you get to the conference season. With the teams on our schedule, we will be tested and prepared for Big Ten play.”

Among the returning lettermen are five seniors, two juniors and four sophomores. The returning starters include three seniors and two juniors. Forward Greg Brunner, guard Jeff Horner and center Erek Hansen return for their final season, while guards Adam Haluska and Mike Henderson are juniors.

“The thing I really appreciate about Jeff and Greg, is their leadership,” pointed out Alford. “That’s something that has developed throughout their careers. So many times we talk about kids developing physically, shot improvement or body changes. Part of their development process, within the program, has been the type of leaders they’ve become. I just think we go into the year with really strong leadership. That is going to help us as we go through a very difficult, very demanding schedule.”

Brunner (6-7, 245) and Horner (6-3, 185) give the Hawkeyes an excellent inside and outside combination. Both have scored over 1,000 career points. Brunner was one of 12 players selected to the USA’s World University Games team that won the gold medal in August, winning all eight games in the competition. Horner, who was also invited to the trials for that team, has been named to the pre-season list for the 2006 John R. Wooden Award and all-America team.

“This year’s schedule is a bear. The positive thing is that, like a year ago, we have a chance to play additional non-league games because of the exempt tournament. That gives you a good opportunity to get some wins under your belt before you get to the conference season. With the teams on our schedule, we will be tested and prepared for Big Ten play.”
Steve Alford

Brunner averaged 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds last season. For the second straight year he ranked second in Big Ten rebounding. He shot 51.2% from the field while earning third team all-Big Ten honors. Brunner is one of the top returning forwards in the league after 11 scoring and rebounding double-doubles a year ago.

Horner has been a starter in all but one game over the past three seasons. He is the only Iowa player ever to total over 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a career. Also a third team all-Big Ten selection last year, Horner averaged 14 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists while shooting over 40% from three-point range.

Hansen (6-11, 210) will be counted on to play as well as he did during the early portion of last season. A dominant shot blocker, Hansen averaged 4.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and three blocked shots. He will be counted on for a solid senior year. He begins the season ranked fourth at Iowa in career blocked shots (123).

Haluska (6-5, 210) came on strong in the second half of the season. Haluska elevated his game and ended the year averaging 14.2 points and 4.5 rebounds. He shot 47.8% from the field, 38.9% from three-point range and a team-best 80.8% from the free throw line. He averaged 16.8 points and 4.7 rebounds over the final 13 games and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten.

Henderson (6-2, 190), may have improved as much as anyone over the final 13 games of last season. He averaged 4.9 points and 2.1 rebounds, playing his best late in the season. He averaged 11.7 points in the three games at the Big Ten Tournament, including a career-best 17 points in the win over Michigan State.

“The experiences that Adam and Mike were able to get late last season were tremendous,” pointed out Alford. “They had opportunities over the last five weeks, that maybe they weren’t going to get. That really helped them understand this level a little bit better and give them a good start for this season.”

Another key performer late in the season was Doug Thomas (6-8, 245), who returns for his senior season. In his first season at Iowa after a two-year junior college career, Thomas averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. His numbers improved late in the season, as he had eight rebounds in a key win at Michigan late in the season and 11 rebounds in the win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.

“Doug really started to play extremely well towards the end of last season and is really primed to have a big year,” said Alford, in discussing his centers. “Erek has had numerous experiences in his career. He played behind good big men early in his career. He had his turn a year ago, but maybe didn’t understand playing a full schedule. Now I think he’s got that understanding of what it takes. We have something special in those two big men.”

Additional lettermen include senior Justin Wieck and sophomores J.R. Angle, Seth Gorney, Carlton Reed and Alex Thompson. Thompson (6-9, 215) played in 32 games and earned three starts as a freshman. He collected five rebounds in a win over Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament and has the most versatility of the Iowa big men.

“We’re probably as excited about the future of Alex Thompson as anyone,” said Alford. “He gives us versatility. He can shoot it and has really worked on putting the ball on the floor. I think he can play the big guard and power forward spots. He is a versatile individual we have high hopes for. The development of Alex could end up being our X factor.”

Gorney (7-0, 245) was able to contribute at times. He will be counted on for added production in the upcoming season. Gorney’s size gives the Hawkeyes a true back-up center, while Thompson’s versatility allows him to play both inside and away from the basket.

Reed (6-4, 180) saw action in the guard court in 32 games. He has the quickness and shooting ability to be an offensive threat. With added experience, he should contend for additional playing time in a talented backcourt.

“Carlton did a tremendous job early in the season, and then late in the year, “said Alford. “Maybe he hit the wall in the middle of the season. With his speed, he can really help us in the backcourt.”

“Seth gave us spot minutes last year and I think his minutes will go up this season. He’s really worked hard on his body. J.R. is still trying to prove to himself he can play guard at this level. We are deep in the backcourt, so that’s something he has to continue to work his way through.”

The 11 returning lettermen scored over 2,000 points and had over 1,000 rebounds last season. They totaled 84.6% of Iowa’s points, 90.9% of the rebounds, 81.6% of the assists and 78.5% of steals. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten in blocked shots, ranked second in field goal defense and third in scoring, both in league games and all games.

The scholarship additions to the roster include one freshman and a junior college transfer, while two first team all-state players from the state of Iowa will also join the squad.

Guard Tony Freeman (6-0, 180) joins the program from St. Joseph’s HS in Westchester, IL. He earned second team all-state honors as a senior while averaging 15 points, six assists and five rebounds. Center Kurt Looby (6-11, 210) is a native of Antigua who attended Tyler, TX Community College. Looby, a solid defender as well, could be a candidate for a redshirt season.

“Tony is the most likely newcomer to compete for minutes right away,” said Alford. “He’s strong, athletic and a fierce competitor. He’s a proven winner from a great high school program.”

The walk-on guard tandem includes Dan Bohall (6-4, 185) from Sioux City East HS and Brett Wessels (6-3, 190) from Bettendorf HS. Both played for very successful prep programs. Wessels led Bettendorf to the state title as a senior, defeating Bohall’s East team in the championship game.

“Justin Wieck is a great senior walk-on who did a tremendous job for us last year,” concluded Alford. “I know he’ll be ready to go whenever I call his name. He’s very well liked, a big-time teammate, and that’s what you want in a walk-on. We hope both Dan and Brett follow in those footsteps. Both are from very established programs with great traditions. It’s a lot of fun for us to carry on the tradition of outstanding walk-ons from the state of Iowa. I think these three emulate all the characteristics we want in a walk-on.”

As mentioned earlier, the Iowa schedule is a strong one. The Hawkeyes could play as many as 14 games against teams that were in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, along with three games against teams that were in the NIT. In Big Ten play, Iowa plays just once against Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern, with the Buckeyes and Wolverines visiting Iowa City. The Hawkeyes open Big Ten play at Wisconsin before hosting defending champion Illinois.

“The Big Ten, to me, will be the strongest it has been in my seven years at Iowa,” says Alford. “Michigan State returns the core of a Final Four team and Illinois is coming off a great season in which it reached the championship game.

“Michigan gets its injured players back, OSU has great talent returning and Wisconsin will be solid as usual. Minnesota and Northwestern will arguably have their best teams,” he added.

“We feel we’ll be improved and Indiana probably has the most talent it has had in a while. Purdue has the energy of a new coach and Penn State has the influx of several new guys. Everywhere you look, each team feels they are going to be improved. I think that makes for a very, very challenging Big Ten season.”