Wine: Alford Likes Big Ten Party

March 15, 2006

What is there about the Big Ten’s annual basketball tournament that brings out the best in Steve Alford?

What is it about the league’s popular post-season extravaganza that transforms Iowa’s coach into a combination of John Wooden and Dean Smith, with a dash of his old mentor, Bob Knight, thrown in?

As every loyal Iowa fan knows, the Hawkeyes just reeled off three straight victories at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to claim their second Big Ten tournament crown. The tournament is only nine years old, and Iowa joins Michigan State and Illinois as teams that have won it twice.

As a long-shot in 2001, Alford’s second season at Iowa, the Hawkeyes had to win four games in four days to earn the championship and gain a berth in the NCAA tournament. This year, as the No. 2 seed and with a NCAA berth already locked up, they had to win only three games.

Alford is now the most successful coach in the short history of the tournament, in victories as well as percentage. His record is 13-5, a winning percentage of .722.

Alford is now the most successful coach in the short history of the tournament, in victories as well as percentage. His record is 13-5, a winning percentage of .722.

There have been 22 head coaches in this tournament, and Alford is the only one with double-digit victories. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, whose four NAAA Final Four appearances include a national championship, ranks second at 9-7. Jim O’Brien, former Ohio State coach, and Mike Davis of Indiana are both 7-6.

The second-best winning percentage belongs to two Illinois coaches, but their teams only played seven tournament games. Bill Self and Bruce Weber are both 5-2, a percentage of .714.

By winning 11 of 16 games during the Big Ten’s regular season, the Hawkeyes elevated Alford’s conference record to 52-60, a percentage .464. Combining Alford’s regular-season record with his tournament record brings him to the .500 level – 65 wins and 65 losses – in his seven years at Iowa.

Iowa is now headed for the NCAA tournament, where Alford hopes to keep his team’s momentum going by using the same strategy and tactics he employed last week.

The Hawkeyes won at Indianapolis primarily because they played exceptional basketball in the second halves of all three victories. They were tied with Minnesota at intermission and won by 10. They trailed both Michigan State and Ohio State at halftime, then allowed each team to score only 23 points in the final 20 minutes.

Iowa did it with a lock-down defense, and an offense that made timely field goals and critical free throws. The Spartans and Buckeyes, two very good teams, both made less than 30 percent of their field goal attempts in the second half. Meanwhile, Iowa finished both games strong offensively.

The Hawkeyes ride a five-game winning streak into the Big Dance, and their defensive statistics over that period are eye-popping. Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State combined for a measly 32.3 percent from the field overall, 26.2 percent from the 3-point arc.

Iowa held Penn State to 38 points, Wisconsin to 44 and Michigan State to 48. In the last five games Iowa’s opponents scored a combined 49.4 points per game.

It’s no secret what the Hawkeyes must do to go deep into the NCAA tournament. Their defense has to perform as it did in most games this year, especially in recent weeks, and Steve Alford has to coach the way he did at the Big Ten tournament.

If that happens, seniors Jeff Horner, Greg Bruner, Erek Hansen and Doug Thomas will end their Iowa careers on a high note, and returning players like Adam Haluska, Mike Henderson and Alex Thompson will get a big boost for next season.