Alford's Army Poised for Breakout Season

Iowa held its annual media day on Thursday and the coach believes an NCAA berth and a conference title are within reach: "I don't think we look at anybody in the Big Ten and say, "Hey, we can't compete with you."" Here is the full transcript from his press conference that we're making free to all readers in hopes that non-members get a taste of what they can enjoy regularly in The Nation.

OPENING STATEMENT:

We're excited to kick off another basketball campaign. I think having our first full recruiting class now being seniors, we're pretty excited about what they've done and what they are aspiring to accomplish before they get out of here. We have five seniors, four of which have an enormous amount of experience. When you you look at the Big Ten, that's the one edge that we're going to play on all year is that we do have a lot of experience in the senior group.

The Big Ten is going to be extremely demanding again. It's a great league and it's probably as good as it's been since I've been here. You have to have good guard play and you have to have experience. We're going to have both of those things going into this year. If anything is indicative of what we saw in Australia, and the practices leading up to that and what they've done here in the fall, then we should have a lot of fun this year. That's what we're looking forward to.

It's been a really good group of guys. We're excited to see how the season unfolds. It will be very demanding. We've got an incredible schedule on tap, especially from a non-conference season getting ready just to get into the Big Ten with the teams that we have to play at home or on the road or at a neutral site is extremely demanding for out guys. We've got a lot of time. We've got about six weeks here to get ready for the season. I know the guys are excited about it. We've got an awful lot of optimism from the coaching staff.

Q&A

What areas do you have to improve on the most from last year to get up to that next level?

For about three quarters of the season, I thought our defense was where we wanted it. That quarter part is what really hurt us. It hurt us in about three home games here in the Big Ten season and I know it got us in a couple of occasions on the road. That really cost us. So, we have to continue to buy into the pride. We talk about pressuring the ball. We talk about positioning. And we talk about pride. I think our guys have done a pretty good job with the pressure end, and they've taken a real good interest in the pride end. They've got to do a much better job in positioning. What that is is an unselfish approach to defense. It's not about me stopping you. It's about when you don't have the ball, am I more concerned about not stopping you but helping my teammate stop his guy? If we can just keep building an learning on that from a defensive standpoint, that's what we've got to do.

Offensively, just continue to value the ball. I think we've got a lot more offense this year than what we had a year ago. I've learned a lot in four years, but the one thing that has really stood out has been guard play. You look at out first year here, Dean and Ryan Luehrsmann are really the only experience that we have in the backcourt. The second year when we won the Big Ten Tournament, we're first in the Big Ten with Recker and Dean and Hogan. They're probably the deepest backcourt we've had and then Hogan and Recker get hurt. Now, we're right back to where we were in Year 1. Then Year 3, Dean's gone. Now, you bring in a Pierre that ends up playing the point his freshman season, so we're not deep in the backcourt again. Last year, we had only three guards the whole year. If you look into our roster this year and you really dive into our roster the next two or three years, you're seeing an awful lot of guard play. I would hope that that helps to value the ball. That helps the kind of shots we get. We'll be a lot harder to guard because we're going to be a lot deeper in the backcourt.

Can you talk about what a team with experience can do for you?

I've really enjoyed these seniors. I've enjoyed how they've developed, and they've all developed. They've all been distracted in a lot of different ways that has hurt their development that they've brought on themselves, and they've learned a lot from that. You look at pretty much from their junior year on with the strides they've made. Sean's numbers have gone up each of his three years. Jared's numbers have all gone up to where he was the Big Ten's leading rebounder a year ago. Now he's one of the five best players in our league. Glen Worley has a chance, if he continues to mature and understand dealing with foul trouble, to have a tremendous season. He played very well in Australia when he wasn't in foul trouble. If he can learn that, he's an outstanding player. His numbers have all gone up. Brody is probably the best player on our team of understanding our offense and the way you read screens. He's really developed that. He came to us as a sharp shooter and that was it. Now, he's learned to play without the ball. Hopefully these guys can all have great senior years, but have a tremendous impact on an awful lot of our freshmen and sophomores that really make up the rest of our team. Jack Brownlee is the only junior. The rest of the team are freshmen and sophomores that don't have that experience.

Is there anything you can do to improve the inconsistent outside shooting from last season?

We've done a little bit of that just with the numbers. Last year, we played seven or eight guys. This year, we have 13 guys on the roster competing for playing time. You have 11 of those guys really fighting for minutes. You look at the guys that now come back to the fold. Pierre is a very good scorer. He's not a geat shooter yet, but his shooting has improved over the last year. He's a tremendous scorer. He averaged over 21 a game for us over in Australia. He was first on our team in steals. He was third in rebounding. He gives us that athleticism in the backcourt. Mike Henderson gives us athleticism in the backcourt that we didn't have a year ago top to bottom. Chauncey was just about it from an athletic standpoint. People are down on Jeff and Brody's shooting, but both of those guys can shoot the ball. They had enormous pressure put on them last year just because of a numbers game. We feel very comfortable with Jeff and Brody shooting the ball. You go to Australia, both of those guys really shot the ball well on that tour and they've shot the ball well all fall. Ben Rand is a great shooter. Nick DeWitz is an oustanding shooter. We've added some guys that really help our shooting that really help our shooting problems. I just think having more depth in the backcourt will allow us to do a little bit better job of getting the kind of shots we want to get. And our forwards really shoot the ball pretty well. I talk about our backcourt, but Reiner, Worley, Sonderleiter, these are three guys that are going to demand some touches. We've got to make sure that the offense is going inside out. The game, we try to make it difficult, but it's still very simple. The team that usually wins, two things happen - the teams that wins gets easier baskets and makes fewer mistakes. And that's going to be a high emphasis on our offense and defense this year. We're trying to eliminate mistakes, especially the mistakes that are on the dumb side. And, how many easy baskets can we get? That's why you'll see us playing in transition a little bit more.

Do you see Mike Henderson playing and contributing this year?

Without question. What a tremendous person. He plays with a smile on his face. I love his personality. He's big. He's a 6-2, 6-3, 195-pound guard as a freshman. He did a great job this summer. I think he's really made the transition well. He's going to be overwhelmed with a lot of the things that are going to happen over the next five weeks, but because of the guards that are here with him, I don't think he's got to be thrown to the wolves right away. We had Pierre two years ago and Jeff last year, where a freshman has been "Here, go get them." This is a hard league to do that in. Now, he's got a lot more experience back there. Hopefully Mike can kind of just develop on his own. He's going to be a tremendous player for us down the road.

What do you expect in the way of a reception for Pierre from the crowd?

That's hard. Pierre has been through a lot. The team has been through a lot. It's been a very difficult situation, one of which I think Pierre, he's apologized, he's been punished, he's done his community service. He did 200 hours of community service. We made that mandatory for him to do before he could even go to Australia. He's learned a lot through that process. He's matured through that process. It's nothing that he's ever going to forget. I think it's going to be with him for a long, long time. I think you just deal with that the best that you can. You grow from it. My expectations I guess from a fans' standpoint is that you just treat the situation that way and you be very respectful. It doesn't matter if it's Pierre or if it's any of our guys. We've always had tremendous fans. That's probably the thing that I've appreciated the most, whether it was winning a Big Ten Tournament two years ago and thinking we were ready to rocket ship this thing to really falling on hard knocks in year three because we didn't meet expectations. We weren't really happy with the way we did things.

What are you expecting from Nick DeWitz?

He's been out a year and a half, so I would hope that he could develop at his pace. That doesn't mean that I don't want him developed until the middle of the Big Ten season. But he gives us something that we haven't had. That's a 6-8 shooting guard that can play inside or outside. He's got to work defensively in the backcourt. That's his biggest adjustment right now. And as we've told him, learning the differnce in work ethic from Arizona versus the Midwest. The guys in Australia showed him how to work and his teammates have shown him how to work. So, we're expecting big things before the season is over just because he gives us something that we haven't had, and that's an inside-outside presence with that kind of size.

So he's more of a finesse guy. If you want to bang, do you put Brunner or Sonderleiter then?

We've got a lot of versatility. Practices are going to be fun to see how that versatility plays out. You look at power forwards, Sonderleiter can play that position. Brunner can play that position. Worley can play that position. You look at the swing guard/forward positions, and you've got Pierce that can play that. DeWitz can play that. Brunner played it last year. And Worley has played it before. We've got some guys that are interchangeable in that 3-4 slot. And then at the five spot, you've got Reiner and you've got Hansen that can play that five spot.

How big is the return of Erek Hansen?

It's tremendous. I'm kind of pleased that he's going under the radar screen right now and not a lot of people are talking about him. He had a great experience at Kirkwood last year. He set all kinds of single-season blocked shot records. And like DeWitz, he gives us something that we haven't had and that's a shot blocker. He runs the floor very well. He's gotten stronger. You're probably not going to be able to tell by looking at him because he's got one of those builds where I don't know if he's ever going to look big. His offense has improved. It's not that we're going to really need his offense this year. We're going to need him defending inside. He could really ignite some transition opportunities for us with his shot blocking presence. He's going to work really well backing up Jared to start the year or of it's Sean filling in at that position as well. We can go big. We can go Jared and Erek can play some four. We can go 7-foot, 6-11 or we can go 7-foot, 6-9, 6-8 across that front line. Or we can go smaller with guards.

Is it going to be a challenge to find minutes for everybody?

The difference in the challenge that it was two years ago is that we've built relationships in recruiting these guys. The 14 guys that we have on our roster now are all guys that we recruited, and not just recruited, but built relationships with them from their junior year on. That makes a big difference. They understand out system. They understand our coaching staff. They understand what we want done on and off of the floor. A few of them aren't probably going to get the minutes that they hope for. But this is a team that's been very close. I really expect it to continue to build that way. It's nice having four of those 13 guys that are eligible to play being seniors. You know those guys are going to get minutes. So, the guys that really aren't going to get the minutes that they think they are are really going to be underclassmen. Two years ago, we had several upperclassmen that weren't getting minutes. That's a little bit different scenario when you deal with chemistry issues.

What do you think your chances are of winning 20 or more games, competing for a Big ten title, going to the NCAAs?

That's hard. I've never put a number on our guys. You throw out 20 and you get to 20, now all of a sudden there's a relaxation. I don't want to do that. We just talk about how we play. We want to get an identity. We started to get an identity last year. Now with our depth I'm hoping that we can create more of an identity to our team of what we stand for and how we want to play. And then, the scoreboard will take care of itself. I can't predict that. I don't know how many wins it's going to take to get into the NCAA Tournament. We're going to carry a pretty good RPi with our strength of schedule. Now if we can pick up some wins, that RPI is going to continue to climb. I just want to see the team, like we did last year, just keep getting better. If we can keep doing that then I think the wins will take care of themselves.

Can you compete for the Big Ten regular season title?

I don't think there's any question going into the season that that's a goal of ours. I don't think we look at anybody in the Big Ten and say, "Hey, we can't compete with you." This team has got a lot of confidence. They've learned a lot. I like our senior leadership. You add the four seniors with the talent that we have in the freshmen and sophomore group and you've got a pretty good blend there.

Is there anything that you feel you lack?

People always want to say that you need one or two NBA guys. I don't know if we're to that point yet. We have some guys that have a chance to get there. There are several guys on our team that have a chance to become guys like that. You look at our senior group, we've probably got a couple of guys there that need to explode onto the scene. Jared started to do it late in the year. You've got some guys that could possible do that. I don't know if that is a rule of thumb that you have to have to compete for championships both in the conference and nationally. But the other pieces of the puzzle, I do like. There are still question marks. How are Horner and Brunner going to develop going from their freshmen year to their sophomore year? What will the input be of Rand and Henderson? DeWitz and Pierce who haven't played for a year and a half, how are they going to respond? And will the seniors be able to lead like we're talking about them being able to lead? There are still plenty of holes that you're thinking about, but getting ready to start the season on Saturday, this is probably the best we've felt as a coaching staff in a long, long time just because the character of the guys, what they've gone through, the experiences that they've had. There's not a whole lot you can throw at them that they haven't experienced.

Who's your fifth starter right now?

That's hard too. You say "fifth" obviously there's probably some assuming going on. But our guys know that when we throw it up at 8 o'clock in the morning on Saturday, all of that is for grabs, not just starting, but minutes and everything else. If you look at what we did in Australia, we had Jeff, Brody, Pierre, Glen and Jared on the floor at once and that was a pretty good group. But that doesn't mean come NC-Asheville on the 23rd of November that's going to be the starting lineup. There's an awful lot of basketball to be played in the next six to seven weeks before we every throw the ball up. You don't know about injuries. You don't know about who's going to produce. And in our system, it's going to be about who's producing. I think those five have a great chance of producing, but they've still got to do it on the floor.

How is Ben Rand fitting in?

He's been tremendous. He's an outstanding worker. He and Mike did a great job this summer of doing what they needed to do in the weightroom and just getting adjusted to the college atmosphere. They've been outstanding in their individual workouts. He's a phenominal shooter. He's a systems guy. Some guys are athletes that you can throw out there in just about anything. Ben's a systems guy. That's why he could flourish in our system that is based on screening and cutting and spacing and ball movement. He's going to go under the radar screen because he is somebody that can put the ball in the hole. Probably in Year 1 there's not going to be a whole lot more asked of him on a team with this kind of depth. That's his one strength. Now, he can learn those other things. He will because he pays attention to all of those details.

Can you talk about the coaching matchups with Drake and Texas Tech?

Playing Coach Davis, the winningest coach in Iowa history, a great person, a great coach, and now he's back into coaching and I think he will be a great shot in the arm for Drake basketball. Drake needed something like that. That's going to be a big game regardless of who it is coming in here. Now that Coach Davis is at the helm, it becomes larger because he spent 13 years of his life here and doing great things here. Playing Coach Knight is probably different than all of them. I'm glad it's around the Christmas time because were getting ready to start the Big Ten season and it will give us a real good indication of what our screening is and how our cutting is and how we're guarding people because we try to mirror an awful lot of what happens in that program. That program will exploit any kind of weaknesses we have. Coach Nelson is down there. They play at home over this time. So, we'll get to spend some time with Coach Nelson, who played here. I got a chance to play for him for a year. Hopefully he can share with our team. We're trying to do more of that. Coach Fry shared with our team a week ago when we played Michigan. So, those are great experiences for our guys.

Do you sense that you're on the hot seat?

In this business, you're in the hot seat every year. The seat has never felt cool to me. (laughter) That's all part of it. College basketball has changed over the last decade. Our salaries have increased. So anytime salaries increase, expectations increase. Tolerance becomes a little less. I would hope that. I would hope that fans expect that. I know Bob is in my corner and very supportive. I know he expects the product to get better every year. I expect that. Our coaches expect that. I've got a tremendous staff that works extremely hard and it's a lot of fun coming to work everyday. We've got a group of guys that need encouraging this year. It's like the jockey. There are some horses that you get on that you've just got to keep whipping like crazy all the way around the track. I'm hopeful that this is a team that we just have to whip when it comes down the stretch to remind them that "Hey, you've done the job for 35 minutes. Now feel this whip a little bit and let's kick it in for the last five minutes." I really feel like we've got enough horses that that can take place. That's what we're excited about. But expectations are always going to be there. I'd probably get more concerned if I don't think that people care about basketball. I'm very fortunate and blessed that I'm at an institution that cares and I've got a fan base that cares about the product. Is there pressure there? Sure. But we could have a great season this year and there's still going to be pressure because that's the competitive nature that's in all of us as coaches and players.

Can you talk about Jeff's improvement?

Well, Jeff is the epitome of work ethic. He and Brody are down in the gym now before they get dressed out for press day. He's just constantly working on his game. And nobody felt worse about his shooting last year than Jeff did except maybe his father. (Laughter) Bob didn't understand it either. I assured Bob that I wasn't messing with anything. I just think it was one of those things. We asked Jeff to play nearly 40 minutes a game and guard the point guard on everybody else's team, which the point guards that we're playing are outstanding. You look at this year and about the only thing that he didn't do is consistently knock down shots. He set all kinds of records, not just here, but several Big Ten records. He did a great job of learning defense. His turnover ratio for a freshman was nearly 3-to-1. So, I'm not that worried about his shooting. His shooting will continue to improve because he works so hard at it.


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