Two years ago at media day, Iowa was ranked in the Top 10 and there was certainly a swagger. This year, I would not call it a swagger, rather, a confidence that this team has some firepower and depth to compete for its first regular season conference title since 1979.
Alford and his players said the right things, they had the proper degree of humility mixed in with a fair amount of confidence. Most of the media members I spoke with about this felt the same way. There was just something in the air. 2: Pierre Pierce off on the right foot. Pierce said the right things, he looked reporters in the eye when answering questions and his answers were not programmed by some public relations guru giving him advice. Pierce spoke from the heart and it was easily discernable.
He is also a lot bigger, physically. He spent quite a bit of time in the weight room last year, to be sure.
Fans of all ages were coming up to him and welcoming him back, and Pierre had nary a negative word to say about any treatment from the fans, etc. He also spoke glowingly about the community service work that he had to do this summer to honor his legal agreement and how much he really enjoyed helping children at the Salvation Army outlet he worked with.
Every story has a beginning, middle and ending. Pierce's story is certainly a saga, but here at the middle point, things seem to be as good as they could be, given the situation. Once he and his teammates hit the road this year, that will be the next test, and they are all aware of that. 3: Horner has something to prove. Jeff Horner heard the questions all summer long: ‘What was wrong with your shooting?'.
Those queries served as motivation for the gunner from Mason City. Coach Alford worked with him on getting his toes closer to the three-point line as opposed to shooting 21-footers.
Horner, ever the gym rat, spent countless hours this summer working on his outside shooting. I expect to significant improvement from Horner's three-point percentage of .277 from one season ago.
However, Iowa's ability to hit the three-point shot might be the single biggest question mark as to how high these Hawks can fly this season.
4. Alford saying all the right things. Steve Alford has been learning on the fly in some regards during his first four seasons at Iowa. He made the jump from Southwest Missouri State and the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big Time of the Big Ten.
Alford has always been very confident in his own abilities as a player and that has logically stayed with him as a coach.
But he has faced some major coaching challenges in his first four years at Iowa.
He got a pass in his first season, as that team was not loaded with talented players. The Hawkeyes got off to an amazing start in year two and were 17-4 at one point and ranked in the Top 15 in the nation. He was well ahead of schedule.
But then came injuries to Luke Recker and Ryan Hogan, forcing Alford to play freshman Brody Boyd for extended minutes, something Alford and his coaching staff had never envisioned doing.
Iowa limped down the stretch but then was able to finish things on a high note, winning four games in four days to take home the 2000 Big Ten Tournament title. That team won 23 games, tied for the third most wins in a single season in Iowa history.
Year three may have been Alford's biggest disappointment in his basketball career. He altered his philosophies, admittedly so, and Iowa went from pre-season top 10 to winning just five Big Ten games with Luke Recker and Reggie Evans on that team.
Then came the tumultuous off season of 2002. There were arrests and there were transfers. Iowa entered last season with just seven recruited scholarship players.
Last year's team was a pleasant surprise at 17-14 and I feel that it was Alford's best coaching job at Iowa.
Now we have this season. Iowa has four seniors, all players that Alford recruited. Alford did not carry the swagger yesterday that we saw two years ago. He was calm and excited about this season, but he did not throw out any expectations.
He truly seems to be a changed man.
He also didn't shy away from any Pierre Pierce questions and said that that is the opposite of what he and his player should do. He took on all of the questions, as did Pierce.
Media day is always a time for optimism. I have said that before and probably will say that again.
But this Iowa team has arguably the best front court in the Big Ten, something that I have been saying since last April.
They have some seasoned guards and what appears to be a solid newcomer in Mike Henderson.
They have versatile players in Pierce, Nick DeWitz and Glen Worley. They have athletes that can create their own shot.
They have depth.
In short, they have all of the ingredients that you want to take into a rough and tumble Big Ten season.
And after having gone what each of them has had to endure over the course of the last 12 to 36 months, they might just have the character and heart to make a lot of noise on the court this season.
This appears to be the most emotionally mature ball club that Steve Alford has had at Iowa.