Last Saturday, the Hawkeyes showed that they could beat a nationally-ranked team—Louisville—away from Iowa City in a very close game. That type of victory gave Iowa a tremendous boost and drawing from that experience will help the Hawks in tight games as the season continues.
A week later, the Hawkeyes showed that they could come back from a double-digit deficit with a little over 10 minutes remaining, which will also give Iowa a shot of confidence. The next time the Hawks have their backs against the wall like that, they can draw from the success they had against Northern Illinois in a 65-57 victory.
Although Iowa played pretty poorly at times during the first 28 minutes against the Huskies, I think the way this game played out will benefit the team much more than a 92-65 blowout would have.
In fact, I believe that Coach Steve Alford used the phrase "big time" not once—but TWICE—in his post-game comments. (Reggie Evans apparently made quite an impression during his two seasons in Iowa City.)
Hawkeye fans are very much aware of the disappointments of the last four seasons. The fact that Iowa has had a losing record in the Big Ten for four years in a row has been well documented. Will this season be different? Will this be the year that Coach Alford's Hawkeyes get over the hump?
After what I've seen the last two Saturdays, I remain hopeful that this will be the case. I don't think it stretches the imagination too much to believe that the last couple of Iowa teams would have lost one—or both—of the games to Louisville and Northern Illinois. So, what makes THIS team different?
There are several things that lead me to believe this Hawkeye team will fare well in the Big 10 and make a return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-season hiatus. For example…
Iowa is playing well at the defensive end. In their last five games, the Hawkeyes have allowed an average of 58.4 points per game. That's outstanding. On a per-minute basis, it's the equivalent of a high school team allowing 46.7 points per game…or an NBA team giving up only 70.0 points per game. You simply can't do much better than that. Iowa has not given up 70 points to any of its last five opponents. I'm not saying that I've never seen a better defensive team, but I think this could—and probably SHOULD—be Iowa's best defensive unit under Coach Alford. And this should give the Hawks a chance to win—even on the road—in the Big 10.
The Hawkeyes are getting some very good senior leadership. When the chips have been down—or Iowa has needs a big basket or a defensive stop—it has often been Brody Boyd or Jared Reiner in the thick of things. Against Louisville, Boyd played the best all-around game of his career and Iowa needed to have his production to win the game. When the Hawks trailed the Huskies, 40-27, in the second half, it was Boyd who led the defensive effort and Reiner who sealed the deal at the offensive end. Plus, it should be noted that Glen Worley and Sean Sonderleiter both played well at the defensive end of the floor on Saturday night. Playing tough, smart, team defense will rarely get your name in the headlines, but it's the mark of a good leader. Here's hoping that the lessons these four seniors have learned in the last three years will propel them to a terrific final season in Iowa City.
Iowa's top seven players have plenty of experience. This will benefit the Hawkeyes a great deal this season, as we've already seen in the last two Saturday games. It appears that Coach Alford has settled into a rotation that includes Jeff Horner, Boyd, Pierre Pierce, Greg Brunner, Reiner, Worley and Sonderleiter. Every one of these guys has played a TON of minutes for the Hawks. All but Sonderleiter played at least 20 minutes against Northern Illinois. In the final 15 minutes against Louisville, the five starters played almost the entire time. The return of Worley to the rotation takes some of the pressure off of newcomers Nick DeWitz and Mike Henderson to produce right away, but it's nice to have two guys like that as the eighth and ninth men.
Horner is a very good point guard. The more I talk to Hawkeye fans, the more I think that Horner is one of the most under-rated Hawks of the last decade. Not only does he handle the ball very well against pressure, but he pushes the ball up the floor, distributes it all over the court and has the ability to put his stamp on the game in so many positive ways. I realize he's not shooting the ball very well from the perimeter…and I'm holding out hope that he will get that turned around this year. But, take a look at his numbers against Northern Illinois, for example: 37 minutes, 10 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 1 blocked shot and only 2 turnovers. Pretty impressive. But, you know what? It's actually pretty commonplace for Horner to turn in that type of performance. Here are his season averages: 35.2 minutes, 9.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals and a 3.3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio.
Pierce brings a lot to the table for Iowa. As we used to say in the 1980s… "No duh!" But, this is exactly the type of player that Iowa was missing the last couple of seasons… a good-sized, athletic wing player, who can handle the ball, get to the rim, rebound, pass and run the floor. Pierce is a slasher, a scorer, a defensive stopper and a pretty good ballhandler. You could call him somewhat of a "point forward," much like Scottie Pippen was for the Bulls during their championship run in the 1990s. This is what a small forward should be in today's game. He is a tough match-up at both ends of the court and runs in transition with the best of 'em.
The emergence of Brunner brings much-needed balance in the frontcourt. I didn't expect this type of development this quickly from the sophomore from Charles City. Whether you believe he's 5-11, 6-3 or 6-7, the results are still impressive. Brunner is averaging 27.0 minutes, 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and is shooting 73% from the field, which leads the nation, I think. Brunner has the quickness and athletic ability that gives opposing post players some trouble…and he's strong enough to overpower most small forwards on the block.
Obviously, it is still very early in the 2003-04 season, but Hawkeye fans have got to be very happy with a 6-0 start.
We are going to learn a lot more about this team in the next few weeks, as four games remain before the Big 10 Conference season begins. These contests include a game at UNI this week (where Iowa lost two years ago), a game at Texas Tech on December 22 and a game at Missouri on January 3.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)