Marty: Hawks score a HUGE victory in Big 10 opener

The Hawks had to have this one. You knew it. I knew it. They knew it. Gene Keady might have even been aware of it. Nothing in sports is more difficult to predict than how a team will respond when its back is up against the wall. And although Iowa might not quite have been securely "against the wall" coming into its Big 10 opener, the Hawks could certainly smell the wall from where they were.

After all, the Hawkeyes had dropped three of their last four games to UNI, Texas Tech and Missouri…in some ugly, sluggish contests (that's probably being kind). And the lone victory was a second-half comeback against Eastern Illinois. Not a good stretch by any means.

Add to that the mounting pressure on Coach Alford to put together a winning record in the Big 10—something he has yet to do as he enters his FIFTH season in the league—and I think you can guess this team was prepared to do everything possible to earn a victory on Wednesday night.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to describe the 71-61 victory over Purdue was that it looked like a "Bizarro World" Hawkeye win. Consider the following…

  • Iowa was 29 for 37 (78%) at the free-throw line. Coming into this game, the Hawks had been really hurting themselves at the line (64%).
  • Pierre Pierce—at least that's who it LOOKED like—was 13 of 16 (81%) at the foul line. He entered the game shooting 58% at the charity stripe.
  • Iowa's point guard (Jeff Horner) led the team in rebounding with 10.
  • Iowa's center (Jared Reiner) tied for the team lead in assists with 4.
  • Brody Boyd made three field goals…from a total distance of about five feet.
  • Iowa received a tremendous boost from its bench with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 8 for 11 shooting from the floor in a total of 40 minutes from Glen Worley, Mike Henderson and Sean Sonderleiter.
  • Henderson scored twice as many points (8) as Greg Brunner (4).
  • The Hawks, who have been struggling offensively, scored as many points as anyone has all season against Purdue, which usually plays tremendous defense. The Boilermakers had already beaten Duke this season and later held Oklahoma to 47 points in a two-point loss.
  • Brody Boyd, who some fans think doesn't play any defense, had 50% more steals than the entire Purdue team (6 to 4).
  • Sonderleiter provided a very important spark at the offensive end of the floor, with six points and an assist, during a key stretch with about 10 minutes to play.

Add it all up and you've got a very, very big victory for Iowa to open the Big 10 season. This is a veteran group, led by six or seven guys who have played a LOT of minutes in this conference. There is little doubt that the Big 10 is as much "up for grabs" this season as it has been in recent memory…and there is usually a surprise team that works its way into a top three finish. Could the Hawkeyes find themselves in the hunt in February? Possibly.

But, there is still a lot of work to do, of course. And there are some scary statistics to overcome. For example…

  • Coach Alford's Big 10 record coming into this season was 25-39 (39%). So, make no mistake, there is pressure to win. Especially when you consider that his predecessor, Tom Davis, had a 41-27 (60%) mark in the Big 10 during his last four seasons at Iowa before he was asked to leave. Hawkeye fans are not used to this type of drought and, as a result, there has been some apathy set in…as evidenced by the 11,875 turnout against Purdue.

  • The four seniors—Reiner, Boyd, Sonderleiter and Worley—had a 19-29 (40%) record in the Big 10 during their first three seasons. Only one four-year letterwinner in Iowa history did not enjoy a single winning season in the Big 10. That was Larry Parker, who played from 1973-76, when Iowa went 27-37 (42%) in the conference.

So thank goodness for the good start to the conference season for this senior class. Hopefully, they will be able to build on this momentum and put together another strong outing against Northwestern this Saturday. A 2-0 start would be terrific.

There were a handful of key areas that Iowa showed some improvement in against Purdue, including turnovers (13), free-throw shooting (29 of 37) and bench production (16 points, 8 boards). And is it a coincidence that the only two games this season that Reiner has played 30+ minutes (Louisville and Purdue) are unquestionably Iowa's two best games so far? Hmmm. It was also great to see Pierce cut down on his turnovers, with only ONE against the Boilers.

It's great for the Hawks to be 1-0, but there is still a long way to go, of course. Hopefully, we'll see Iowa continue to improve in some of the aforementioned areas and the Hawkeyes can get themselves into the title hunt during the second half of the conference season. It should be fun to watch.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)


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