Coach Steve Alford can argue all he wants about whether or not this Hawkeye squad is "Jeff Horner's basketball team" or not. Maybe Alford doesn't want there to be hard feelings or egos clashing within his already depleted ranks.
It doesn't matter.
This IS Jeff Horner's basketball team. And it has been for much of the last two seasons. When Horner plays well, the Hawkeyes look like a very good team. Even as a freshman, this was often times the case. For example, one of Horner's best games was in Iowa City against Illinois…and not coincidentally, that was one of Iowa's best games.
But, the fact that this is Horner's team—or however you want to phrase it—goes way beyond comments like, "As Horner goes, so go the Hawkeyes." It simply appears to me that he is the LEADER of this team. He may be a quiet guy. He might not be terribly emotional.
Gee, that doesn't seem to affect Coach Kirk Ferentz's leadership much, now does it?
Would I like to see Horner become a little more vocal with his teammates at times? Yes…and I'm sure he'll become more comfortable with that as his career goes along. But, the sophomore from Mason City does so many other things for this basketball team that there is no question that he is the target for opponents when they play Iowa. For example…
- Horner handles the ball for roughly 35 to 38 minutes per game. He gets Iowa—the highest scoring team in the Big 10 (78 ppg), by the way—into its offense.
- Much like another Mason City grad (Dean Oliver), you never have to worry about Horner buckling against pressure from an opposing defense. You have confidence that the Hawks will get the ball up the floor against a press…and probably get a decent look at the basket when they do. How important is that? Think back just two seasons ago when Pierre Pierce, as a freshman, was entrusted with that duty. It wasn't nearly as smooth…and it cost the Hawks a handful of close games (and an NCAA Tournament bid).
- Horner makes his free throws. While some of his teammates have struggled mightily in this area, the point guard has made 83% from the line. Again, in a close game, he's a guy you WANT to have the ball. He can handle the ball and he'll knock down the freebies.
- He's unselfish. No matter how easy it is for you to under-estimate the importance of this fact…DON'T. A team with a selfish point guard is usually a team that has a lot of guys who want to "get theirs" because that's the attitude demonstrated from the top. On the other hand, a point guard who is always looking to push the ball up the floor with the pass and always looking to distribute the basketball around in the half-court offense will make everyone around him a better player. Horner does these things. Trust me, his teammates have to love playing with this guy.
- He puts pressure on opposing defenses in transition. Horner sees the floor and passes it up court as well—or better—than any Iowa point guard that I've ever seen. And that puts an enormous amount of pressure on opponents to rotate back defensively in transition or risk giving up easy baskets to guys like Brody Boyd…or even a post player who's running the floor.
- Horner rebounds the ball like few guards can. Through 18 games, the sophomore is averaging 5.4 rebounds per game. Pretty impressive for a guy so many people (mistakenly) refer to as unathletic.
- He's shooting the ball well from the perimeter. I know that Horner struggled with his three-point shooting as a freshman, but take a look at his numbers this season. He's made 36 bombs so far at a 42% clip. This is another way that he puts pressure on an opposing defense and creates spacing for Iowa's half-court offense.
And if you're still having trouble accepting the fact that Horner is a terrific basketball player, I want you to consider his ranking in the conference for Big Ten games this season in a variety of statistics…
Obviously, Horner has a very well-rounded game. Clearly, he is the engine that makes Iowa go.
One thing that has been bugging me lately is that several Hawkeye fans that I've spoken with seem to completely under-rate what Horner brings to the table. And I'm not sure why that is. I have my suspicions, but they have nothing to do with what actually happens on the floor on game nights. For some reason, Iowa fans have a tendency to under-rate homegrown talent. I don't know why, but it's frustrating to listen to those comments at times.
I just hope that all Hawkeye fans begin to appreciate soon what many (if not most) of us can already see: Jeff Horner is a special player and is the leader of this basketball team.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)