So, the Hawks are headed for St. Louie. Another season…another trip to the NIT. Hmmm. Well, I don't think anybody is particularly THRILLED with this outcome to the 2003-04 season, but I guess it is what it is.
I know that Iowa fans—including me—will be pulling for the Hawkeyes to make as much noise in the NIT as possible. However, it is difficult for me to hide the disappointment of making only ONE Big Dance in the last five seasons.
While I was growing up, it seemed the Hawks made the NCAA Tourney almost every season. In fact, from 1979 to 1999, Iowa played in 16 of 21 NCAA Tournaments…winning 21 games in The Madness during that stretch.
I remember the day I picked up the Des Moines Register on March 29, 1983 and found out that Lute Olson had left Iowa to take the job at Arizona. I couldn't figure out what in the world he was thinking about. Maybe he really liked the warmer weather…maybe he thought it would be easier to recruit players to that climate…maybe he just wanted to leave Iowa. As an eighth-grader in my home room, it was pretty difficult to process.
Lute left the Hawkeyes for a team that had a 4-24 record in the 1982-83 season. In his first year at Arizona, the Wildcats did not make it to The Dance. But incredibly, Lute has taken Arizona to the NCAA Tournament EVERY SINGLE SEASON since then…20 consecutive invitations to the greatest event in sports.
So, while it's not EASY to make it to the NCAA Tourney, it's definitely possible to get there on a consistent basis. And you don't have to be Lute Olson or located in the West to do it, either, as the Iowa basketball program has proven before over a 21-year stretch of time. Perhaps this is the one lull in a 50-year period…I don't know.
But, here we are. It's 2004 and thoughts of playing Kentucky, St. Joseph's, Texas or, heck, even a rematch with UNI in March have faded away.
(Pause to regroup and acquire a boost of positive energy.)
The good news is that this Iowa team is a team full of players who you pull for with all you've got. The Hawkeyes play hard, they don't give up, they don't bicker with each other on the floor and they clearly WANT to win.
So, what kind of team will the Hawks face in St. Louis?
A pretty similar team to Wisconsin, I think. A team that wants to play a half-court style of basketball, seriously limiting your opportunities to score in transition and a team that will do everything it can to take away your chances to score in the paint.
Very fundamentally sound and focused, the Billiken team is coached by former Wisconsin head coach—and Dick Bennett assistant—Brad Soderberg. I have always been impressed with Soderberg's coaching style…and I think he gets a maximum effort from his teams.
Soderberg was the head coach at Loras from 1988-93, so he has plenty of Iowa ties. Prior to his stint in Wisconsin with Bennett, he served as the head coach at South Dakota State, as well. I met Soderberg at the Iowa Boys State Tournament in 1995 and one of his SDSU assistants at that time was Mark Hutcheson, who is now the head coach at Linn-Mar, which will be playing in the Class 4A State Tournament this week. As you probably know, Linn-Mar's top player is sophomore point guard Jason Bohanon…the son of former Iowa QB Gordy Bohanon, who played at Iowa at the same time that Lute Olson was coaching in Iowa City.
It's a small, small world, my friends. But I digress.
The five keys for Iowa against Coach Soderberg's Billiken team will be fairly basic…
- Take care of the basketball. The Billikens will play very solid TEAM defense and they prey on opponents becoming passive with the ball. Iowa cannot afford to make five or six unforced, or careless, turnovers against this team.
- Win the rebounding battle. St. Louis will work the ball patiently on offense to get the shot the Billikens want, so Iowa cannot afford to give them two or three chances with any regularity…or you might be watching possessions that last 60 to 80 seconds for St. Louis.
- Knock down mid-range and perimeter jump shots. While St. Louis does a great job of keeping teams out of the lane, the Billikens have to give up something to get something. As a result, Iowa should be able to drive and kick for some open looks on the perimeter. But, to make the St. Louis defense get a little weaker, Iowa must MAKE a fair percentage of these shots. With Brody Boyd's mentality and Jeff Horner's newfound stroke, I like the Hawkeyes' chances to get the floor spread a little more than St. Louis likes. Glen Worley's mid-range jumper could really help.
- Iowa CANNOT forget to attack the paint. One of the things that Bennett's, Soderberg's and, to an extent, Bo Ryan's teams take advantage of is that teams will stop looking to attack the middle of the floor and the paint against them. While Iowa needs to remain patient offensively, the Hawks must continue to look to feed the post, whether it's in the low-, mid- or high-post, and penetrate into the lane, whether it's to shoot or to dish. Keep attacking…that's a key to having success against St. Louis.
- Transition defense. You might not think this is as important an area against a team that really doesn't like to run a lot. But, it's still a very key facet of the game, as Iowa will need to keep St. Louis from getting any EASY baskets, which could give them any additional confidence in remaining patient in half-court situations. In other words, if Iowa gives up six to 10 points in transition, and this game is in the 50s, that's a pretty large percentage of the Billikens' offense. The other fear is that easy baskets in transition might give St. Louis a six- to eight-point lead on the scoreboard, which also gives the Billikens additional confidence in remaining patient in the half court. The Hawkeyes' transition defense was pretty poor against Michigan last Friday, especially during the Wolverines' big run in the middle of the game. In my opinion, that gave Michigan's players more confidence shooting the ball…and really led to a snowball effect for them.
Here's hoping that the Hawkeyes can keep this season alive with a strong showing in St. Louis. It's going to take a great effort—and a disciplined performance—but it would be great to see this Iowa team put together a run that can give it some momentum heading into 2004-05.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)