The 2003-2004 season came to an end on Tuesday night in St. Louis.
For a program that has dealt with so much disappointment over the course of the past three seasons, the buzzer beater that went in against the Billikens, after Iowa had amassed an 18-point first half lead, was just another dagger in a series of painful blows along the way.
Dr. Kevorkian may have wanted to step in to ease the pain much earlier in the process, as more than a few Hawkeye fans may have volunteer for euthanasia long before their NIT opener.
It's been a very difficult three year stretch for the black and gold faithful as it relates to the Men's Basketball program.
YEAR OF PROMISE
With Luke Recker and Reggie Evans coming back from the 2000-2001 season that ended with a miraculous four wins in four days at the Big Ten tournament, things seemed very good for the program.
That 00-01 team had won 23 game, tied for the third best single season win total in team history. The heralded freshman class would be sophomores, Recker and Evans were pre-season all American candidates and Iowa was ranked in most pre-season top 10 polls.
But Iowa lost point guard Dean Oliver to graduation, a fact that many fans, including this writer, overlooked.
By the time the dust settled on the 2001-2002 season, Iowa finished with just five wins in Big Ten play, an inconceivably low number given the talent on that team. It was easily one of the most disappointing seasons in Iowa basketball history, and the grumblings among the fan base began to stir.
Cortney Scott transferred at mid-season and he left town talking about favoritism and more. Many people shrugged it off at the time as a player just being bitter.
Marcellus Sommerville had redshirted during the 2001-2002 season, something he was not pleased with. Before classes began in the fall of 2002, Sommerville had packed his bags and transferred to a Junior College in Illinois with plans to transfer to Bradley in his hometown of Peoria, IL.
Would be freshman Josh Rhodes never even made it to classes, heading back home before the fall semester even began. Erek Hansen did not make grades during his redshirt freshman season, and he was playing at Kirkwood.
Pierre Pierce would miss that season due to a serious off court incident.
Iowa's roster was depleted, to be sure. Jared Reiner and Greg Brunner played with broken bones in their fingers, broken noses, bad ankles and more. Jeff Horner also had a very bad ankle most of the year.
That team won seven Big Ten games and given how short handed they were, they actually overachieved in winning 17 games, including a thriller in the NIT against Iowa State in Ames. It was Larry Eustachy's last game as Iowa State's head coach.
THE PAYOFF YEAR
2003-2004 was to have been the year where the program got back to the NCAA tournament and showed signs of progress.
The recruiting class of Reiner, Glen Worley, Brody Boyd and Sean Sonderleiter were seniors, and each of those players had seen significant playing time in their careers. Four seniors is a luxury that many teams do not enjoy in this day and age of college basketball.
New faces were also dotting the roster. Highly anticipated Juco transfer Nick DeWtiz was eligible to play after sitting out the previous season. Freshman point guard Mike Henderson was going to be counted on to play a solid reserve role. Hansen was back from Kirkwood. Iowa had a bench and they had perhaps the Big Ten's best returning front court and a deep enough backcourt.
At media day, once could not help but see how well everyone got along.
Then came the loss at Northern Iowa. Then a few more losses. Then rumors of some discontent on the bus trip home from Missouri. Nick DeWitz was not going to class and Mike Henderson was not far behind him. Each player missed games due to those issues, including Henderson missing the UNI game.
Jared Reiner began to complain of pain in his foot and had it x-rayed prior to the UNI game.
That would later be revealed to be a stress fracture, shutting down Reiner's season before the Big Ten season got going in earnest.
DeWitz and Henderson would be ruled ineligible.
Sonderleiter was now the starting center for Iowa once Reiner went down, but a few games later, he quit the team, citing personal reasons.
Iowa was once again in a familiar position: shorthanded and amid turmoil, distraction, disappointment.
The team was able to win nine games in Big Ten play, good for fourth place. It was the high water mark of the Alford era. Many experts feel that the Big Ten was at its lowest point in decades in 2003-2004. Iowa won just one game against teams that would qualify for the NCAA tournament, and they were 0-5 against the teams that finished above them in league play.
Then came Tuesday night's game, a game that seemed a microcosm for the entire season…or the past three seasons.
Show signs of brilliant offensive execution, build a big lead, play extended periods of time with mental lapses and forcing far too many turnovers, and fall just short at the end.
Sure, there have been some bad luck breaks along the way, if you believe in luck. But you also make your own luck, and bad breaks happen more easily when you are down to just six scholarship players in your rotation.
To call this year an unmitigated failure might be too strong, because who knows what good might come of it down the road. I just know that several of these players have tasted more adversity than they would like, and they have had enough of it to build a Mt. Rushmore of character.
This season was certainly another disappointment, a word that has been used far too often in the Steve Alford era at Iowa. Alford avoided becoming just the second Iowa head coach to not post at least a .500 record in Big Ten play in five seasons, but just barely, and also in a league that sent an all-time low three teams to the NCAA tournament.
The team plays far too sloppy for too much of most games. Alford and his coaches would be the first to agree with that statement, as the numbers show it to be true.
All five Alford coached teams have had more turnovers than assists.
In Tom Davis' 13 years at Iowa, seven of his teams had more assists than turnovers. Here are their win totals:
Until Alford can get his teams to take better care of the basketball and not see teams average eight to 12 more shot attempts per game than his teams, Iowa will continue to be an average basketball program, at best.
That is my biggest ‘game time' criticism of the Alford era. Being that I have never coached basketball at any level, I am hesitant to dissect x's and o's.
I like the motion offense when Iowa runs it the way it is designed to be run and when they have the proper floor spacing. Iowa has shown that it can play some defense, too, and Hansen emerging as a potential defensive star was a nice product of this season and the turmoil beneath the boards.
This team recorded more blocked shots than any other Iowa team that didn't have Acie Earl on it, dating back to the 1970's when blocked shots began being tracked.
Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner, Pierre Pierce and Hansen form a solid nucleus to build around for the next two seasons.
The addition of Adam Haluska will be quite welcome next year, and if Mike Henderson gets things squared away in the classroom, Iowa's backcourt will be in very good shape.
Iowa expects to sign Doug Thomas this spring, and he will bring more athleticism to the team, another solid shot blocker and another rebounding presence that Iowa lost this year when Reiner went down.
On paper, next year's team should be salty.
But given Iowa's recent track record of defections and off the court problems, and given that the start of practice is not for another six months, you don't want to count your chickens before they hatch.
And what of Steve Alford, some fans are asking? Give him another year? Call for his ouster?
A vocal portion of the fan base has seen enough of the Alford era and would like to see the final years of his contract bought out.
That buyout would cost Iowa $500,000 per year through 2009. A suitable replacement for Alford would probably cost between $600,000-$750,000 per year. Add Alford's buyout on to that figure and that would be the cost to replace him. Alford makes at or above $1,000,000 per year right now as Iowa's head coach, so you are talking about a few hundred thousand more per year to make a change.
If Iowa keeps Alford beyond March 31st, a $300,000 retention bonus kicks in, and I believe there two more such bonuses before the contract expires. If Alford stays through the life of the contract, it costs Iowa more than $5,000,000. A buyout would cost about half of that.
Does Bob Bowlsby believe that the basketball program is going in the right direction? He has said recently that he feels Alford does things the right way and that he sees progress.
Rumors of Sam Alford's retirement continue to swirl, and Iowa could start the 2004-2005 season with a new assistant coach.
It seems that there might be some change.
Personally, I want to see what Alford and his coaches can do with the players that SHOULD be here next year.
However, I think I said that last year, too.
Some will call me stubborn, some will call me a glutton for punishment, some will agree, some will think I am nuts.
That is where the Iowa basketball fans are today…they are scattered across the spectrum.
There are the haters, there are the extreme loyalists, there are the Alfordites, there are those that have seen enough and there are the apathetics, the most dangerous group in the bunch.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: a percentage of the fan base wants Alford gone. A percentage of the fan base will support Alford no matter what, because they will support whoever is the coach at Iowa just for that simple fact. And there is a percentage in the middle. If that ‘unclaimed' number gravitates towards apathy, that means fewer tickets sold, period.
Just take a look at our message boards today, and you will see all points of that spectrum represented.
And with what Kirk Ferentz and the football program have done and will probably continue to do, getting those dollars back into the athletic department coffers will be more challenging as time goes by, unless the basketball team wins with consistency and is in the NCAA tournament with regularity.
I am not even going to say that Alford deserves another year; I am just saying that I want to see it.
Or I should say, I want to see next year with EVERYONE we expect will be on the team. A full year of that is what I want to see, because I think that team could be fun to watch and should be more than competitive night in and night out.
Call me what you will: lunatic, optimist, masochist…
Given the day, they might all apply.