Hawkeye Hoopers Ready to Turn Corner?

Here is something you have read from me before: Media Day is the most optimistic day of the year. Such was the case yesterday in Iowa City, as Steve Alford unveiled his 2004-2005 Iowa Hawkeyes. After speaking with Alford and the players, I have to say this. If Iowa Men's Basketball were a stock, it might be a good time to BUY.

Yesterday was the Iowa Men's Basketball Media Day event, so that means today is time for my annual commentary on how optimistic and upbeat things seemed; how full of promise the season looks and all of that.

Before I sat down to write this, I looked at my previous media day observations, in addition to thinking of those events.

I remember thinking back in the fall of 2000, after interviewing quarterback Scott Mullen, that Iowa might actually have a shot at making it to a bowl game. "Why not us?" Mullen said back then. ‘Yeah, why not you?' I recall thinking.

I still didn't pick them to go to a bowl game that year; I think I called for them to go 4-8 and they finished 3-9. Perhaps it was Mullen's optimistic outlook that pushed me up over the total.

I remember being in Carver Hawkeye last October and coming away from Media Day feeling like the team had a good chemistry feel to it, and saying that the team had the best front court in the Big Ten.

I also said this doosie: 'This appears to be the most emotionally mature ball club that Steve Alford has had at Iowa.'

Hey, if you are going to take credit for being right sometimes, you have to step into the spotlight when you fall short, and Iowa Men's basketball has fallen short of my expectations for two of the past three seasons.

So without further adieu, and with last year's feelings in my head, I will offer up some thoughts this year. I will not put any restrictor plate on them, because I am not one to stand outside the fire. If I am wrong, I am wrong.

But I just got a funny feeling about this one…

Not much ‘braggadociosness': Sure, there is always some at a media day, players saying that if they put it all together, they should be able to contend for the Big Ten title, NCAA tourney, etc. But there were no Joe Willie Namath moments on Wednesday.

More than anything, there was a collective self confidence, almost a reservation to say much of anything, outside of ‘if we can play like we know we can….'. I can understand that, after what has taken place the last few years.

But I liked it.

Two to Watch Erek Hansen and Mike Henderson. These two players were mentioned most by their teammates and coaches as being the most improved on the team from a year ago. Greg Brunner said that Hansen may look skinny, but he has added a lot of muscle and he is hard to move around. Hansen told me that he has even added a few pounds, and Henderson just looks like a player. (Programming note: I sat down with Hansen for my annual attempt to draw him out of his shell…and I got more than eight minutes worth of stuff, some of it intentionally lighthearted. I think you will enjoy reading that, as it sort of reveals what the big fella is like.

Scar Tissue Think about this for a moment: five players who will be in Iowa's rotation this year have had basketball taken away from them in some fashion and or have been on the brink of it being taken away.

Adam Haluska is the choirboy of this five-some, transferring to Iowa from Iowa State in the traditional fashion. He sat out last year per NCAA rules, but he was the object of ridicule from angry Iowa State fans. Pierre Pierce sat out the 2002-2003 season due to his legal situation. Erek Hansen missed that year after not meeting minimum eligibility requirements, the same for Mike Henderson last season. Doug Thomas went to a year of prep school, but did not make it to Iowa then. So he went the Juco route, was nearly in danger of being kicked off the team but got himself in line and finally made it to Iowa.

Some of you might be waiting for some type of hammer to drop here. Keep waiting.

I actually think the ‘scar tissue' that these guys have built up from their experiences, having had the game taken away from them or having been on the bring of that happening, will provide a little chip on the shoulder of each player. I think they are all mentally tougher for what each has experienced.

Combine those players with Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner, the two players who have had to bear the burden of their teammates not being there for them (save Haluska), those guys must feel like the Calvary has come to their aid. Jeff and Greg have real scar tissue to show for the last two years.

Where are the Chemistry Problems Going to Come From? I know some of you are wondering that, being that there have been issues with chemistry since the failure of 2001-2002.

I can tell you where it won't be; it will not be in the form of any type of power struggle over leadership within the team. Like it or not, that was a problem with last year's team. I think some wanted Horner and Pierce to be more vocal, but I think they were unsure of their place and there were some seniors who felt that was their role. By the end of the year, Brody Boyd and Glen Worley were the last seniors standing, with Jared Reiner having shut things down in January and Sean Sonderleiter quitting the team AFTER finally becoming the starter. Add in that Henderson and Nick Dewitz didn't make grades and missed the second half of the year, you are talking about ‘Days of Our Lives' in Iowa City.

There does not appear to be any such divisive elements this year. You have four freshmen who know that this is Jeff Horner, Pierre Pierce and Greg Brunner's team. Doug Thomas knows that and knows what his role is; to get rebounds and spark the team. Erek Hansen knows that his role is to block anything that comes at him. Mike Henderson knows that his teammates didn't abandon him, and that he can be the defensive stopper. Adam Haluska knows that he is going to be an important part of the team and in the offense, but he doesn't have to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership this year (though he will certainly grow into being one of the players the others look for).

This IS a Horner, Pierce and Brunner team. That does not mean that those three will take the most shots or score the most points; that is not what being a leader is about. It DOES mean that these three are prepared to take the heat when it comes. They are prepared to push the team in the right direction. They are going to be vocal on the floor, get in someone's face when it calls for it and show praise when it calls for it.

Not since Dean Oliver's senior year has Iowa had true leaders like this. Reggie and Luke were the poster children for the 2001-2002 debacle, literally. Don't think that their being singled out on the schedule poster didn't cause a rift, either, as that had been an entire senior class thing up until then.

Pierre was playing out of position on that team at point as a true frosh, and you had ‘leaders' who were maybe not the most selfless players in the world with the basketball. In 2002-2003, you had another freshman point guard and you were missing Hansen and Pierce and Marcellus Sommerville skipped town in August.

Then last year, you had more attrition and ‘class warfare' of one degree to another.

But not this year. You have a veteran point guard, veterans in Pierce, Brunner and Hansen. Haluska is a former member of the Big Twelve's All Freshman team, so he is not your average newcomer. Thomas won two national titles at the Juco level and was a key component on both squads. He also knows he is not being looked at as a scorer, so that is one less mouth to feed. Henderson got a taste last year, and is bigger and better this year. He also knows he can be a difference maker on defense. The freshman know who is boss.

I think that everything a coach would want in a team is there in some fashion, for this Iowa team. But just because you give me flour, eggs, sugar and milk, it doesn't mean I can bake a cake for squat.

It's now up to Alford and his staff to push the right buttons, play the right combinations, get on them when it's the right time and pull back when it's the right time.

Alford has an adversity-tested group of players who might just play some great basketball if they can feel the figurative sunlight on their faces. A lot of players on this team have a lot to prove to a lot of people, in addition to themselves.

I just see this year as a very exciting proposition.

There is a part of me that wants to pick them in the Sweet 16, if for no other reason than most people would think I am nuts. But that is more of feeling of seeing real things to make me very positive again.

I think the Hawks have a chance to play a very exciting brand of basketball this year and they have a chance to win back some fans that are currently on the fence.

I don't blame anyone for taking a ‘Show Me' stance right about now with this program. However, I think they are going to do just that this season and make it back to the NCAA tournament.

If things go well this year, here is something to be real excited about: every member of this team has eligibility to be back in 2005-2006.

Subscribers, you can see our media day photo galleries posted in the HN Clubhouse. Here are the links, including an amazing shot of 'Thunder' Doug Thomas soaring high above the rim going in for a dunk:
Gallery One
Gallery Two
Gallery Three

Also, be sure to check out all of our stories from Media Day: CLICK HERE for our story archive.

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