Here we are at the midpoint of another Iowa Men's Basketball season, and I have to look real hard to find differences between recent Steve Alford coached teams at Iowa and the team we watched get off to a great 12-1 start, only to drop its first two Big Ten games to Michigan and Ohio State.
It would have been easier to write this midseason ‘State of Iowa Basketball' address had Iowa beaten at least one of those teams, or if Iowa would have kept playing the pretty brand of basketball that allowed it to beat ranked teams in Louisville, Texas, UNI and Iowa State in late November and early December.
How can a team beat Texas Tech by 30, and making that look easier than the 30 point margin, and look so poor in its next four games, playing a brand of basketball that is so opposite to what it played in the season's first 11 games?
These are the things that drive a fan base crazy. These are the things that the Iowa Men's Basketball team can ill-afford to have take place this year, when they so desperately need to put a product on the floor that is entertaining and competitive.
It's so difficult to write this, because the majority of the 2004-2005 season has been a pleasure to watch. The majority of the season saw Iowa running and gunning, harkening back to college basketball days of yore, circa the mid to late 1980's.
Iowa was also shooting the ball extremely well, and they had what appeared to be the best collection of athletes on one team since perhaps the great 1986-1987 team.
The disappointing thing is that they still have the same players on the team right now that that they had for November and much of December.
Every one of Iowa's players made grades in the first semester; they all passed their final exams.
But since finals week, this team has been flailing and failing on the basketball court, especially in the IQ department.
One of the most refreshing things about Iowa's season, through the Texas Tech game, was how unselfish they were and how they were forcing more turnovers than they were committing. Their turnover totals were down from a year ago, or rather, every year of the Alford era, an era that has been hallmarked by his teams taking atrocious care of the basketball and just not playing with a high basketball IQ.
I don't know exactly what that is a reflection of; Is it coaching? Is it the motion offense? If Alford knew, he would fix it, so I certainly can't pretend to know the answers, either.
Take Saturday's Ohio State game, for instance. That game was a microcosm of Big Ten basketball at Iowa under Steve Alford.
Iowa commits 16 turnovers, 10 in the first half, they allowed the Buckeyes to hit eight first half three-point shots (they allowed Michigan to hit seven of them on Wednesday), and they have just eight assists.
What we have seen in Iowa's first two Big Ten games is a team that stands around at times, a team that dribbles far too often, a team that appears to be selfish, a team that dribbles into corners and traps with too great a frequency and a team that is starting to get a little bit chippy with one another out on the court.
Do you think that Pierre Pierce's teammates like seeing him chuck 24-footers in crucial situations? Alford certainly can't like that, but one wouldn't know, because Pierce is rarely taken out of a game or scolded, at least in public view.
It's not so much that Pierce, a lifetime .248 three-point shooter before the game against Ohio State, shouldn't shoot a three here or there (then again, maybe he shouldn't). It's that he chooses to do it at times when the team needs a much better shot, or needs someone else to shoot the three who makes three-pointers at a much higher percentage than does Pierce.
Pierce is the biggest enigma I can recall in all of my years of watching Iowa basketball. He is so disruptive on the defensive end, and he gets so many easy baskets. He is the best player on the team at attacking the rim, and at times, when he lets the game come to him, he is a good passer.
But there are far too many spurts in games where he just gives the ball away too often or he cripples an Iowa run with poor shot selection.
It would also appear that teams have figured out a way to contain Jeff Horner. They are overplaying him in man-to-man sets, and Horner, for all of the great things that he can do with a basketball, does not have the quickest first step and is not going to beat many people off of the dribble. Horner is at his best when he is coming off of screens to pop jump shots, just like his coach was back in his playing days at Indiana.
Horner looks frustrated out there on the court, as does Greg Brunner. Brunner has had to carry Iowa's inside load by himself, something that he has had to do for the better part of the last year. Erek Hansen is a great weapon on defense, but Michigan and Ohio State have come right at him early in the games to get him in foul trouble.
If you remove Hansen from the equation, Iowa is a totally different team.
Adam Haluska is in some kind of funk, as well. He played just 15 minutes against Ohio State, and he did not have a great floor game, turning the ball over three times and taking the ball into spots on the floor where he should not be taking it.
Doug Thomas gave Iowa some good minutes on Saturday, but he has been very inconsistent, which is understandable for a Juco player.
Iowa's bench has been nonexistent this season, and there have been few opportunities in recent games for development.
I know that this all sounds extremely negative; it is. I hate writing things like this, but Iowa is now two games into the Big Ten season, and they are 0-2. They have a week off before hosting a Minnesota team that has shown more life than many thought it would, and then Iowa travels to face Illinois on January 20th. You have to be realistic and say that Iowa's best case scenario after one-quarter of the Big Ten is 1-3, because the Iowa team we have watched play its last four games is not going to go into Champaign and emerge victorious. At this rate, keeping the game within 20 points by halftime might be considered a moral victory.
If there is a sliver lining to any of this, it's that we know that this team can play so much better. We know they can play unselfishly, we know they can shoot the ball better, we know they can pass better, we know they can play well in transition and we know they can defend better.
The effort we saw for a full month of this year was not a fluke. 11 games is not a fluke.
But when a program needs to fire up its fan base in order to get them out to Carver Hawkeye Arena after three years of NIT bids and basketball mediocrity, losing the first two games of the Big Ten season while playing a brand of basketball that is far too familiar to recent years is not the way to do it.
As far as I know, all of Iowa's players are eligible to play for the entire season. They are healthy for the most part and there does not appear to be any players looking to transfer out of the program or just quit altogether.
One or more of those factors has plagued Iowa in each of its last three basketball seasons, allowing the optimist in some fans to be hopeful for better and smoother sailing days ahead.
Before this season started, one thing was clear; there would be no excuses possible for this team not making the NCAA tournament this year, as they have the talent to get there.
This team could very well win 10 games in conference play, but now they have to go 10-4 in the last 14 games to do that. The remaining schedule includes two games against #1 Illinois, one game each against Michigan State and Wisconsin, and two games against a pesky Northwestern team that beat Iowa twice last season.
Iowa needs to go 8-8 in the Big Ten to get to the 20 win mark, but as well as they played during the first month of this season, that might be disappointing to some. It will be too similar to what took place in the last 10 years of the Tom Davis era; coming out and rolling it up in the non-conference, only to finish too close to the .500 mark in Big Ten play.
Alford was hired to take the Iowa basketball program to another level. This team is very talented, and they can still do some damage in the league and fight for a top three finish; all hope is not lost.
But right about now would be a good time for Steve Alford to figure out what is wrong with his team, because there are no academic casualties, serious injuries or transfers to deal with this year.