Alford Talks About Northwestern Challenges

The Iowa Men's Basketball program has to have a very successful week this week if it has any shot at a regular season Big Ten title this year. Iowa coach Steve Alford knows that his team has to be on top of its game as the Hawkeyes travel to Evanston on Wednesday and then 'back home again' against Indiana on Saturday.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about Greg Brunner's double doubles. His rebounding has always been there, is it more a matter of developing his overall offensive game, too?

Steve Alford: I think he's been one of those guys in the junior class. You look at that junior class, Hansen, Brunner, Horner, Pierce, these are four guys that have done a phenomenal job of continuing to get better. That's a credit to who they are, all four of those guys are driven. I think three of them have been driven from the outset, I think Erek's light went on last year when he got that opportunity. He was patient, he waited his turn, and once he got his turn that light went on, and he's been real good since then. All four of those guys have developed nicely, and Brunner, we're going to continue to ride him. I think he's got an unbelievable ceiling; he can get so much better. He popped in last night when we (the coaches) were watching film, I could tell he was a little giddy about another double double, and I said to him "Well, what did you think about you first half rebounding?" he said "It was pretty good" then I said "What about the second half?" Then he wanted to walk out. You get nine rebounds in one half, with someone like him you have to be thinking about 20, not just the double double. I think he can get better, and the other guys are the same way, they can continue to improve and get better. We need to make sure he understands that, and I think he does, obviously we've been very pleased with the way he's developed.

Q: Fans look at him and see a guy who leaves it all out on the floor. You guys apparently see something a little bit more, because you get after him.

Alford: We're very fortunate, especially those four that I mentioned, being juniors and being very experienced, all four of those guys give you everything they've got. I do think they're like every other player in the country, they'll have mental lapses, where they'll lose concentration, shut things down. Then all of a sudden a 15 point lead can go to 9 because we get a little careless. That's where we just continue to drive, not just Brunner, but all the guys, when you get someone down, that's when you need to crank it to a whole other level, not take a rest. Brunner did a nice job in this game, and actually took himself out. We told him "If you're exhausted and can't go, we'd rather know that to sub, than you try and play that way, because you haven't proven you can play that way yet." Then it's all part of the maturation process. He's growing, maturing, getting better and better, but we're going to continue to push because I think we see something that can get even better from Brunner.

Q: What will be the key to beating Northwestern?

Alford: I think pace of play. They scored way too easily on us in (Carver) last year, and I thought they out guarded us in the game up there. We zoned them pretty much for 40 minutes (in Evanston), Pierre didn't play the second half, there were a lot of things that happened in the game out of the ordinary. They make a last second shot to win it, we controlled most of the second half. We played from behind (in Iowa City) almost the whole night, (in Evanston) we played ahead probably 34, 35 minutes. I think board play is always a key, our aggressiveness, we've been aggressive that last three games instead of that packed-in defense that we've been playing for a while. I think those are going to be big keys, just how aggressive the pace can get. If it's slow, it always favors them.

Q: That game (at Northwestern, last week of the 2003-2004 season) pretty much hosed you in terms of the NCAA Tournament.

Alford: Both of them. You can look at a lot of different things, but if we beat Northwestern twice, we're 11-5, and I think it's a different route. This is just a big week because of the way things have gone. We got off to a bad start. We've had one bad week since we've started, that's what we're telling out guys. We've been ranked in the top 25 for two months. That hasn't happened in my 6 years, we haven't been ranked this long. Top 25 for two months, our RPI has been in the top 25 since the RPIs have come out, we've played 18 games, and they've won 14. They've done great things this year; we just had one bad week that happened to be the first week of the Big Ten. Because of that, I think this week becomes pivotal for us before we have a week off, our last week off. It sets up February, and that's what we've got to approach this weekend. If we can take care of business this week, then we're right back in the thick of things. It's a very pivotal week, the most important we've have to date.

Q: Northwestern has been kind of inconsistent in that they've rebounded well and then got killed on the boards at Penn St. What do you see in them?

Alford: It's hard for us in preparation because they've been different teams all year. They've battled the flu bug, they've had a lot of sickness go through, they've had a lot of injuries go through, (Mike) Thompson was suspended for the last game, we don't know about his availability. They've been different, different lineups, different people playing, different people sitting. I think the distractions have been more of the reason they have been inconsistent more than what they're doing stat-wise. It's hard to look at this team from a statistics standpoint because they've had so many disruptions to the ebb and flow of the season. It's a game where we've got to take care of ourselves. We've got to know what our staple is, what we do well, and we have to go in there and do those things, not worry about what's going on there, because we're not sure who's going to start, who's playing, who's in the rotation, or even the style. Their style has changed when Thompson's been in vs. when he's out. This has to be a game where we concentrate on ourselves.

Q: How has their offense evolved with Thompson?

Alford: Normally, there are 5 guys up top. The key to that Princeton offense is like that Welch kid at Air Force. You need a center that can come out and shoot the three, drive the ball from the perimeter, and pass the ball from the perimeter. With Thompson, I don't know if you get any of those things. Thompson is a low post thread, when he's been in there, it's much more of a post presence, 4 out with him inside, and it's a little different than all the movement involved with the Princeton offense. He didn't play versus Penn State so they got back to the traditional move, cut, spread you out, back cuts, hand offs, and I would assume that's what we're going to see Wednesday more than the other. They're big; (Vedran) Vukusic has been playing a lot at the 3 spot. If that's the case, they can go 6'10", 6'9", 6'8" and present some problems there at the post. We have to worry about post defense, but Air Force hurt us with that dribble drive, we've got to concentrate on taking that drive away.

Q: If I remember right, Vukusic really hurt you guys last year, what are you going to try and do to stop him?

Alford: That's hard, maybe mix up assignments on him. He's a terrific player, he's got a great shot, makes shots, puts the ball on the floor well, he can extend you to the 3 point line, and he's a very good post player. If they keep mixing him up like they're going, playing him at guard and forward, it can present some match up problems. Whether that's Brunner that's been on him in the past, an Adam, a Pierre, different bigs on him, putting a big like Erek on him, I think we have to be versatile in who we're trying to match him up with.

Q: After the game on Saturday, Greg Brunner was talking about how you guys bounced back from the Illinois game, he said "We have the desire, we have the passion that a couple of teams in the past years didn't have". Do you see it that same way, that teams the last couple of years did not have the same desire, passion?

Alford: I think last year they did. I think last year they had big time passion. You have to remember, Brunner gets hit on the head a lot. (Laughs from the media) Brunner goes in and out. Brunner's been a part of those, and we've given those captains a lot of credit, and they're worthy of it. In the same breath, those captains have to realize they haven't done anything yet. He's been a part of those two teams, he hasn't been a captain, maybe not the leader, but he's played enormous minutes, so he'd have to be referring to himself and not having passion, desire, and I don't think that's true. I think all those guys, including the seniors we had last years were very driven. Part of what we do in our scout tapes, especially in the Big Ten is watch how we did last year. For instance, we've played Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue, and now Northwestern, and in all those tapes last year, we didn't get beat because of a lack of passion or desire. We turned the ball over, or we didn't rebound, or shoot the ball well, or guard correctly, not passion or desire. Now three or four years ago we had a team that crept into us in the Big Ten season. The last couple years, that hasn't been a problem, and it's definitely not the problem this year.

Q: How would you rate this year's team in mental toughness and that type of thing?

Alford: It's getting there. Still not near where I want it to be. I say that because you have to be consistent throughout all. We've had a tough week; I think mental toughness was a major reason for the first week in the Big Ten. I think for the most part this year we've been a team that's been pretty tough mentally. We've been able to overcome things in games, at Illinois we overcame 22 turnovers and still had a chance to win on the floor of the #1 ranked team in the country. Most teams turn it over 22 times, it's a blowout. Gonzaga gets blown out, Wake Forest gets blown out, and so we've shown some pretty good toughness. I think like the previous comment about Brunner, there's still room to get better there. This is a mental toughness week, if we want to set up February; we need to get two wins this week. February becomes much more difficult if we don't get two wins this week.

Q: How much does Northwestern miss Jitim Young?

Alford: Last year he was definitely the strength of that team. From a mental standpoint, he was a big play guy, he'd get a big steal, he'd get a big rebound, he was a guard they could post, and do it very very successfully. That was an outstanding player that they lost, in saying that, they've had a lot of guys try to fill that void. (Tim) Doyle has come in and done a lot of good things for them, (T.J.) Parker has battled some illness and he's trying to get back now, Vukusic is as good a swing forward as there is in our league, and Thompson has been a good addition. A transfer from Duke that's been an outstanding addition; now whether he'll play against us we don't know yet. They've changed a little bit in the way they play. I think any time you lose a guy like that, it's like Wisconsin losing Devin Harris, it affects you, but you have to find new ways to move on, and I think they're doing that.

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