Q: You've watched Jeff Hagen sort of progress through these years, and it's been a slow go for him. He must now play major minutes, and he's a huge factor on their team.
Steve Alford: I think you look at his position, and he's had a lot of guys, all the way back to Pryzbilla and those guys that were ahead of him. They played Humphries in the middle, he was their go-to guy, Rickert was a go-to guy, so he's kind of just waited his turn. He's done a nice job of being patient with his game, and now he's the guy getting those post touches. It's a must-need for this team, because of those guys departing, they needed a guy to go to inside, and he's provided that go-to guy inside, and he's done it very well.
Q: How do you handle the pressure of, or is there a way to decrease the pressure of knowing you have to win out?
Alford: I think just one, making sure our guys know we believe in them, because that's what we've done all year, and we do believe in him. It's not to say that's going to be enough either. I think it's just taking it one game at a time, making sure the guys know how much we believe in them, and we're right there. Our whole issue is four minutes to go in each have, (laugh) it's really that simple. There are some other things we'd like to do more consistently, like turnovers against Illinois, and yet we're averaging 14 on the year. Most league winners average around 13 or 14. This year, our league winner will be different because Illinois is phenomenal averaging about 10 a game. As a whole, if you look at all the league conference winners, it's around 13, and we're averaging 14 turnovers a game. I don't like the 22 in a game here or there, board play a little inconsistent, but not major issues. The major issue that we just have not overcome this Big Ten season is finishing out each half. Four minutes to go in the half, four minutes to go in the game. We've got Minnesota down 16 points in this building with four minutes to go in the half, and we're up 6 at halftime. Those things just put so much pressure on you. If you work that hard to build a lead then you just give it all back in a 4 minute frame, or you give a team momentum, that's hard for a team that doesn't have much of a margin for error anyway to just keep battling and battling. So we just have to spend a lot of time, we've been working on it, but we've got to spend even more time on just trying to figure out those last four minutes of each half.
Q: Are they losing aggressiveness at that point?
Alford: I don't know if it's aggressiveness, sometimes it might even be the opposite, over-agression, to where we've got a player or two who almost tries to do too much who shouldn't be doing that, then some guys who are too passive. We're really going to try and almost script it, to try and help them. We can't just keep calling 2 and 3 timeouts in that time. Especially in the first half, people changes defenses, they need to be able to know what to do on the flow. Maybe just saying "Last four, this is what we're running, now handle it." "End of the game, this is what we're running, now handle it." We're just not doing a very good job of having guys get in it and knowing what their roles should be in those last four minutes.
Q: Could it be a case of maybe some guys thinking in the last four minutes, "I hope the ball doesn't come to me"?
Alford: I think we've got a combination. I think we've got a couple guys who think like that, and a couple guys who want it badly, but then force the issue. Now we don't have that trust of 5 guys on the floor just running the offense, executing the offense, being patient, getting ball reversals, and getting the good shot, not worrying about who that is. That trust factor, I don't think we've totally bought in to yet of one another. I made the point after the Illinois game, the dagger that ended game was Nick Smith. The guy that's getting the 7th or 8th most minutes on their team is the one that makes the big shot for them. We're nowhere near that in late game, late game situations.
Q: It's got to be, at least a little bit frustrating for a guy who, when you were playing, always wanted the ball in crunch time.
Alford: Well, Yeah, but I'm beyond trying to look at those things. I'm 40 years of age, and my time has come and gone. I did good things, I did bad things, and I was very blessed as a player. We've got guys that want the ball, I think it's wanting it and figuring out what to do and how to do it, that's the basketball IQ, that's the feel of the game and the leadership at the end of the game that's got to take place. We haven't gotten there yet, it's a work in progress, and the guys are working. That's why, some of the guys who have been around a long time like Bru and Jeff, it's hard for me to really get on him for this, because they get into their role, and boom, there's a January distraction and it's "We've got to do something else now" I feel for them, I really do, because these are two guys that are really working their tails off. Do they have breakdowns? Yes. But they haven't had normalcy yet, now we just have to figure that out. We know what we're dealt now and they've got to figure it out.
Q: Steve, what would you say to Iowa fans who want to be optimistic about the rest of this year, or optimistic about the future, the next year, the year after? Why should Iowa fans keep the faith and be hopeful for the future?
Alford: Because they're Iowa fans. Michigan's had three straight sellouts. (laugh) Are they very good? I think because you're Iowa fans. We've got great kids who are working their tail off, I think our staff is working our tail off, and boy, for whatever reason, we haven't been able to get over the hump. I hate that, I'm frustrated by it, I know our guys are frustrated by it. I'd hate for the fans not to believe in their team, but the biggest and most important part is for our guys to know that our coaching staff believes in them. That's first and foremost, and we do. We totally believe in them, we totally believe they can get the job done, and the ball just hasn't bounced our way. We've a lot of tight losses that have really hurt, a lot of bizarre things that have gone on. I'm watching the Minnesota Ohio State game. Ohio State's got the game won at the end, and they deflect the ball that goes off the backboard right to Minnesota for a lay-up. If that gets deflected out of bounds or deflected differently, that whole outcome changes. We haven't had that. Our guys just have to keep working, I know the staff's working, and we've got smiles on our faces. It's a tough balance, to get better and that hard toughness, but also to show optimism. Our guys are working hard enough to get it done, we've just got to be able to make plays, that's the hard part. Guys have got to be able to make plays, and hopefully through the experience of things, they'll be able to make plays.
Q: A couple of times this year you've been critical, even of this junior class, saying that they haven't shown enough leadership, either the captain-type leadership or vocal leadership. I mean they're juniors now, is something going to kick in?
Alford: I didn't mention names, I guess you can assume that it's got to be those guys, and rightly show, that's who it should be. But again, to their defense, I'm not saying it's like making a free throw, it's their job, and they've got to elevate their game. But to their defense, there were three captains, and then all of a sudden, mid January, now there are two captains, and that takes on a whole different animal. I'm going to continue to push guys like Bru and Jeff and Adam, our guys that are veterans of playing at this level. I demand more of them, I've got to be tougher on them, but I want them to also know it's nothing personal and that I really appreciate what they're giving. They're giving us an awful lot. If we don't have one of those three guys, there's no room to be optimistic here down the stretch. Those three guys are the core, the heart of it but the core and the heart has to even do more.
Q: Steve, do you ever question yourself? I'm sure you do, maybe if you're doing something wrong?
Alford: There's no question, whether it's players or coaches, when we evaluate tape, or practice, we're always trying to look to do things better. By no means have we, as coaches, done things perfectly, just like the players haven't. I think we have done everything we can, as coaches, to prepare them. Whether it's Illinois, or whoever it's been, we've executed defensively, taken people out of stuff. Wisconsin couldn't run the swing for the last 30 minutes of the game. They would go to a whole different drive and kick game. It's been a tough situation of making plays at the right time, maybe it's making adjustments at the right time. We look at games and maybe we should have made a different adjustment on a pick and roll, or a different adjustment on sub pattern, so we're always looking at those things, just like we are on guys getting a certain kind of minutes, and guys playing a certain kind of role. Absolutely I don't want you to be thinking it's a player situation. It's a player and coaches situation. With the loss of Pierre, coaches have to coach harder and players have to play harder. That makes it a difficult task, but that's what has got to happen.
Q: Do players know what to do at the end of the game, or do you assume that their basketball savvy takes over at that time and they instinctively know what to do?
Alford: It's a combination of all those things. Obviously we prepare them, get them set on what they need to do, and that's why I said maybe we need to get more scripted, which I don't like, because I've always liked the feel. A cut, a screen, a ball movement, that's always been about basketball feel. Now maybe we have to script it a little more to help them until that vocal leadership can get to a level it needs to be at, especially when you're on the road. As bad as it was at Purdue, our end of the game was worse against Illinois. We turned the ball over, we had three possessions with a chance to tie the game, and we turn the ball over all three times. Those things are very difficult to overcome so we've got to keep practicing those things. They've got enough IQ and enough of a feel. We've got new guys in those position, Mike Henderson playing late in the game that's new for him, if Doug Thomas happens to be in late in the game, that's new for him, so some of the things are new. Even for an Erek Hansen, it's still pretty new for him. Two of them, Bru and Jeff, have been around long enough. I think what you sense is those guys feel the pressure, now they're trying to do it all on their own. They're going to have to trust their team mates, and that takes time, I realize that, but we're out of time. (Laugh) So you've got to accelerate that trust that's taking place. That's got to be accelerated.
Q: In terms of scripting, you mean maybe just calling plays?
Alford: Just like "The last four minutes of the half, this is what we're running" Whether it's regular, or whatever we're running offensively, don't deviate from it. Let's stay with it, instead of worrying about a set play here or there, just so there is no confusion. I think it's hard, because somebody changes defenses, that kind of thing, that's why I don't like it, but we've got to do something to try and even overemphasize the help we can give them.
Q: Pretend like you're sitting in front of the NCAA Selection Committee right now; make a case for your team to be one of the at large teams.
Alford: We don't have it yet, I think that's what we've got to make over the next two and a half weeks. Our test run, our case is going to be made in the next two and a half weeks. We have played teams well, but with no road wins in the league, that doesn't bode well for much of a case. We've got to win road games, we've got to win our final home game, and then we've got to go into the Big Ten Conference (Tournament) with some momentum. That's our case, we have no case right now, our RPI is too high, we don't have enough wins, on the road or overall yet, and we're not above .500 in the league. If it was selection day today, we would be in trouble. We've got two and a half weeks here to make our case.
Q: Carrying that one step further, last year, when the season was over, Bob said that one of the criteria in your job review would be making the NCAA tournament. I can't remember if he said winning a game or two, but let's just say making the NCAA Tournament. Are all bets off on that because you've lost your best player? Do you think that part should be looked at differently?
Alford: I have no idea, that's something you can ask Bob. Bob can answer that when he gets back. To be absolutely totally honest, it's not something I worry about, it's not something I even think about. I was upset all weekend not because of worrying about a job. I've been in basketball a long time, I'll continue to be in basketball for a long time. It's not about worrying about a job. It's did we do what we needed to do from a coaching standpoint, how better can we help our team, how can we get across to our team to execute this or that, those are things that upset me over the weekend. Losing a game, I'm a competitor; you're in a bad mood most of the weekend just because you lost. Those other things, that's not something I worry about, or is in my control, probably a question better for Bob than it is for me.
Q: If you guys do not make the NCAA Tournament, would you automatically accept the NIT or would you have to think about that?
Alford: I don't think we ever think about accepting post season. We want postseason play. You get experience from it. I'm answering that question, not liking to answer hypothetical questions, but I would think we'd never turn down post season play. It's too valuable for us in gaining experience. There's two championships postseason after your conference tournaments are over to have a chance to win. Michigan wins the NIT last year and they've got everybody back, I'm sure they're thinking they're going to make a deep run. They're dealt some tough breaks and now they're kind of looking at it like we are. Maybe we're in a little better position than they are. That's what's been dealt, we've had some really tough road losses, we're wishing we could get back, a possession here, a possession there, and we just can't. We've got four games left, three of them on the road, so we've got a chance; we've still got an opportunity to make a case for road games. But we've got to start making due on some of that.
Q: On tape, are the Gophers playing considerably better now than they were a month ago?
Alford: That's hard, because they'd won ten in a row when we last played them. They'd been all non-conference games, then their first two Big Ten games were at home, so it's hard to say that. They'd lost four in a row, now they get a big win over Ohio State in a grind-out game. So they've been very difficult to play in there, not many teams have won in there. Wisconsin got beat in there, Michigan State has won in there, there haven't been too many other teams to go in there and win. They're playing very well, they're playing very confident, they're a team where it doesn't matter if they're playing ugly or pretty, they've found ways to be in it and get hard-fought wins. I think Dan (Monson) would agree, that was an ugly, hard-fought win against Ohio State, but ugly hard-fought wins are better than ugly hard-fought losses. I think that's what they've been doing a pretty nice job of, and Dan's done a terrific job with this team this year.
Q: Who's going to guard Grier this time?
Alford: It's a good question. I would anticipate Adam. I think Adam has just been terrific defensively since Pierre has been gone, I think he has done a very good job. He did a very good job on Head, a very good job on Teague, he's done a really nice job defensively. Since Pierre's dismissal, I think the one guy on our team that's really elevated his game at both ends has been Adam, and that's been very good to see. Obviously down the stretch we'll have to have that as well?
Q: What about your inside guys?