With the 2004-2005 Iowa Men's Basketball season behind us, and with Mike Davis seemingly safe at Indiana for another year, I felt it was time to hand out some grade cards for this year's efforts.
CATEGORY ONE: EXPECTATIONS VS RESULTS
The Hawks started out red hot, climbing into the Top 15 by late December with a sparkling 12-1 non-conference record. Wins against Texas Tech (Sweet 16) and Louisville (Final Four) were impressive, as were wins over eventual NCAA tourney qualifiers Texas, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. 12-1 was one game better than what I expected to see out of the Hawks, and my 11-2 prediction was probably pretty optimistic, based on the solid field in Maui and recent Iowa history of playing below expectations.
Then Big Ten play started with a thud for Iowa, losing the opener at home to Michigan and then on the road to Ohio State, a team that I certainly underestimated heading into this season.
The worst loss in recent memory came in Pierre Pierce's second to last game as a Hawkeye, when Iowa blew a late 12-point lead and lost in overtime at Northwestern. A win meant a record of 3-3 and a two-game winning streak. The loss dropped Iowa to 2-4 and had everyone asking the same old questions; were we witnessing the typical midwinter debacle?
Iowa beat Indiana in Pierce's final game as a Hawkeye to get to 3-4, but then it lost five of its next six to drop to 4-9 with three to play. To their credit, Iowa won its final three games, something it had to do in order to have any chance at the Big Dance.
The Hawks then beat Purdue in the opening round of the Big Ten tourney and pulled a major upset in beating Michigan State, a Spartan team that has beaten the likes of Duke and Kentucky since losing to Iowa in early March.
The Hawks dropped their next game against Wisconsin, an eventual Elite Eight participant, on a three-point buzzer beater, finishing the regular season with a record of 21-11.
They earned their first at large NCAA tourney bid under Alford but lost to Cincinnati in the first round of the tournament, snapping Iowa's 10-tourney streak of not losing its first NCAA game.
So did they live up to expectations? I had Iowa at 22-7 in the regular season portion of their schedule, and they finished 19-10. Perhaps realistic expectations would have called for a record of 20-9, so Iowa finished just below realistic expectations.
This was also the first time in school history that Iowa played all four Final Four teams in the same season.
Since they wound up making the tournament in spite of the Pierce issue, I think one can look at that in the overall grading of this year's efforts. However, had they not made the tournament, I for one would not have allowed such latitude regardless of that circumstance.
Taking that into account, and realizing that the team had to regroup and some young players had their roles changed with two-thirds of the season completed, I would have to say that after all the smoke had settled, Iowa probably lived up to its expectations for this year. Though they lost five of six after Pierce's dismissal, they then won five of six, including five straight games that were pretty much under ‘must win' pressure.
Regardless of how you feel about Steve Alford, they came on strong down the stretch and played some good basketball against some good teams. The fact that Michigan State is in the Final Four and Wisconsin made the Elite Eight, two teams that Iowa played even basketball with just three weeks ago, provides some optimism for next year.
It's hard to assign a grade to this, as if living up to expectations is the norm, then a ‘C' grade is considered average. But the team played better than average down the stretch, they played one of the toughest schedules in the country and they overcame the loss of their leading scorer, so I will give them a ‘B'.
OFF THE COURT DISTRACTIONS
We don't need to run down the laundry list from the past here, as we all know it too well.
There was yet another off the court distraction, embarrassment and/or tragedy, however you want to label it, that involved the Iowa program this year. The fact that it was Pierre Pierce's second such incident (and along the same lines as his first incident, one that created an amazing controversy within the Iowa fan) base was even more disturbing and potentially damning to Alford.
This time around, Alford remained mum for the most part, save his dismissal from the team, something that was a no-brainer. Comments attributed to Associate Head Coach Craig Neal in Sports Illustrated regarding Pierce having a ‘big heart' were untimely and insensitive, even if they were taken out of context.
The fact that this took place 20 games into the season, more than two-thirds of the way completed, was even more bothersome. Just when the program had seemingly gotten past such distractions, Pierce dropped a bomb on Iowa. It would be interesting to know what Alford's private thoughts were at that time.
So in this important department, Iowa receives a grade of a ‘D' from me.
Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner gave you what you expected, which is the normal maturation for players of their caliber. Though Horner endured a shooting slump during the middle portion of the season, he also had more assists (180) this year than he has had in any other season at Iowa. He is on pace to do things that no other Iowa player has done and few Big Ten players have accomplished.
Brunner is also on pace to have a remarkable career scoring and rebounding the ball, and he has a realistic shot at the Iowa record for rebounds in a career. He needs 235, and he had 275 this year.
Adam Haluska certainly improved this year over what we saw two years ago when he was at Ames. Sure, he was on the Big Twelve's All Rookie team that year, but Haluska's three-point shooting is much better now than it was, and he really stepped it up after Pierce's dismissal and he wound up scoring four more points than Horner on the year.
Is there much room for those three to get better? In the case of Horner and Brunner, all you can ask for is more consistency and vocal leadership, something that you ask every senior to provide. Haluska can improve on his ball handling and passing skills, and really work on becoming a force on the block, posting up smaller players.
Mike Henderson came on strong down the stretch, too, and he was the catalyst in Iowa's win against Michigan State. He is Iowa's best threat at dribble penetration, and he needs to continue to work on his decision making abilities and not being careless with the basketball.
Erek Hansen looked like the most improved player in the country in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and he certainly was a better player this year than he was one year ago. But the Big Ten bodies nullified his ability to rebound and he became foul prone, denying Iowa the use of his exceptional shot-blocking skills. He still would have to be considered and improvement.
Doug Thomas came on strong at the end of the year and certainly improved over the course of the season. Thomas was never slated to be an offensive weapon, but he was counted on to be a strong rebounder. He did that late in the year and he learned to stay out of foul trouble.
Carlton Reed had trouble with the pressure of filling a big role in Pierce's absence, and all facets of his game suffered because of it. But he was just a freshman. Alex Thompson showed flashes during the year, and Seth Gorney was not used enough to get a read on things, nor was JR Angle. Jack Brownlee played well down the stretch, which was a pure bonus.
On the whole, it's hard to say that the majority of the players on the team were better this year than one year ago, or markedly better. I would rate this category a ‘C'.
IN GAME COACHING/PROGRAM MANAGEMENT
This one is always a slippery slope, because none of us knows what play is called. So I added ‘Program Management' here to broaden the topic.
I have never felt that Alford was a poor bench coach. I think the guy knows the game; it's his communication skills that I have always questioned.
As in him getting into his players through the media, communication skills. That is never a good thing, and most of the great coaches do not do that, or at least, do not do that as often as Alford has during his tenure at Iowa.
Though he didn't come out and name Jeff Horner a time or two this year, his comments had to have been aimed at Horner on a few occasions. I don't know what the relationship is like between Alford and Horner; the two speak publicly that all is fine. I am not sure that I buy that, but I don't have any other choice.
The fact of the matter is that it does not matter if the players like Alford or not. What matters is that they execute what the coaches put together. If they do that and things don't work, then the blame falls on the coaches. Again, that is a slippery fish to get in the boat, because we cannot define much of it.
There are always the Monday morning quarterbacking observations that can be made; Alford doesn't use his timeouts like the fans feel he should, Iowa doesn't feed the post well for the 6th straight year, Iowa doesn't take good enough care of the basketball, etc.
I don't know where the truth lies, but Iowa had yet another Big Ten implosion this year, winning just four of its first 13 league games.
It seems like this team can stay focused through finals, but once they get back from Christmas break and the Big Ten season starts, it's difficult for them to carry over the momentum.
But as much as that is the case, you cannot ignore the fact that Iowa won five straight games late in the season, all of the ‘must win' variety, including a win against Final Four bound Michigan State, and lost to Elite Eight Wisconsin on a last second buzzer beating three-point shot.
They have to be doing something right.
Overall, the grade point average of those combined categories is 2.25. Back when I was going to college, you needed a 2.49 to be considered in the ‘B-minus' range, and 2.25 mean you were somewhere between a ‘C-plus' and a ‘C'.
If I were grading the program on the whole for the last six years, a ‘C' would be the best grade that I could think of. We know the litany of reasons, excuses, defections, accusations, etc, and I am tired of bringing them up.
I said to start the season that if Alford and Co. made the Big Dance, then they should come back. But I also said that if they did not make the dance, a changed needed to be made.
They made it, so I am fine with another year.
But this is a VERY important year.
The next eight months might be the most eight months for the last 25 or more years of the Iowa basketball program.
Iowa can sign up to five players come November of 2005. Those five players are going to be the nucleus of the program from 2006 through 2010. Those are going to be the players who either help Iowa get back to regular appearances in the NCAA tournament, or far too frequent trips to the NIT.
Alford has another chance to succeed, and I admit that Iowa's late run this year was very entertaining and brought some of the fun back to the program. But there was little time to rest on those successes, as the assistant coaches were off on the recruiting trails.
In my book, Alford enters next season under the same expectations as he did this year; go to the dance, you deserve another year. Don't make the dance, it's time for a change. This team has the talent to make the NCAA tourney next year, as every player save Jack Brownlee who was on the bench or court when Iowa beat Michigan State in early March will be back next year.