Four of the next five on the road, again, the tough stretch continues.
Yeah. There's not an easy stretch in this league. Each new week presents it's own challenges. To date, we've handled those challenges very well. This week's challenge is two very difficult road contests. I'm anxious to see how our kids handle it.
You've lost four of the last five at Northwestern. Is it a difficult match-up for your guys?
I don't know. It's hard to say. We've struggled at Michigan State and that place, for some reason. The other venues, we've gone in and we've played pretty well. It's been a little bit of everything. Last year, we're up 13 with three to play. After watching that tape, we aactually played pretty well. We just didn't finish well. We were in there four years ago with Reggie and Luke's team ranked 13th in the country and got beat 63-50. For whatever reason, those type of things happen. We've got a veteran group. We've got to go up there and change that. That's the focus right now, to go up and make something different happen.
Was that a nightmare finish up there, though?
No question. That was the worst of our season as far as how we finished. It's not something…it's not even really going to be brought up in our preparation. This is a different team. Like Jeff just told me in the locker room, they're seniors now. They've been through all of the experiences there are to experience. And they've kind of played that way through 23 games. I've got a lot of trust in them. They've got a lot of trust in the program. We've just go to go up there and play our basketball.
Do you sense a swagger with your team being in first place?
I would hope that we were starting to develop that swagger regardless of what place we're in. We've worked awfully hard through nine games to get seven wins under our belt. I think they guys are getting more confident. Our offense has been better. We're shooting the ball better. The defense has stayed pretty consistent. That's a key. We always felt like we could maybe go to another level with our team if our shooting would all of a sudden kick in. Two games doesn't make it a kick-in, but we've had two games in a row here where we've really shot the ball at a high clip. Now, we've got to go on the road for two games. If we can shoot the ball well on the road and still play the kind of defense we've been playing all year, then we give ourselves an opportunity to win. That's what you're trying to do on the road.
Did everything come together in that second half against Michigan?
It was just one of those halves where we shot the ball at a high level. We made 15 in a row. This is the same group of guys that missed 19 in a row. That's college basketball. If you play enough games, you're going to see just about everything. I just like how we perform being down 14-6 at home to a very, very talented team. That was what was most encouraging to me.
Is there any worry about looking past Northwestern?
No. No. If I had freshmen and sophomores, yeah. But I've got a very experienced group. And we're 18-5 because of their experience. They've been through everything you need to experience in the Big Ten. They know it's one game at a time. And that's the way they've approached it. We're not winning and losing because of a disrespect for an opponent. We're 18-5 because of the respect we have for everybody we play, the respect we have for this league and the experiences in that locker room. The guys know this a pivotal road game. They don't have to be reminded. The fully understand that some neat things happened over the weekend that gives us a chance to go into the second week of February being alone in first place. The only way to stay there is to go and win. You don't worry about who your opponent is. We'll really compete hard and give every chance we've got to win that game.
How does it feel this late in the season to be in first place?
It's a great feeling. And again, that credit goes to the players. They've worked awfully hard to get to this point. But we're just slightly passed the midpoint. There are a lot of games to played. You look at the leaders in the Big Ten, the schedules are very demanding, very tough. So, as good as our first half was, our second half is going to be probably just as hard if not harder because now the pressure continues to develop on everybody, not just us. Our biggest focus as coaches is each week trying to make sure that our guys are getting better. We've been doing that. If the players can stay focused in that, then we'll have chances to win games.
You said your guys were a little tight in the first half at Purdue. Going back on the road, is there anything you can do to prevent that?
No. We've had some really good wins in a row. We hadn't been on the road since Michigan State, and that wasn't real pleasant. We needed that half to kind of get all of that out. You have to give Purdue credit. Purdue has been playing at a high level. It's kind of like Bo Ryan said afterwards, he could tell watching on tape and we could, too, as a staff that they were going to get somebody. We were fortunate it wasn't us. That's a hard place to play. They have enough of an inside presence that if their guards have a game where they shoot it well, they can get over the hump. That happened against Wisconsin. Fortunately, it didn't happen against us.
You've talked about your team experiencing much of what there is to experience. They haven't been in the situation of being in first place this late in the season. Is this something you address with them?
Obviously those pressures will continue to come about. But they've been under some pretty good pressure to this point and have had to come through it. Purdue was a pivotal road game. Coming back and playing Michigan, who was very hot, was a pivotal home game. And they understand that there is going to be some pressure at Northwestern. There's pressure on Northwestern to win. That's what this league is all about. As you've said, they haven't had the experience of dealing with first place. Hopefully they can handle it OK.
You said you're not going to address what happened last year at Northwestern. Have you gotten a sense that the players at least have it in the back of their minds?
I hope not. They didn't have the 30-point whooping that got at Michigan State in their mind when they came back here to play Indiana. They forgot about it. We're handling the Michigan game in basically the same way. I'll go in there today and there won't be much talk about Michigan just as there was very little talk about the loss at Michigan State. We really focused the next day on Indiana. What happened last year or what happens four years from now it's really about this game. It's a different team, a more experienced team that we have. And we haven't played that poorly all year at the end of games. Our end of games have been pretty good this year. I'm not going to rehash a negative over a year ago with a different team.
The Big Ten is ranked the top league and now you're alone in first place. Are there other factors that you haven't talked about in getting you to this point?
No. Our guys are appreciative of that. The new RPIs came out today, and we're the only league that has five teams in the Top 25 and we're all pretty close together. So, there are a lot of things that can change now in the next three to four weeks. We know that. We feel fortunate that we're in the situation that we're in now. It's a much better deal that being 4-3 or 4-5 through nine games. To have a chance to be 7-2, we've worked awfully hard, but if you start looking at our schedule, each game we're going to play here all the way to the end, we can win them and we could just as easily lose them. That's the problem of being in the league that we're in. If we were 7-2 in a different league where we were the only team in the Top 25 RPI, then maybe it's a little bit different feeling.
Can you comment on having the longest winning streak ever at Carver?
It's a great accomplishment. They have a goal to go undefeated, and the three teams left to come in here are very difficult opponents. But just to be at this point and be one game from breaking the record says a lot about what this team is about.
Three of your best players are all native Iowans. Is that rare and how often do you see that happening?
I hope basketball continues to improve in the state. It's rare that you've had three in-state kids be the focal point here. That hasn't happened very often. If you look at our recruiting, at least in the '06 class, and you're going to see a lot more out of state. It becomes seasonal. It doesn't happen like that annually all the time.
Do you think people would look at you strange if you took that many in-state kids?
The way that our business is, if we sign out-of-state kids, they're wondering why we don't get in-state kids. If we sign in-state kids, they're wondering why we don't get out-of-state kids. We really don't listen to that. We pay very little attention to rankings. We rank our own people. That's our job. We go out and evaluate for our program. What different websites are ranking players as they watch throughout the country has very little impact on how we recruit. Our job as basketball coaches is to evaluate how people best fit our system, not what such-and-such has them in the national rankings.
Bru probably will break the rebounding record on Wednesday. Early in his career, you talked about him playing through barriers. What does that say about what he's been able to do?
The barriers with Bru is that he's 6-7. When you think about all-time leading rebounders, you don't think of somebody that's 6-7. It's a tribute to how hard he's worked. He's played the three spot, the power forward and center. He was recruited to play power forward and he's played three different positions. He's steadily gotten better. When you've got somebody that can average a double-double, that's a very special talent and a very special player. Bru has meant a lot to us in a lot of ways, not just on the floor. He's been an exemplary student for us. You can look at what he does outside basketball, and he's the ideal what we would like out of all of our players.Any time guys like that get honors, it's pretty special.
Was the Illinois game on at your house on Saturday night?
We had kind of turned the Illinois and Penn State game off. My wife called and said, "Are you watching this?" She's having people call her on her cell phone while she's driving. We turned it on. That's the Big Ten. It's a strange deal. It was a great break for Penn State. I'm sure that will fire Illinois up even more now.
Did your phone start ringing with your players after that game?
Oh yeah. Our team knows what's going on. Hopefully we can just keep it going. We know we've got a long ride ahead of us. It's going to be a very tough February and early March. But we like where we're standing right now. We're getting better. At Penn State, at Purdue, maybe Michigan at home, Minnesota at home, those might have been four games we lost last year. Our guys just stayed the course and just kept doing the things they needed to do to play through a 40-minute game.
At what point do you start thinking about seedings for the NCAA Tournament?
Not yet. We haven't even been thinking about seedings for the Big Ten Tournament. Seedings will probably come down to the seedings in the Big Ten Tournament. When you're the No. 1 league in the country, you're probably going to warrant multiple teams in the tournament. You're probably also going to get very good seeds in the tournament. How you end up placing in the league and what you do in the league tournament could really determine what those seedings are going to be nationally.
Vukosic has given you guys problems. Is he a tough guy to match up with?
It's always been a good matchup. He and Bru has always been a great matchup. You have two very good forwards there. Vukusic does more out on the perimeter than Bru but doesn't rebound as well as Bru. Those guys really enjoy going at one another. It will be a great contest between them again.
Is there style completely different than you normally see in league play?
You're exactly right on the styles. You don't see 1-3-1 and matchup zones. I don't know of anybody else in the league that really runs that. We've seen 1-3-1 a little bit, maybe out of timeouts people will run it just to mess with you. They're about 50 percent matchup and 50 percent 1-3-1. And nobody else is running the Princeton offense. Our closest opponent to their style is NC State, offensively. A lot of the other teams in the league are motion teams or they're running pro sets. You end up guarding or going against a lot of similar actions, down screens, cross screens, back screens. Northwestern is a little bit different that way.