What did you really think when Thompson took that 3-pointer?
(Laughs) We've had a lot of faith and trust in one another all year. It was just par for the course with the way that the season has turned out. There's just been an awful lot of trust and confidence throughout our team. He's been working hard all year. He just has to play behind an all-league first-teamer. But, what can you say? Not only that, what really helped him is he got a rebound before that then he made an incredible assist to Jeff. The shot was just kind of the climactic point for him.
Do you change anything from a coaching standpoint going into the NCAA Tournament?
Oh, no, we've got to do what we do. This isn't the time to change things. We're going to be the same team we've been for the past 33 games. This team is confident. We've won five in a row. It's not just a five-game winning streak. It's a five-game winning streak with a championship in the No. 1 league in the country. This team just keeps getting better. If we can continue that trend then we have a chance to stay around. Unfortunately, the tournament you're in now, you have one bad day and the season is over. That's the reality of the thing. You just have to hope that you can go through this tournament without any bad days. That's what you've got to guard against. That's hard to do. But when you're playing well, you like your chances.
What are the advantages that a No. 14 seed has?
Well, you've already had three different (media) experts pick them. The 4-13s, that's usually the area where they like to pick the upsets. Northwestern State has had a heck of a run. They've won 15 out of 16. They had the same record as juniors that our juniors had. They've won 25 games this year. They've won on the court of an SEC opponent. They've beat a PAC-10 opponent. They've won on the court of a Big 12 opponent. I'm sure they're thinking that the Big Ten is next. Now, it's our job to go in and prove that we're a little bit different than the PAC and the SEC and the Big 12.
You said you were going to give the guys a few days to enjoy the victory. At what point did you turn your attention to Northwestern State?
Today (Tuesday). As soon as they got to the locker room today after breakfast, we turned out attention to Northwestern State. Up until that point, the locker room was filled with the trophy and everything hanging out. We wanted them to enjoy that because that doesn't happen every day. So much of college basketball you don't get to enjoy it as much because the games just happen so often. We've had some really big wins this year but it's hard to enjoy them because three days later you have to get it up and go again. We're pretty focused today and it was a pretty good attention to detail. We'll bring them back again tonight for some film and walk through before we leave tomorrow.
How tough is this grind compared to the regular season?
This is easy. This is what you play for. Practices aren't near as long. Practices aren't near as demanding. We're not going at each other a lot. It's a lot of 5-0. We're just trying to brush up on what we're doing offensively and defensively.
Are you happy to have the extra day?
Oh yeah, I'm glad it's Friday and not Thursday just because we just got through playing three games in three days against incredible competition. If we had to turn around on Thursday, We wouldn't have had a chance to really enjoy it on Monday.
From your team and Northern Iowa's there are seven kids from the state of Iowa starting in the NCAA Tournament. Is there any better advertisement for Iowa high school basketball?
Well, obviously, that's a good thing. Hopefully it can continue. It's unfortunate that the state championships are going on this week because we're not able to catch those. I've always said that I'm not a big fan of when spring break hits around here. It hits out Big Ten Tournament. It hits our first two round of the NCAA Tournament. And it hits the high school state tournaments as well.
Can you talk about the early exit in the 2001 NCAA Tournament and what you do differently this time around?
Well, second round after you've gone 1-7, I don't know if it's an early exit. We got beat by No. 2 seed Kentucky. There weren't a lot of teams that beat Kentucky that year. In 2001, the Big Ten Tournament Championship was kind of a surprise. This team is a little bit different. We haven't had the injuries other than the three weeks there with Jeff. It's been basically the same starting lineup, the same rotation all year long. The guys have been settled into their roles since early December. It's a team that went 14-5 in the No. 1 league. It has the most wins against the Top 25 in the country. That doesn't mean that there's automatic advancement.
There was some discussion that the Missouri Valley didn't deserve four teams. What do you think?
I would have argued that they deserved five. To be honest with you, of all of them other than Wichita, (Missouri State) had the best resume. I'm biased. I was in that league. It's a great league, great coaches, great players. You shouldn't be penalized for taking the system that you've been handed and then doing it and then doing it well.
Was this a team that you assembled with a design in mind?
(Smiles) We've had a lot of different designs. (laughter) The design has definitely changed. We had a design and had to throw that paper away and start again. The core of this group started with Jeff and Bru and Erek. They've been here from the initial foundation of that design with the exception of one year with Erek. They've really worked hard. I appreciate them staying focused and making the best out of some very tough situations.
When did the Northwestern State Coach stop in for practice?
Paul Weir was the connection because he was there last year. I don't know if he was here recruiting. He wanted to see Paul again and then just stayed for practice.
Do you regret that now?
(Laughs) No. No. No. We open up our practices a lot to a lot of different coaches and coaches reciprocate that to me. I go down to Coach Knight's practices all of the time and others.
What sort of influence does Paul have this week compared to maybe some other weeks, does it increase?
No. Not really. Coach Lansing has the scout. We'll do the same thing we've always done. It's do what you do. That's what we pledged for the players to do and that's definitely what the coaches have got to do. We're not going to change how we do things. Their personnel hasn't changed a lot, but we've got about five tapes on them from a year ago and about seven, eight, nine tapes of them from this year. That's plenty of research to be done for a game to be played on Friday.
Do they remind you of anybody you guys have played?
Not a lot. The sub patterns are more like Drake, five at a time, playing everybody anywhere from 11-26 minutes. But the pressing is different. They're a very, very athletic team, very long team. They're not a big team. We haven't played anybody in the Big Ten that played 10 or 11 guys with that kind of depth and that kind of system. And I don't remember anybody in our nonconference that really resembles them that much. They do a lot of four out and one in like Saint Louis. But Saint Louis wasn't near this deep or this athletic.
How do they use their pressure?
They pick you up full court. They get into you early. They'll run and jump at you. They like to trap the ball. They like to get you out of what you like to do in the half court. Taking care of the ball is a premium. I like our chances if we don't turn the ball over and we defend. If we don't do a good job with turnover-transition and we're turning the ball over than it could be a long night for us.
What has allowed your team to play such good defense?
Just the balance that we've had offense and defense. Our turnovers are down. Our shooting is improving. Our shot selection has improved so that obviously has helped our defense. But when we've struggled in those areas on offense, our defense has been a constant. What we did in the Big Ten Tournament was case in point of just how our guys have guarded all year. On the biggest stage of the year, we might have had our three best defensive games of the season. As we try to advance in the national tournament, we're going to have to go into it knowing that we're one of the better defensive teams and we're going to have to prove that.
You and the team were happy Sunday with the three seed. Now that you've looked at the whole bracket, are you still OK? Do you think you should have been a two?
You can always argue those points. I wouldn't want to be on the selection committee. It's an impossible job nowadays with all of the parity. There might have been some things that you think about, you wonder. But the body of work that we did probably warrants a three. Could we possibly been a two with now looking at the twos? There's an outside chance of that. But where we're at is probably where we deserve to be.
How has the team reacted to some of those so-called experts making you guys the upset special?
Well, I hope they react well. We've got that up on our bulletin boards now. We're up to three. To be honest, I'll hope it continues. The only bad part is that I heard Digger picked us. That's usually not a good sign. (Laughter) He hasn't picked us all year. I was hoping he and his highlighter would stay on the other side. You just try to use as much as you can. But to be honest, with the way that our guys have been, their motivation has been with their passion to play. I'm sure Northwestern State is the same way. They've had a very special year. They came up one possession short last year. These guys are like our guys. They're not just wanting to get in, they're wanting to stay a while and extend the season. We're having too much fun. We don't want it to end on Friday. We don't want it to end on Sunday.
How will playing the NCAA Tournament last year going to make a difference this year?
I hope it makes a big difference because all of our experiences last year were evident in how they helped this year. We went to the Big Tens last year and had to play four in four. We beat Purdue and Michigan State before losing a last-second, heartbreaker to Wisconsin. That helped prepare us for this three-day run that we just went through. We were behind all three games and came back and won. Now, we've got to hope the same thing holds true in the NCAA Tournament. We didn't get a lot of experience, but it was experience of the travel, of the press conferences, of the bigger state. At least our guys know what's coming here when we leave (Wednesday).
Who are those so-called experts that picked Northwestern State?
We've had Seth Davis, Andy Katz and then Yani Cohen.
I thought Katz was one of your guys.
The thing that I saw, Katz picked them. I'm waiting to call him.
What does Northwestern State do in their half-court offense?
They'll do a lot of four out, one in with a lot of different things they do from handoffs, to pick and rolls, to really trying to get the ball inside; drive and kick for threes. They shoot the three pretty well. They're scoring 77 points. This is a team that if the game gets in the 70s it probably favors them. We've had games that have favored us more this year in the 50s and 60s because of our defense. That doesn't mean we can't score in the 70s, but you have one team averaging 77 and the other team holding opponents to 58. The closer it is to us holding them to 58 it's going to benefit us a lot more. Part of that is board play. They average 13 offensive rebounds. They force nine steals a game. They like to run out of turnovers. We've got to take care of the ball and transition defense is going to be a big key. If we make then play at the half court, consistently, that favors us.
It seems remarkable with Brunner playing on a purple ankle and Horner playing with sore ribs. Can you talk about that a little bit and what you think their health might be like on Friday?
It just reflects on the type of individuals they are. That's who they've been. They've been that way their whole career. They throw it all out on the floor. In the Ohio State game, things weren't going very well in the first half. I asked Jeff, "Are you going to hurt or are you going to play?" He said, "Yes, I'm hurt, and I'm going to play." That's Jeff. He's going to lay it all out there no matter if he's on one leg. Bru is the same way. The teammates have rallied behind that. We have a sign in our locker room from Jerry West one of the all-time greats, it says, "You don't get a lot done on days just when you feel good." There are going to be a lot of days when you don't feel good. If you can get things done on days when you don't feel good, you have a chance to really be good. Jeff ends up being MVP when he doesn't feel 100 percent. Hopefully we can get a little bit better as we move forward. Both of them are feeling a little bit better. But if Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner are at 70 percent, I like them better at 70 percent than a lot of guys at 100 percent.
Has what they've done improved their chances at the next level?
I would hope so. We're definitely getting more phone calls. You look at four of our seniors. Justin may end up being their agent or something. (laughter) They're all very, very close. All four of them will get some shots at different camps and different workouts once the season is over. As we've tried to tell them, the more you win, the more exposure you get and the better that resume looks because you proved you're a winner and you proved you can do some things. Now, we go to the biggest stage where everybody gets to see you.
What did Horner do to his rib?
I don't know. I think he's just got some bruising in there he picked up two weeks ago on a loose ball. He's the only player I've coached in 15 plus years where I've told him don't go after loose balls in practice. (laughs) He'll dive into a basket. He'll dive into the stands. He'll dive into a player. He'll dive into a water cooler. He does all of this at practice. But that's what you like about him. He did that in practice and has some bruising there. It just comes and goes as far as how it feels.
There were times during the championship game where the fans were yelling, "We want Alford. We want Alford." That was probably more than just your brother and Tanya. Could you react to that?
The fans have just been great for us all year. We talk about our undefeated season at home and setting the record. We have 18 straight, which is the fourth longest in the country right now. We gave a lot of credit to our fans because our fans came out in volume. Our student section got here early. It wasn't an LA Laker crowd. That helped our starts to all games so that we were playing with the lead more than playing behind at home. We had tremendous support in Indianapolis. Our ticket sales have been great for Auburn Hills. We've been real appreciative of everything we've gotten from our fans.
What's this year been like for you? Do you feel any vindication?
No because I've tried to let everybody know that the last two years have been a lot of fun. We had to redo our goals. With things that have happened, you're not going to win a Big Ten title. It's not like we're in the 15th ranked league in the country. When you're in one of the top leagues in the country and things happen that have happened to us, you have to reevaluate your goals. We haven't won the championships, but we've had winning seasons. You look around the country at schools that have had less happen to them than us and they've had losing seasons and no postseason play. We haven't had that. We've been able to right that ship and do it the right way. We haven't short cutted things. We haven't gone out and done wrongful things in recruiting to try to get it back. We stayed the course. The players appreciate that. We've trusted in the players. This year, we haven't had any (distractions). We've reaped the benefits of that. But this has been a very special year but it started long before this year. The experiences that these seniors have gone through have helped them prepare for this year. And they've handled it unbelievably.
Horner and Brunner keep saying that they're looking at you as kind of their second father. Wouldn't you rather be their older brother?
(Laughs) Well, at least they're not saying grandpa. We've just grown very close. You look at all of the families that we have here, we end up growing very close to them. Jeff and Bru have been committed so early to our program. This is what they've wanted, right here. This is why we recruited them. This is why they wanted to come here. Maybe it's taken a while, but doing it the right way sometimes does take a while. When adversity hits, you either quit, start all over and do it the wrong way or you take adversity head on and say OK, this is the cards that have been dealt to me. Let's be men about it. Let's handle it the best way we possibly can and just keep pushing forward; and do it together. That's why I think there's a lot of emotion on this team right now.
Was Doug in danger of not getting here after his trouble, and what about his growth?
No. He had a few issues at Burlington, but he knew his situation coming in. He's done an unbelievable job in two years. Academically, he's been great. He's done everything we've asked him to do. He's played at a high level for us all season long. He's been pretty consistent in what he's done in the classroom and for us on the floor. I'm very appreciative of everything Doug has done for two years for us.