Miller: Start of New Hoops Era?

The eighth year of the Steve Alford era as Iowa's Men's basketball coach is upon us, as the 2006-2007 regular season begins on Monday. With so many new faces, in uniform and among the coaching staff, is this the start of a new era of Iowa hoops, in Alford's eighth year as coach?

The eighth year of the Steve Alford era as Iowa's Men's basketball coach is upon us, as the 2006-2007 regular season begins on Monday.

There's been a lot to say during the seven and a half years that he has been employed at Iowa, and I've said numerous things across the entire gamut; positive to negative and back again.

Last season was a lot of fun to watch, even if it didn't end the way the players and coaches would have liked. The loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament didn't take away from the fact that the team won 25 games, the second highest total in school history. The team also won its second Big Ten championship of any kind since the late 1970's. It was the team's sixth consecutive winning season.

Yet it seems with Alford, there is a section of the fan base that wants and expects more. Is that fair?

We cannot overlook how successful last year was and we cannot overlook that recruiting is definitely picking up. We also can't overlook the fact that the coaches got about as much out of that collection of players as was possible, perhaps more than other coaching staffs would have gotten.

So that gives fans hope for the future; hope that what we saw last year was not an aberration, rather, something closer to what we can expect to see on a regular basis.

'What we saw' is competing for regular season championships, in addition to continuing to be as tough an out as there is in the Big Ten tournament, something Alford coached teams have fared well in.

So where does that leave us for this season?

I should probably replace the word ‘us' and ask the question of myself; where do I feel that leaves Iowa heading into this year?

I view this year as a rebuilding season, one without high expectations. Most programs in the Big Ten have rebuilding years, even the great ones. Michigan State fell off the pace last year, finishing a disappointing 8-8 in conference with some serious senior talent. The Spartans might finish worse than that in the league this year, as they lost that senior talent.

Iowa lost the majority of its scoring and rebounding from a year ago, though the rallying cry for this year is that the team is far more athletic. It's also very inexperienced, so it will likely lose some games that will have us scratching our heads, but it might be athletic enough to win some games that we don't expect them to win.

It's a crossroads season, in my opinion. It's a bridge between the past seven years to what the future holds for the Steve Alford era at Iowa.

The past is what it is, and though it cannot be fully ignored or forgotten, this is a very different program on this day in 2006 than it was seven years ago in 1999, speaking to what Alford brought in; the entire coaching staff, save Alford, is different.

We have seen the influence of Associate Head Coach Craig Neal on Alford's program in the short time he has been at Iowa. Alford now has someone that is comfortable to take him on if need be, and they have a lifelong friendship with one another, so the heated moments don't last for long nor do they carry grudges.

Tim Buckley has been a head coach at the Division 1 level and provides that knowledge from the bench. Billy Garrett was an assistant coach in the Big East, as well as being head coach at the high school level for Providence St. Mel of the Chicago area.

These days, Alford is very comfortable with things in Iowa City, with his program and its direction, with his future and with his staff. He believes they are all on the same page, and that matters.

This year is also a crossroads on the court.

The team will still try and play a stifling brand of defense that helped it finish one game behind Ohio State in last year's regular season standings (and it beat OSU in the only two meetings between the teams last year). It will also try to get out and score more in transition.

That has to do with the upgrade in athleticism in addition to the fact that this team's best offensive chances might come in transition versus half court sets. The team still lacks enough good shooters to be a consistent and proficient half court scoring team, or at least that is how the scouting report looks before it has played any games.

Justin Johnson showed promise on Friday night, and freshman Tyler Smith will have his chance to show Iowa fans what he has to offer against the Citadel on Monday night.

Really, much of the team will be introduced to Hawkeye Nation on Monday night, and the returning players will show us how well they fit in with the newcomers, or vice versa. Can Adam Haluska be the headliner? Will Tony Freeman provide the maturity at the point that the team needs until injured senior point guard Mike Henderson returns to the lineup? Who will provide the punch in the paint?

Do I think it's a bad thing to not have NCAA post-season expectations heading into a season? Ideally, you always want that. But realistically, that is not always going to be the case.

This team has a chance at the post season, partly because of how wide open the Big Ten conference is going to be this year. Sans Wisconsin and Michigan, there are not many veteran laden teams in the league.

Penn State, Illinois and Purdue will sprinkle some talented vets in and around newcomers, and those teams have very realistic post season chances. Ohio State has the best recruiting class college basketball has seen since Michigan's Fab Five.

One any given night, the Hawkeyes will be exciting to watch this year and then the next night, they might make you shake your head; such is the way with youth and inexperience.

I know that I am excited for this season because of this unknown, and also because the recruiting efforts for the future seem to be bearing fruit on paper.

It's a crossroads season for me, and putting aside some of the drama from the past, some that I was certainly involved in and in some instances, too much of a part of, I am eager to see the ball put into play Monday night and to get the 2006-2007 season under way.

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