IOWA CITY, Ia. _ Who knew?
Oh, stop, you had no idea Iowa would learn to rebound, acquire a killer instinct and come together as a team. If you did, play Powerball or start marketing yourself as the next Kreskin.
The Hawkeyes lacked the aggressiveness to win the rebounding battle, the intestinal fortitude to close out games and the experience to correct their mistakes just a few short weeks ago. They also looked erratic and discombobulated on the court.
Last year's 25-win Hawkeyes excelled largely because they knew each other so well. Members of this year's team moved along as separate parts.
That seems to be changing recently. After a huge road win at Michigan on Wednesday, the Hawkeyes bounced No. 25 Indiana, 81-75, in front of a sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday. Those games came after a tough 57-46 loss to No. 2 Wisconsin.
"We're starting to read each other and get accustomed to what each other does," Iowa Center Seth Gorney said. "We have a lot of faith in one another now. That's really helping us to move up to the next level. It just kind of clicked in."
Iowa has won three of four and sits in fourth place in the conference. Its clearly playing its best basketball of the season. Indiana defeated the Hawkeyes, 71-64, less than three weeks ago in Bloomington in a game that wasn't as close as the final score would indicate.
Hoosiers forward D.J. White notched 23 points and 12 rebounds in that game. Saturday, Gorney and Kurt Looby limited the former Big Ten Freshman of the year to six and three as he was saddled with foul trouble most of the day. Gorney and Looby combined for eight and 12.
This has to be one of the most satisfying stretches in Steve Alford's career. The last two teams he's had improved as the season progressed, but they had more experience than this group. And before that, Iowa regularly got worse as the campaign advanced.
"This team is really starting find its niche," said Iowa Senior Adma Haluska, who ripped the Hoosiers for 33 points on Saturday. "We're starting get some experience and guys are really battling. Confidence is a big thing. When we went up there to Michigan, we really came together as a group."
Fans and media have knocked Alford throughout his career - sometimes justified, sometimes not - but a trend is beginning to form that shows Iowa teams he's coaching improving in February and March. Yeah, the Hawks dropped a heartbreaker to Northwestern State in last year's NCAA first round, but that team enjoyed a heck of a run in winning the Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa finished the last regular season at 6-3 in February and March and we know what it did in the Big Ten Tournament. Before that, things got ugly in those months - ‘01-02 (2-6), ‘02-03 (4-7), ‘03-04 (5-4), ‘04-05 (4-5).
We're not trying to sell you that this team is going to the Final Four, and even making the NCAA field still remains a long shot. However, this team looks much better than the one we watched a few weeks ago and wondered if it could make the NIT. They have five league wins, which is more than most preseason prognosticators predicted.
Following the Indiana game, Alford credited the players with coming together, but he and his staff also deserve kudos. They preached rebounding and ran the team through grueling board drills. Iowa has won the battle of the glass in its last three games after being on the short end of that statistic to the likes of Texas Southern and Cornell.
"Honestly, (rebounding drills) are probably the toughest things we do other than the transition stuff," Gorney said. "We'll put a bubble over the rim so we have to get a rebound regardless of if it's going in or not. It's real tough to do."
Iowa manhandled the Hoosiers on the backboards, 42-25. The Hawkeyes held a 15-6 advantage on the offensive glass. Indiana came into the game averaging about four rebounds more than its opponents.
"Inexperienced teams are usually inconsistent. That's just that trend," Alford said. "They don't know any better. They're getting a little bit more comfortable with their roles. They're enjoying playing with each other a little bit more now."
The Hawkeyes still looked inexperienced at the end of Saturday's game. They committed fouls that helped give Indiana a shot. But they hit their free throws and found a way to hang on for victory, something that eluded them against UNI and Arizona State.
"(The team's toughness) has gotten a little better," Alford said. "It's not there yet. We're nibbling at it. We're not biting yet. I'm seeing guys grow. We're not satisfied. But I like how these guys are learning. They pay attention. They work. They‘re trying awfully hard. They‘ve been a lot of fun to coach because of their concentration level."
Iowa struggled with consistency until this last stretch of three games, and avoiding complacency will help continue that success. With games at Minnesota and Wisconsin this week, keep the mental edge they showed against Michigan and Indiana.