IOWA CITY, Iowa _ As I sat with Adam Haluska in an otherwise empty Carver-Hawkeye Arena last September, we talked about preseason predictions for his Iowa team. Most prognosticators tabbed the Hawkeyes for the back of the Big Ten Conference.
Haluska handled the low expectations as motivation and added that the predictions were warranted based on what Iowa lost from last year's squad. He also said that he felt good about the talent on the team, good enough that he felt a league title was possible.
When guys throw statements out like that, we in the media usually take them with a grain of salt. What else are they going to say - "Yeah, we expect to finish around ninth or so? "
Well, the Hawkeyes won't be hanging any championship banners from this season, but they have a chance to be tied for third place if Michigan State knocks off Indiana Saturday night. With two winnable games ahead of it, Iowa could finish 10-6 in the conference. You could have staked claimed to a lot of money had you bet on that happening in the fall.
"There's a chance that we could be in third place on Sunday morning," Iowa Coach Steve Alford said. "To be in that position, there's not a lot, including you all sitting here, that would think we would be in third place with a week to go. These kids have done a lot of special things."
The Hawkeyes still are entertaining thoughts of their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, another idea far from the minds of many fans and critics in the preseason. That goal remains in reach after a thorough beating of another conference contender for the trip to the Big Dance Wednesday night.
Iowa spanked Purdue, 78-59, in what most likely was being viewed as an elimination game. It was an amazing turnaround after getting lambasted at Michigan State on Saturday.
"It was won in practice the last two days," Alford said. "I give our Gold Team (reserves), they just did a heck of a job of getting our guys ready. That's as well as they've practiced against our starters all year.
"To bounce back is a credit to the team. They refocused. We played with a lot of energy tonight. This sets up a very pivotal week next week."
Those folks that predicted a big step back for the Big Ten Tournament champs from a year ago viewed the loss of Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner as critical blows. What they didn't realize was the impact those players that helped rebuild the program left carried over to this season.
That duo represented team basketball, that the whole was better than the sum of the parts. The latest edition of the Hawkeyes received that message even if it took a while to get accustomed to playing together.
At no time was that more evident than Wednesday night, when five players reach double figures. The team's top two scorers - Haluska and Tyler Smith - combined for 12 assists with just one turnover. When your best point producers are willing to set up teammates for easier shots, that's contagious.
Haluska, who leads the Big Ten in scoring, concentrated on slowing down Boilermaker sharpshooter David Teague, and held him to 13 points on 5 of 13 field goal shooting. When Haluska came off the floor in the final minutes, you could see Alford's appreciation for his star's selfless behavior.
"Adam Haluska just shows what kind of person he is," Alford said. "The Big Ten's leading scorer, and he sacrificed his offense tonight to do a heck of a job on Teague."
Five different Hawkeyes reached double figures in scoring against Purdue and Seth Gorney fell short of joining them by a basket. Cyrus Tate contributed a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. He hit all three of his field goal attempts and five of six from the line.
Iowa has struggled with consistent production from its point guard position this season, but Tony Freeman and Mike Henderson combined for 24 points. They did team up for 10 turnovers, but they looked much more at ease out there, especially Henderson.
"Mike was terrific tonight," Alford said.
If you would have told people before the season that Iowa would be at eight conference wins with two to play, Henderson would have had to have played a major role. He hasn't, but he could be a huge factor down the stretch.
A reporter asked Haluska in Wednesday's post-game press conference if the prospect of being in third place Sunday was a shock to him. He politely said no, that he knew there was talent in their locker room. He was telling the same story he told me back in the fall.
Haluska credited the coaches for molding the team together. Alford credited the players for coming together and working hard. They all deserve credit for where they sit now…just ask Brunner and Horner.