When I caught up with CBS and ESPN analyst Bill Raftery on Tuesday, he was getting on the plane in Atlanta after taking in the Final Four. He attempted to put me off. That was until I asked him what he thought about Todd Lickliter, the new Iowa coach.
"Getting ready for the NCAA, I happened to watch a bunch of their games not knowing what direction we (the CBS announcers) would be sent," Raftery said. "I was just so impressed with them; and as it turned out, rightfully so. There's just great preparation. The kids play with confidence. There's a freedom about the way that they play. It seems like he's got a great interpersonal relationship with his players. That lets them attain some difficult goals throughout the season."
Skeptics might balk at another coach from a smaller conference after the Hawkeyes failed to get what they wanted from former bench boss Steve Alford. Raftery doesn't buy into that apprehension.
"Bruce Weber has done a great job," he said. "It depends on what you call a mid-major. I don't know if there is such an animal anymore with the fear of playing these guys.
"The biggest thing is that he's battling with the titans now for the top players. It's also a matter of what's going to be their strength areas opposed to maybe some things that weren't their strengths (under Alford). Maybe he's got an influence in Chicago. It starts right in the state. He needs to keep the best ones home, keep Kansas out of there. Those are some of the biggest adjustments, but the Xs and Os are the same."
When Gary Barta took over as AD before this academic year, he proclaimed that he wanted all of his programs to compete for conference championships and make noise on a national basis regularly. Iowa last won a regular-season Big Ten title in 1979.
"That's what they would like to do," Raftery said. "They have before. It's one of those fight to the finish kind of things. Everybody has got a chance within a couple of years these days to get it turned to that level."
And with that, Raftery was off on his plane to New Jersey.
Later, we caught up with fellow ESPN and CBS analyst Jay Bilas to grab his thoughts on the Lickliter hire.
"I've known Todd as a coach for a while," Bilas said. "He's a very good coach. He did a really good job at Butler. He's just a very good basketball coach. He understands the game. He understands kids. He does things the right way. He takes a very disciplined approach to things. He's low key, and let's the players be the show. He's very, very good.
Bilas sees a very smooth operation run by Lickliter.
"They're very unselfish," Bilas said of Lickliter's teams. "He's always had good guards. On the mid-major level, you need good guards because you're not going to be able to get great big guys. But his big guys are always very skilled. They're smaller but they're able to play out on the floor a little bit. They run good motion concepts. He does a really good job. I think very highly of him as a coach."
Lickliter moves from the Horizon League to the Big Ten where coaching stars like Tom Izzo, Tubby Smith, Thad Matta, Bruce Weber and Kelvin Sampson.
"He's the real thing," Bilas said of Lickliter. "He's good enough to compete with all of them. But so was Steve. It's just a measure of performing on the court and having the teams achieve to the level that the administration and the fans are happy with. Steve did a good job and Todd will do a good job as well."