Howe: Lickliter Looks Like an Excellent Fit

Iowa men's basketball kicked off its 2006-07 season by holding its annual media day on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Columnist Rob Howe soaked up the atmosphere and saw plenty of positive signs. He shares them in this opinion piece available to all visitors of Hawkeye Nation.

For the second time in just more than a week, I listened to new Iowa men's basketball coach Todd Lickliter talk about his program. I left Thursday's annual media day event even a little more impressed than the time before.

He's part motivational speaker and part Zen. He stays on his message and cannot be swayed.

Oh, veteran Des Moines Register reporter Randy Peterson tried on Thursday. He attempted every which way to get Lickliter to discuss a player individually. No dice.

"I'm going to tell you that the best teams I've had, eight through 14 were the best 8 through 14 guys in the nation," Lickliter said. "That was the key. It's so hard to single people out in a team sport. We will, at times. You'll see things. We need to do that, but right now, we're really focused on the whole."

If you have not noticed yet that Lickliter promotes the team concept, you will soon. The players certainly are listening.

"He tells us every day that it's all about the team, all about the fist," senior guard Justin Johnson said. "He points to his fist and tells us how we have to come together. He doesn't point anybody out. He just tells it like it is."

The dawn of a new day usually brings with it optimism. And really, Iowa is experiencing to dawns – the start of the new season and a coaching change.

It would be a little silly to sit here today and call for a Hawkeye league title. Many folks would stop short of even predicting an NCAA berth. Fortunately, the coaches and players aren't setting limitations.

"Success this year, in my mind, is not losing at home," junior Tony Freeman said. "Top three in the Big Ten is a goal. I know you guys probably look at it and say that's not going to happen. But, in my mind and the team, I see from last year to this year, everybody's focused. With the personnel that we have and Coach Lickliter, it is very possible for this year's team."

The most encouraging thing coming out on Thursday was that the negativity that often surrounded the program under the former regime seems to be a distant memory, at least for now. If the team struggles this year, it will be tough to keep things all rosy, but it feels like a sense of maturity is in the air.

There definitely was a vibe that the returning players were less uptight. Some of them spoke out about the now departed Steve Alford and his staff. Others said it more diplomatically. But to a man, they seemed genuinely thrilled with the change.

"Coach Lick treats us like grown men," junior Cyrus Tate said. "He gives us responsibilities and it's up to us to perform. It's up to us to represent the University of Iowa.

"Last year, there was a lot of pressure on a lot of guys. A lot of people were tense. A lot of people didn't know what was going on with the offense, but we tried hard. You can't get mad at people giving effort. They didn't know what to do. This year, things are going to be a lot more calm and a lot more smooth."

Tate was one of the more diplomatic Hawkeyes.

"Alford, yeah he's coached for a while, but Lickliter has been an assistant a lot longer," senior Seth Gorney said. "He knows what wins games. Basketball is 5-on-5, not 1-on-1, so if we can play together as a team we'll win a lot more games."

Said sophomore Dan Bohall: "(Lickliter) makes the game real simple. Before it seemed complicated, at times, with Coach Alford."

Lickliter also was reluctant to call roll on his mentors for fear of leaving someone out. He did mention a name that really said a lot about from where it is this guy is coming.

"I would be very remiss if I didn't mention a man I worked for by the name of Bob Lee, who was a brick mason," the coach said. "He taught me when you do a job, you put your signature on it: You're there, you're dependable, and you always stand by your work. I don't know if I've ever learned anything more valuable from any coach or any other individual than him."

Speaking with players on Thursday, I got a sense that Lickliter is approaching things the way Norman Dale did in the movie Hoosiers. He's pushing fundamentals and of the two hours they've been allowed to practice each week, about all but 15 minutes have been dedicated to defense.

It's not easy approaching things in this manner. Many of these players led their high school teams and going back to basics can be draining and met with resistance. To this point, the players are all for it.

"We've all bought in," junior J.R. Angle said. "We know what he's done at his previous schools. He's won everywhere with talent of all levels. We know if we buy in that hopefully we can be the next Butler."

The test for Lickliter and his staff will being keeping their players' attention if there are bumps in the road, which likely could happen this year. Can Freeman recognize a bad shot? Can Gorney keep up defensively?

I really hope that we see this group take to Lickliter's system when the ball is thrown up for real, but there will be growing pains. There has to be. But that's OK because the concept will be fun to watch when it clicks in.

"You know, you don't have to have individual gold medal winners to have a championship team," Lickliter said. "If they complement one another, if they will understand one another's strengths and if they set their goals and priorities properly, we're going to try to do that."

You're going to like this guy, Hawkeye fans.

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