Miller: Iowa Hoops In For a Long Struggle

We'll never know the answer to this, because Todd Lickliter is a stand up guy. But I have to wonder, deep down in his heart of hearts, if he realized the challenge that awaited him at the University of Iowa? Did he realize how long it was going to take to clean up the mess that was the Steve Alford Era?

As I watched Iowa's basketball game against Wake Forest on Monday night, a few things kept running through my mind.

Such as ‘Coach Lickliter is in for a long term rebuilding project'. That was a prominent thought as I watched the coach put his head in his hands a few times, shake his head a few other times and let out some long breaths in other instances.

Coach Lickliter wasn't dancing or jumping around drawing attention to himself; these shots were just cutaways of him sitting on the bench after numerous Iowa turnovers and other inexperienced plays. We knew there were going to be nights like this in Lickliter's first year, because the cupboard wasn't necessarily stocked upon his arrival.

There were times where I sort of felt sorry for Coach Lick, as he is affectionately called. I then shrugged that thought off, as it's hard to feel sorry for anyone that makes over a million dollars doing what it is that they love to do, and someone that will earn close to $10 million dollars doing it over the next seven years, the length of his contract.

But I could feel some of his pain coming through the television set. Coach Lick is a teacher, a basketball purist, and the collection of players that he has to work with this year as he implements his system may be like fitting square pegs into round holes at times. That isn't his fault, and it's not the fault of the kids wearing the Iowa jersey each night. They are giving it their best shot, and they are playing shorthanded.

Tony Freeman has not played this year, and he was Iowa's leading returning scorer from a year ago, and one of two true ballhandlers on the team. Freshman point guard Jeff Peterson is the other, and he is playing with a busted up right hand. He is going to be a good one, if he can survive the scar tissue that will build up this year and next.

There was one other thought that went through my mind and it had a lot of offshoots, and that was simply this; Steve Alford set the Iowa basketball program back about 30 years. A funny thing with that, is that I received a call from a friend of mine with four minutes gone in the second half of Monday's game, and he was thinking the same exact thing.

Now, if you are tired of reading or hearing stuff like this from me, I suggest you stop reading this column right now. If you read on, and if it makes you mad, you have yourself to blame. If you are a fan of the Iowa basketball program over the last 30 years, and it makes you mad, then you are probably either related to Alford, or are from Indiana. Either way, you have been warned.

The team that Iowa has on the floor this year is the same team Alford would have put on the floor in his ninth year in the program, if he would have still been around. That is with the exception of Tyler Smith and Dairese Gary. Say that Tony Freeman would have been healthy, and those two players would have been in the mix. Do you honestly think that team would qualify for the NCAA tournament in this year's Big Ten? Do you think that team would have beaten last year's team that included Adam Haluska and Tyler Smith?

I think not, and I don't even think it's debatable.

Again, and I cannot state this clearly or sternly enough; I don't want people to think that this is piling on this year's team, because that is so not my intent.

I like the fire that Jarryd Cole plays with and has shown as of late. Jake Kelly has a nice bounce in his step and his shots will fall. Peterson is an All Big Ten guard in waiting. More shooters are on the way. I have complete faith in Todd Lickliter as a coach and I think he is a perfect fit for Iowa.

I felt this team would be fortunate to go 15-16 this year, and that was with a healthy Tony Freeman. They are what they are, and it's not their fault that Alford had little to no plan when putting together their teams on the recruiting trails, outside of ‘hey, this guy likes us, let's take him.'

Because this year's team is a lot like many of Alford's teams that came before it; it's not a collection of great shooters and they don't take care of the basketball. Again, these guys are more shorthanded than they would have been had Freeman not gotten hurt. But this is an Iowa program that had made it to 16 NCAA tournaments in the 21 years before Alford arrived. It's a program that was able to make up for an injury here and there and still be competitive.

It was also a program that was in the Top 25 in NCAA attendance every single year since they began keeping the top 25, back in the late 1970's…until last year. And this year is on pace to set an all time low.

That's not Lickliter's fault. Part of that will have to do with the Big Ten Network's handing out several 8:00pm starting times or Iowa. That is a very, very bad thing and it doesn't bode well for the future, either. That's a horrible starting time for folks that have to travel more than an hour to attend an Iowa basketball game on a week night

There were fewer than 10,000 fans in Carver Hawkeye Arena on Monday night, and that was for a 6:00pm tip.

A big part of that, in my opinion, is that Steve Alford made it easy for Iowa fans to find something else to do with their time. That's another lasting legacy of the Alford era.

When you miss out on the NCAA tournament in five of your eight years that will happen. When you would have only been an NCAA at large selection in two of your eight years that will happen. When nearly 50 percent of the players you sign to letters of intent don't remain on campus until their senior day that will happen.

Once upon a time in the state of Iowa, gathering around the television set to take in a Hawkeye basketball game was almost on par with attending church on Sunday. It was the biggest show in town. Now, thanks to the Alford era, it's closer to an afterthought for far too many fans. I can't blame them, because a career .477 winning percentage against Big Ten opponents can suck the life out of you.

Think about this for a second; Adam Haluska, Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner are three of the best players in Iowa basketball history, statistically. They are 7th, 11th and 12th all time in points scored, each of them with more than 1,500 points, and they are all state of Iowa prospects.

Can you imagine what the Alford era would have been like without that perfect storm of instate talent falling into his lap? Let's be honest; over the past quarter century, the best players in the state either went to Iowa, or a few of them got away to Kansas. It's not as if Alford had to outwork a lot of people for Horner and Brunner. He needed an assist from Larry Eustachy to get Haluska away from Iowa State, too.

Those three players were the heart and soul of two of Alford's three NCAA appearances. Without them, his mediocre tenure in Iowa City would have bordered on abysmal, and it wouldn't have lasted eight years.

Now, some of you didn't heed my earlier warning, and you are getting ticked off at me for what I have written. I can already predict some of the message board posts; ‘Jon, you have to let it go.' ‘Jon, when are you going to quit kicking Alford around. We all know you have an axe to grind.'

You darn tooting there is an axe to grind. The Steve Alford era is on par with what an NCAA probation would have been like. He set Iowa basketball back to the Dick Schultz era, and that was a horrible time (1971-1974).

The good news is that Iowa hired a guy by the name of Lute Olson, an old school student of the game who believed in air tight defense, solid shooting and disciplined basketball. It took that mentality to turn things around, but the turnaround only came after a 10-16 first season at Iowa. Iowa went 19-10 the next year, with a league record of 9-9. He had a 12-15 setback in year four, as well.

It takes a while to dig out of holes like this, even in college basketball.

Since the day Todd Lickliter was hired, I felt he shared a kinship with Coach Olson for the hard road he took to get to the Big Ten, the road less traveled, one that was spent in small gyms and less than glamorous outposts. He got it done in a big way at Butler, just as Olson was getting it done at Long Beach State, but Olson had to deal with the shady antics of Jerry Tarkanian that came before him and he had to get out of there while he could.

I think that Coach Lickliter can turn things around at Iowa, but friends, it's not going to happen overnight, and it's not going to happen this season. That doesn't mean we throw in the towel on this group of Hawkeyes.

Getting Freeman back will be a boost. Jeff Peterson's right hand needs to heal, and that will help a lot. But the Big Ten schedule is horrendous, especially the first seven games.

Next year's team will probably struggle, too, as Lickliter weaves his first recruiting class into the mix, bringing in more shooters and players that fit his style, while meshing them with the players that will be around in 2008-2009.

In my opinion, I don't see how it will even be possible to approach anything close to a judgment on the Lickliter era until at least the 2009-2010 season. Peterson, Jarryd Cole and Jake Kelly will be entering their junior seasons, with David Palmer and Dan Bohall (who was not a recruited scholarship player) set to be seniors. Everyone else on the current team will be gone. So that tells you that in three years from now, Iowa will still be a very young team.

So some folks can bemoan the Alford topic still being a point of conversation. That's fine, and you are entitled to your opinion.

But Iowa won't be able to wash his era out of its hair for some time to come now.

And one final point, for some Iowa fans bickering about Kirk Ferentz's last few years at Iowa, and how some of them seem eager to see a change at the head of the football program; Iowa is one bad football hire away from being Minnesota in that sport.

You need proof?

Just look at what Steve Alford did to a very proud Iowa basketball program.

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