Iowa City - I vividly remember covering the 2002 Iowa football season as the Iowa City Press-Citizen's beat writer. It was neat following the rise of the program from the depths of just three years earlier when it won one game.
I wrote a story talking to seniors and juniors on that ‘99 squad about the advancement of the team. Guys like Matt Bowen, LaVar Woods and Kevin Kasper all spoke about how they could see it coming; how they could just tell that Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff were taking the school to much bigger places.
I can't speak for everybody, but I don't think I did. It looked like a disaster to me that first season under Ferentz. As a result, I didn't enjoy the process of what it took to get to four consecutive January bowls.
I haven't done that with this basketball season, the first under Coach Todd Lickliter. If this guy was going to take Hawkeye hoops to the "next level" I wanted to soak it in.
I also didn't bog myself down with unreasonable expectations. I was hoping for improvement and the team to be competitive in Big Ten play. This was to be the first building block in the reconstruction of a depleted program.
Wow, did I underestimate this guy. Iowa experienced its biggest turnaround in the history of the program on Saturday night when it defeated Ohio State, 53-48. The largest crowd of the season (15,235) witnessed the Hawkeyes defeat a team that beat them, 79-48, Jan. 9 in Columbus. It was the biggest reversal during the same season in conference, topping a defeat Indiana, 62-60, in the Big Ten Tournament in ‘02 after losing by 30 in the regular season.
"I guess there are a lot of lessons to learn in athletics that sometimes are not so much fun," Lickliter said. "This was a big challenge for them. That really wasn't a game over there. Our guys prepared well and sometimes things go well for you when that happens."
The game in Columbus could have been a 60-point margin if Thad Matta hadn't removed his starters at the first media timeout of the second half. Iowa responded by Top-10 ranked Michigan State three days later and then paid back the Buckeyes on Saturday.
The environment in Carver was electric. A young Ohio State team was rattled from the start. Iowa sliced through the Buckeyes' press and dissected their 2-3 zone.
"We just didn't come out and prepare well for that game," said Iowa's Seth Gorney, who scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds against his home state school after netting just one point in the first meeting.
"They jumped on us early and jumped on us quick. It was tough for us to do anything. This game we came out and were bound and determined not to give up."
It was easy to feel good for Gorney on Saturday. After struggling in front of friends and family at Ohio State, he was one of the sparks on Saturday. This is a guy that took shots from the media and on message boards throughout his career. He shared the credit for the turnaround after the game.
"Everybody is responsible for it," Gorney said. "It starts with the coach's scouting report to us using that scouting report the right way to the crowd helping us out; players on the bench giving us encouragement. Everybody had a part in it whether they know it or not."
He's right. But it also starts at the top. Lickliter is molding together a group that looked like it came from the land of misfit toys into a threat every time it takes the floor. He's the one that is preaching team and has done so since the day he walked through the door here. And he's also getting that point across in a short amount of time.
That, my friends, is coaching. It's teaching. It's refreshing.
You could say that this team could have folded after losing in its own tournament for only the second time in history or when it got wiped out by Ohio State. I don't think it could have. The coaches and players weren't going to allow it.
While fans and media could chalk it up to rebuilding, the guys in the uniforms weren't thinking about the future. For guys like Gorney and Justin Johnson, who scored a game-high 24 on Saturday courtesy of 8 for 13 shooting from 3-point land, there wasn't a next year, at least not in the black and gold.
"We want it to be another year whether there‘s a new coach or not," Gorney said. "We want to go out there and compete and show what it takes to win in the Big Ten. We're going a pretty good job of it right now."
Iowa improved to 4-6 in conference having won four of its last seven. It moved its overall record to 11-12. A lot of people wondered if they'd hit those numbers for the season.
It was wonderful watching Iowa play poised (a Lickliterism) against Ohio State's defense. Lickliter admitted to making a mistake in attacking the zone in Columbus. He fixed it the same as he fixed the defense against Purdue from Game 1 to Game 2.
Lickliter has said it all season, but I truly believe that this team is capable of doing some really good things. They've already defeated two teams in the upper half of the Big Ten, the only one of the second division teams to do that.
While it might seem like a long shot for this team to play in the postseason, the players aren't looking at it that way.
"If we keep playing like that, we can do just about anything," Gorney said. "I know everybody is looking forward to trying to make a postseason tournament. We're not looking at that right now, but it's in the back of our minds."
Considering there this team has been this season, you might consider that a minor miracle. How about Iowa vs. New Mexico in the NIT 2 or whatever that new tournament is called? Carver would rock.
But even if that doesn't happen please join me in appreciating this season. Don't miss your chance as I did in ‘99.
Much like Bowen, Woods and Kasper, Gorney sees big things ahead for the Hawkeyes.
"Coach Lickliter is amazing," he said. "I've learned so much just this year that I hadn't in…I can go back to when I first started playing. He's got a great staff with him. He wants you to learn as much as you can while you're here so you don't regret anything."
NOTES - Before the game, the university honored several individuals that played key roles in the history of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Bobby Hansen scored the first basket in a men's basketball game. Lisa Bluder notched the first field goal in a women's contest. Tim Riley (118 pounds) was recognized for winning the first wrestling match in the venue. Former Athletics Directors Christine Grant and Bump Elliott also took a bow.
-Coaches from both schools wore sneakers in support of the Coaches vs. Cancer program. Lickliter went with kakis and white low tops. Matt sported black lows.
-Johnson canned eight 3-pointers for the third time this season. It's one short of Chris Kingsbury's record.