Iowa Basketball: At a Crossroads

The latest events surrounding the Iowa Basketball program slammed into Hawkeye Nation as a Category 4 last Friday. You might be somewhat prepared for it, but once it hits and passes, you are left numb to the after effects. Jon Miller offers his thoughts in this column.

The latest events surrounding the Iowa Basketball program slammed into Hawkeye Nation as a Category 4 last Friday.

There was some advance warning, but it still didn't prepare me for the after effects and the emotion that goes along with it. It's probably a good thing that I have a 20 day old baby who is still trying to learn her days and nights, otherwise I might have sat down at my keyboard late last week and pounded out an emotional diatribe that I might possibly would have regretted.

Still several days after Jake Kelly, Jeff Peterson, David Palmer and Jermain Davis announced their intentions to leave Iowa, I am a bit numb to the entire situation. Perhaps the numbness hasn't escalated to other emotions because Iowa won't play another regular season basketball game for more than seven months.

However, I was pretty excited about the future of the program following the end of the 2008-2009 regular season. The Hawks were going to return a lot of points, they were finally going to return a lot of experience with Todd Lickliter's system of play, a system that Lickliter has said is at its best when there are experienced players helping to teach and lead the way.

I don't want to say that excitement for next year is totally gone, because that would be real unfair to players like Matt Gatens, Jarryd Cole and others that will still be in Iowa City. But I can't sit here and lie, either; things look bleak right about now on this 31st day of March, 2009.

Todd Lickliter said last Friday at a press conference to talk about the transfers that it is always dark before the dawn. This is certainly a dark period for Iowa basketball in a decade long run of mostly shadows and long nights.

In the past decade, the Hawkeyes have had just one team that was a ‘lock' at large selection to the NCAA tournament. It's other team that actually was an at large pick might have been aided in having then athletic director Bob Bowlsby as the head of the NCAA selection committee that year, as the Hawks were just 7-9 in league play and still got an invite to the big dance.

So it's not like we are just experiencing a speed bump here; three trips to the NCAA tournament in a decade might be OK for some mid-major schools or Northwestern, which has never been to the big acronym, but not for Iowa, who went to 16 NCAA tournaments in 21 years prior to Steve Alford being named Iowa's head coach. That's better than a three out of every four years clip.

Perhaps that number was not sustainable, but a 21 year sampling of time is a pretty healthy sample, if you ask me. Tom Davis' final 10 years at Iowa, the decade where he didn't have Roy Marble, B.J. Armstrong and Ed Horton, saw the Hawks just two games over .500 in league play, but they made the tournament six out of those ten years.

Is Iowa any closer to getting back to the NCAA tournament today than they were two years ago when Todd Lickliter was hired? I don't think you can say that. Some might argue they are farther away, as the program took a huge shot to the nose with the defections last week.

Iowa is seven months away from its next real game, and it doesn't have a point guard. That's a pretty scary notion. They have placed a lot of eggs into the basket of junior college prospect Malcolm Armstead, a player that will have three years of eligibility remaining. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jeff Peterson wanted out of Iowa City, though he is leaving quietly and not saying anything along those lines.

He saw Jake Kelly score 20 points per game from the point in his absence, and he certainly was aware of the Hawkeyes interest in Armstead. Perhaps he felt like his role was going to be pinched next year? Perhaps he didn't understand just what his role was with the program, because there were strong whispers last spring that he was considering a departure at that time. I believed those whispers then, and I still do.

Jermain Davis said on his way out the door that he was uncertain of his role, and David Palmer said all the right things this year after going from hardly playing, to scoring 40 points in two games, and then back to the bench. But you could also pick up hints of confusion in his answers when he was asked about his playing time.

Jake Kelly left Iowa because he wanted to be closer to family. That makes sense and is easier to swallow, because of his mother's untimely passing last summer. Kelly has a lot of family in and around Terre Haute, Indiana, and it sounds like he wants to play for Indiana State, which is located in Terre Haute.

Kelly aside, it seems like the program could stand to improve on its communication skills. If you know that you aren't going to play much, it's probably easier to accept.

Davis went from averaging just shy of 30 minutes per game between the Boston College game and the loss at Michigan to averaging just 10.5 minutes the next four games. I don't know what was said to him about that change, if anything at all.

Palmer averaged less than two minutes per game over Iowa's first 19 games before his 19 point effort in 22 minutes against Purdue. The Purdue game was the start of a five game stretch where he averaged 23.2 minutes per game. After that, he averaged 7.8 minutes per game in the next five games he saw the court, which was six games on the calendar; he didn't even play in one contest. He didn't play in any of Iowa's last four games, either, after Cyrus Tate returned to the floor.

Davis and Palmer were not going to be saviors of the program. But from the outside looking in, it's hard to understand the methodology in the distribution of minutes. I know that matchups paint a complete picture, and some nights there are better ways to attack an opponent. However, we are talking feast or famine here, and that just doesn't make sense. It probably made less sense to Davis and Palmer. Each of those players had holes in his game, so again, I am not going to sit here and turn these two into martyrs.

Yet, it's hard not to be down right now. Every team in the Big Ten with the exception of Penn State may be just as good if not better next year. Will Iowa be better? It's hard to imagine that now. There is a lot riding on a few junior college players that have yet to commit to a school, such as the aforementioned Armstead.

The immediate future of the Iowa basketball program depends on it, which is not the position that you want to be in heading into year three of a coaching change.

I will table this discussion until after the spring signing period and seeing what Iowa does there. But for those of you that are jumping off the ship or giving it serious consideration, I don't have any calming words at this point in time.

I still think that Todd Lickliter knows how to coach the game of basketball. His recruiting mettle is certainly going to be tested over the next several weeks and into next year's class. The future of his program at Iowa is riding on him hitting a few out of the park right about now.

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