Howe: Iowa Basketball At Crossroads

Many Iowa basketball fans have reached the end of their ropes with the program. While much of the venom is being spewed at Coach Todd Lickliter, he's not alone on the blame tree and he's probably towards the back of the bus when it comes to responsibility.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - It's hard to imagine many, if any, Iowa basketball fans feeling good about their program right now. Three days into the new season, and the Hawkeyes stand at 0-2 for the first time since 1970.

It seems like everyone is looking for someone to blame for the program being in this position. After two consecutive losing campaigns, it looks like Year 3 of Coach Todd Lickliter could be a step backwards unless some quick and significant improvements occur. If it doesn't, the Hawkeyes will have three NCAA Tournament bids to claim in this decade.

The first two games saw actual average attendance somewhere in the 4,000 neighborhood. The fans watched losses to Southland Conference representative Texas-San Antonio and Duquesne of the Atlantic 10 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa dropped it's first two home games since the 1930-31 season.

Put into that type of historical context, it is pretty easy to ask if this is the lowest point of the program. Some fans have given up on Lickliter and his coaching staff and others appeared close to joining the mob.

Ultimately, Lickliter will be the fall guy if things don't turn around. He certainly is not blameless, but he's far from the main reason for the state of the program.

Yes, Lickliter is paid handsomely for his services. He's compensated to win basketball games. That's what he's judged on in the end and all coaches at this level know that going in.

Much like we saw with his predecessor, Steve Alford, Lickliter has tripped up at times in moving from a mid-major to the Big Ten. Too many players have transferred during his regime and there have been poor chemistry issues due to athletes being unhappy.

Lickliter is a head strong coach that believes in his system. When players don't completely buy in, it creates headaches.

This season's group buys in, but is it too late? Lickliter needs a step forward in Year 3, but it's going to be hard to gauge that by victories. The Hawkeyes have a tough schedule, start four underclassmen, and three freshmen see significant minutes.

One of the main pillars of the system brought in my Lickliter is to have older players helping new guys along. The transferring of players like Jake Kelly, Jeff Peterson and Tony Freeman – three talented players that didn't seem to fit into the plan - creates difficulty in having the system feed itself.

Maybe Lickliter should have assessed the situation better from Day 1 at Iowa and cleaned house. Instead, guys moved out in stages and it was the third season before he coach has "his" guys in place. That could have been better handled.

I like freshmen Cully Payne, Eric May and Brennan Cougill. I just wish their roles weren't as prominent as they will be this season.

Iowa Assistant Coach LaVall Jordan played for Lickliter at Butler. He played very little as a freshman before becoming one of the better players in the coach's time at the Indianapolis school. He has said he wasn't ready in his first season.

Lickliter was caught between a rock and a hard place when he left Butler to take over the Hawkeyes. Apathy clung to the program like grim death. Facilities were outdated.

Iowa told Lickliter he would have a practice facility (like most other schools in the Big Ten) within his first year on campus. The project just broke ground this month and will not be complete until the 2011-12 season.

Lickliter and Athletics Director Gary Barta inherited the obsolete facilities. Much of the blame for that disaster rested at the feet of Alford and former A.D. Bob Bowlsby. For Iowa basketball fans, that relationship has left the program reeling.

Bowlsby let go of the winningest coach in program history, Dr. Tom Davis, and replaced him with Alford in '99-00. We heard a lot from both of them about taking the program to the "next level." It never happened.

Davis reached the NCAA Tournament in nine of his 13 seasons on the Hawkeye bench. After seven tumultuous years, Alford basically was forced out of town after Barta took over for Bowlsby.

Alford's personality rubbed many Iowa followers the wrong way. The handling of Pierre Pierce's two sexual abuse cases by the coach and administration most likely put the nail in coach's coffin.

I'll give Bowlsby a pass for giving Alford his contract extension after the 2001 season. Iowa was coming off a Big Ten Tournament title and its lone NCAA Tournament win in the Alford Era. He leveraged a new deal from Iowa based on perceived interest in him from his alma mater, Indiana.

Where I do not give Bowlsby a mulligan is when it comes to not being able to admit his mistake with Alford. The A.D. went as far as to call Iowa fans "rank amateurs" when they criticized his coach.

By sticking by his man, Bowlsby crippled the program. There weren't enough donations coming in to improve the Iowa facilities because Alford was a pariah.

Meanwhile, the football team was thriving across campus. Kirk Ferentz was receiving gifts that led to a Kinnick Stadium renovation, new practice fields and an academic center. The Hawkeyes kept up with the Jones in the conference and around the country.

Bowlsby received a lot of credit for his fund raising for football. He deserved it to an extent. But the blame for where Iowa basketball stands right now was largely a result on his inability to show Alford the door.

The foundation for failure was set in place at the beginning of the decade. The last two seasons and the first two games of this year have shown that darker days could be ahead.

The ball is clearly in Barta's court. It's his job to gauge the progress of Lickliter and his program. If he waits too long, he could go down with the ship as Bowlsby did with Alford.

It's too early to throw dirt on Lickliter's grave at Iowa. He can coach and his rebuilding job is way more difficult than the one Alford took over. The Big Ten also is much more competitive than it was during Alford's time.

Lickliter does need to show progress, and quick. Iowa is losing money with the small crowds showing up to games. You just can't have this from your second revenue sport during tough economic times.

Lickliter needs to turn the corner by next season. Their first recruiting class with be in its third season in the program and next year's incoming group might be the strongest in his coaching reign.

If things continue to look dismal in Year 4, it might be time to move on and pay off the last three years of Lickliter's deal. You would be searching for a new coach with the enticement of a new practice facility and arena renovation in his first year. Matt Gatens. Anthony Tucker and Aaron Fuller would be heading into their senior years and this season's freshmen would be juniors.

This could be a very tough season for the Hawkeyes and the critics already are out. People certainly are welcome to their opinions. Unrealistic expectations are to blame for many of them, however.

If you thought this was a 20-win team that could go .500 in the Big Ten, you didn't analyze the situation well. You don't lose Kelly and Peterson, your two best defenders and guys capable of creating their own shots, and just step forward from the jump.

As I said earlier, I like the three current freshmen. But I also was impressed with Kelly and Peterson in Year 1, and they struggled. I expected the same from Payne, May and Cougill.

Like it or not, Lickliter's third year will be a lot like what you might expect in Year 1 or 2. That's just the reality.

I felt like this team would win about five games in the conference this season. And although I didn't think the Hawkeyes would drop their first two games, I'm not real surprised by the product right now. Perhaps I'm in the minority.

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