Q: What's the overview of this team?
Steve Alford: Well, we've had a very good summer and fall. We've got a very veteran group, it's a group that's got a lot of experience. Erek Hansen is going into his fifth year, Brunner and Jeff are going into their fourth year, but they've been around the program nearly six or seven years. Doug really came on late in the year, Justin's somebody here locally, you've got five seniors that have an awful lot of experience, then a junior class of Mikey and Adam that got a valuable experience from about the first February on. This is a very experienced group, and they've practiced that way throughout the summer and what we've seen here in the fall. This is probably the best fall we've had, I think we're in the best shape we've been in. Strength-wise, this is the best we've been, conditioning is the best we've been. Health-wise, its' the best we've been going into a year, and just knowing what we want to do. Offensively, defensively, all those things, they've gotten a little bit better with. That, I think, is why we're a little bit optimistic and we're pretty excited about the upcoming season because of the type of quality young men we've got.
Q: Would you say that this is the best overall group you've had?
Alford: Well, it's hard to say. We haven't played a game yet. I think we've got to wait and play the games, but we're pretty excited.
Alford: Yeah. You know, the Reggie and Luke team, that team there, the 99 team, the 2000 team, the 2001-2002 team were awfully talented. In 2002 we didn't do a very good job, both coaches and players with that team. I think now here we are, we're coming back off an NCAA appearance just like we were 4 or 5 years ago, and I think that's what we're wanting to improve upon. Instead of having a lapse like we had, we need to continue to progress and grow. I think this is a group of young men than can do that.
Q: How do you do that, how do you avoid that?
Alford: Well, experience is one. I think experience from a coaching standpoint, then two, it's not the same players, but half our team are instate kids. They remember winning a big ten championship in the tournament, then they turn around the next year, go 5-11 in the Big Ten and not make the NCAA tournament. They know that, and that stuff, they understand. They've done a very good job of growing from that point on. I think this is a very hungry team. Erek's hungry, Doug's in his last year, he's hungry. Jeff and Bru are definitely hungry. Any time you've got a group of leaders with a chip on their shoulder of wanting to do more and more things, that's a good thing, in October. That's just got to supersede and things have got to keep getting better, and I think it will. The leadership I saw from Bru and Jeff from February on was tremendous. It's as good as any leadership I've had or been around. If they can continue to build on that, then we've got a chance to have a very exciting year.
Q: Have you talked to those two, or have they talked about being together all this time, the last go around, trying to do something special this year?
Alford: I've tried to tell them that they've had very special careers. You look at a Jeff Horner, he's already, when you combine the three stats of points, assists, and rebounds, he's already done what no other Iowa Hawkeye has done, and he's done that in 3 years. He's had a very special career already. Bru has just constantly gotten better and better, now he gets the World University games, both of them are starting to get attention nationally. Obviously now I think their next step is their wanting to see what they can do now, whether it's a Big Ten race, whether it's a national scene, there's no two individuals that deserve it more than these two. They've worked their tails off, they've been great leaders, and they've developed on the floor, off the floor, both ends of the floor for three years. You just hope that things stay healthy and their fourth year is very special.
Q: Mike Henderson finished the year (well). Is he in a position to kind of go from there?
Alford: We hope. When you lose somebody, then there's an opportunity for somebody else, that somebody else has got to make the most of it, and Mikey definitely did that. His last 4 weeks of the season were as solid as anybody on the team, and he was a key for our late season run. He's had a very good summer, he's stabilized himself, I think he's matured as a person and a player, and he's just got to keep getting better. I think that's the key with Mike. He's going into his junior year, so he's starting to get into that upper classman type mentality, and he'll just have to start playing that way. He'll be on everybody's radar screen now, but he's as quick as it comes and as strong as it comes with the basketball. Hopefully he can continue to run the show, with Jeff. Having two point guards out there really seemed to help us later in the year, now we start the year that way.
Q: You talked a little bit about the off-season going really well. Was it Jeff and Bru or was it something you guys changed?
Alford: I think it's more players. June, July, and August we're not allowed to have, other than summer basketball camps, we can't have any contact with them. It's nothing we did on the floor, it's your leadership that happens. Jeff and Bru have just been tremendous, they learned a lot, and I think the experiences of a year ago really helped them understand what leadership was. Leadership isn't about going to the timeline, the jump circle, and facing two other guys and having an official tell you the rules that you already know. Leadership is about controlling your team and doing the things that they need to know. They did a very good job of teaching young kids last year. Mike Henderson, Adam Haluska, who hadn't been through the Big Ten yet. All of a sudden, their roles changed in February, and Jeff and Bru did a great job of (1), allowing that change to take place and knowing the importance of those two guys, but then also helping them. I think they've just continued that through the summer.
Q: You talked about experience from a coaching standpoint. How have you grown in the last 5 years?
Alford: I've had a lot thrown at me. Any time you've got a lot of things thrown at you. Any time you've got a lot of things that you have to go through, whether it be good, bad, adversity, challenges, you've got an opportunity to grow. I would hope that I'm much better prepared, I would hope that those experiences, I'm not saying you wish those experiences on anybody, I'm not saying that. But when they do happen and you have to go through them, you either face them head on and try to get better and try to learn and grow, or you go in a difference direction. I hope that I've been able to learn and throw through those things, and the experiences that we've had to go through, both good and bad, hopefully have made me a better coach.
Q: What's your assessment of the center position?
Alford: Well, Erek Hansen was tremendous in November and December. There may have not been anybody better in November/December. It was his first full season, and I think he hit the wall a little bit and we forgot to throw him the ball some. Those two things compounded into a little bit of getting disinterested. Late in the season, he was tremendous again. He's had a very good summer, he's in great shape right now, his back feels better than what it did a year ago, so we're looking for big things out of Erek. I think our center position starts with Erek. We can then go a variety of positions. We can throw Bru in there, which we've done at times and play Bru and Alex together. I think you'll see Alex play some big guard this year, which will be something a little bit different. He's had a tremendous summer and I think he'll be a big key for us. You've got Seth Gorney who's going into his sophomore season, that when he got minutes last year really did a lot of good things for us. I think you start with Erek, but then Doug can play that position, Doug can play the 5, the 4, Bru can play the 5, the 4, and you've got Seth who's going to play that as well.
Q: Do you think Jeff is underappreciated, nationally at least?
Alford: Yeah, there's no question. There's absolutely no question. I think Jeff is one of those special kids. He's been that way all his life. There's been a lot of pressure on him being an in-state kid, a coach's kid, he's had a label on his back for a long, long time and yet all he does is go out every night and give you absolutely everything he's got. That's sometimes 38, 39, 40 minutes playing 2 or 3 games a week. You look at his numbers, barring any kind of injury, if he can go injury free, the numbers he's going to have from points, rebounds, assists, assist to turnover ratio are going to be as good as anybody that's put on a uniform here at Iowa. I think that speaks volumes because we've had some terrific players that have worn that uniform. Jeff has worn it very proudly and there's nobody, any more in our locker room that appreciates being a hawk any more than Jeff does.
Q: Brunner looks like he's lost a little weight this year. Are you thinking of playing him at the 3 spot at all this year?
Alford: We could, but his natural position is still going to be at power forward. I think with what he's done nutritionally, players buy into different things at different stages of their career, he bought into it when the season was over. He's just been tremendous. He had an outstanding summer with the World University games, Jay Wright and his staff loved him. He's been terrific here in the fall, and I think his new toned body and the way he goes about things, hopefully will make him more of an efficient power forward. Not that we can't play him at a guard position, but in our system, he's going to be play inside out anyway. The way our guards are, and wanting to get Alex some more minutes and play Alex and Bru together, I would probably see Alex more at that position with Bru and Erek at times and go really big.
Q: Where do you expect Doug Thomas to fit in, how will he contribute?
Alford: Doug's juts got to continue his progression of what he did late in the year. If you look at Doug, that traditionally happens with a lot of JC kids, if you look at what Doug was doing in November and December versus what he was doing in February and March, he was much more comfortable. When he got comfortable, he got more confidence, and we've seen that there this fall. He's much different. He understands what's expected of him, he knows his role, he's very confident in that role now. Instead of out there thinking A-B-C-D, he's just instinctively doing ABC. When you're as athletically gifted as Doug is, if you can stop thinking and just play, then you become somebody that can really be efficient. Doug has really prepared himself well. We hope we can have a good year, because he's going to be a big key for us. Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, that's somebody that can add and awful lot to you because of what we're wanting to do with transition offense. He's going to be a key to our board play. Erek has not been an efficient rebounder yet, so I think that's got to be a key for Erek. His rebounding numbers have to go up. Doug has to be somebody who challenges Bru and Erek every day to be better and more efficient rebounders.
Q: Do you expect to have a big year too from Reed and Thompson?
Alford: There's no question. I think Carlton was a lot like Erek. Through almost February, he was having a pretty special year, then he hit the wall a little bit. That's what freshmen do. He had a very solid freshman year, Carlton's just one, we talk about it in our locker room a lot, you've got shot makers and shot takers. Carlton's a shot maker, he really understand show to make shots. Any time you've got somebody who understands how to make shots, you're athletic, he's extremely fast. He's a lot like Chauncey was with the basketball. He's just bigger than Chauncey. I think he's going to be a very special player, his development just has to continue to progress. Alex is the same way, he's bigger, he's stronger, he, like Doug, is playing with a lot more confidence now. We've just got t get those guys some minutes early in the season and get them going early in the season.
Q: He might play guard too?
Alford: Alex? Yes.
Q: What would the realistic expectations be for the team? Should fans be thinking 25 wins? Big Ten Title? Sweet Sixteen?
Alford: Fans are going to think that anyway.
Q: What's realistic?
Alford: Fans don't need for me to tell them that. We've never put a number on wins, I've always said that if I say 22, then I've capped what these kids have done and they stop at 22. Maybe it's a team that can get to 25 or 26, I've just never believed in doing that. I think they want to see the step just continue to go forward. That's what we want to see with Coaches, we were able to get 21 last year, we were able to make the tournament last year. For 9 weeks, we were ranked in the top 25. There aren't a lot of teams that for 9 consecutive weeks were ranked in the top 25. We've done some special things. We hit some adversity, then responded very well. We did a phenomenal job of responding late in the year, now we've got to carry forward that momentum. Where that goes, we've got to wait and see. Being in the Guardians, we've got a chance to play 14 non-league games which is a lot of non-league games, it's a very demanding schedule. If you look at our schedule, it's going to be another very demanding schedule. Not only the teams that we have to play on the road or at the guardians, but you look at the Big Ten schedule, who we play on the road, who we play at home. Our home Big Ten schedule is as challenging as any home Big Ten schedule we've had since I've been here. It's a very demanding, challenging schedule. We've got an experienced team that I think is very hungry to do some special things this year. I think everything's been prepared, now we've got four weeks to really get them going here in practice. The new rules have helped us jump start things. I'm probably sitting here more confidence now that I was at any other press day just because of the new rules changes. We've been able to basically practice once, sometimes twice a week, depending on how we used our two hours, but having every player on the floor this year together in the fall has got us a little bit ahead of where we might usually be going into mid-October.
Q: But do you consider your team a serious contender for the Big Ten title?
Alford: Oh there's no question. Yeah. If you don't think that, you're beat before you ever throw the ball up. I don't think there's any reason why, and I think our locker room would be the first to tell you, every year we come in fighting for that. This year's no exception. With the experience we've got coming back and what Tony Freeman, I think, will add. The freshmen class, the freshmen of a year ago, the experience they've got now. We're excited about it. With that said, you look at the Big Ten teams, Michigan returns everybody, all the kids that were hurt or in trouble last year are back. They're probably as talented as any team in the Big Ten. Michigan State returns a big core of a final four team, Illinois is going to be strong again. Dee Brown got hurt at the wrong time, and now comes back to school. They're going to be awfully good, Wisconsin is going to be very talented, Indiana is going to be as talented as they've been in probably 3 or 4 years. Minnesota, in talking to Dan this summer, this is as excited as he's been with any team he's had, Northwestern has a very good transfer that's sitting out, that left Kentucky and we were involved with that will be a very talented player for them that really adds to what they want to do. I think this is going to be a unique (Big Ten) media day coming up two weeks over Halloween that you're probably going to see every Big Ten coach think that they're probably a little better than they were a year ago. With the exception of maybe Illinois, just because it's hard to duplicate that. It'd be hard to say, if I were Bruce, to say we're better than what we were a year ago. We can still be awfully good, but I don't know if they're that good yet. You're going to see a lot of teams pretty pleased with what's going on the first of November.
Q: With that said, what will it take for Iowa then to move up in the standings in the Big Ten? Are there certain things the team has to do better?
Alford: Last year was probably our best year defensively. I thought we were as focused and concentrated at that end, and that really helped us. Our assists were a little bit up, our turnovers were down, we did not rebound the ball as well last year as we did the years past. We've always been 1 or 2 in the league in rebounding, that dropped off. I think board play and the mindset defensively has still got to continue to improve. I think we're going to have a lot of weapons offensively, the style we're going to play, how fast we want to play. The indicator is really going to be how many stops we can get. We'll be a much better transition team if we can get stops. We've got to continue to improve defensively. If we do that, then I think we've got a chance. The three teams that have been at the top of the Big Ten over the last 4 years, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State have all been there because they've been the 3 best defensive teams in our league. If we're going to try and get in that mix, we've got to prove that we can be one of those good defensive teams. We got close last year, but we weren't to their level, defensively yet.
Q: You mentioned Freeman. With a roster this deep, where do you see first year players fitting in, if at all?
Alford: If you look at our back court, you look at Jeff and Adam and Mike, you just go with the starters from a year ago, then you've got Carlton who did a great job off our bench, then you add Tony, I think those five guys, rotating minutes, are going to be key. We really like what we see out of Tony. With as many games as we could play, it's not like we want to reduce Jeff's minutes, but we'd like to see his minutes maybe get under control. Maybe be a little more efficient with his minutes. Tony could be a big key with that. Tony's fast, athletic, he can shoot the basketball. The nice thing that Tony's got, he's playing with experienced guards. Very similar to what Carlton did a year ago. He gets to play with guys that have been in the Big Ten, they've been in the battles. Tony doesn't have to come in and be a 20 ppg scorer. He can learn at his own pace, but he can still be a very dangerous player. He can really guard, he's a freshman guard that's about 6-1, I'd say 6-0.5, but he likes to be called 6-1. I played with his Dad, and his Dad's definitely not 6 foot. I've always told him he's at least a bit taller than his dad. This is a freshman guard who's not 6-2, bench pressing 235, 240. This is a strong kid. He's going to be a very special player, but he's in a position where there's not a lot of pressure on him here in the first month or two, he can grow at his own pace.
Q: You mentioned transition, do you feel this team has the potential to be your best team in the transition?
Alford: I think so. I hope so. Again, defensively, that's what's got to continue to improve, and staying healthy, that's always a key. It's such a long season, basketball is a long, long season, we've just got to stay healthy. Do the things we need to do in the non-conference season to get wins, but get experience too. We could be a very good transition team. We can be a team that you can put Jeff or Mike out there at the point, or Tony out there at the point and still have a shooting guard in Haluska at 6-5, very athletic, could play Alex at 6-8 or 6-9 at the other guard spot, then go big-big as well. You can go really big, go smaller, quicker, I think we've got a lot of versatility that we can do, especially in those swing positions, the 2-3-4 positions we can be pretty versatile. Transition is always dependant on what kind of defensive team you are. If you're always taking the ball out of the net, Michigan State is as good as anybody at running when the ball is coming out of the net. That's overshadowed a lot, but they get a lot of stops. The more stops you can get, the better transition team you'll be. We're obviously putty a big emphasis on it. I thought we were pretty good last year in it. We had a change a little bit mid-season, but I thought we were pretty good in it last year. We've got to get back to doing that again this year.
Q: Is Kurt Looby going to be for-sure red shirting?
Alford: That's our plan. That's what we'd like to see happen, and we've been extremely impressed with Kurt. He's so far ahead of what we imagined, but I think when you look at our center position and you look at our bigs this year we've got Hansen, Brunner, and Doug all 3 seniors, all 3 6-7, 6-8 or bigger. Minutes become a little scarce there. We really like the future of Kurt, we're going to wait and see. With the rule changes, he can now play in the exhibition season, so we don't have to make that decision until the 14th of November. That would be our plan. The best laid plan is for that take place, because we can spend a whole year working with Kurt. He needs strength, and he's done a very good job at Tyler Junior College. When he got there, he'd never lifted a weight, he'd played basketball for two years prior to that. They did a great job of getting him ready for this level. Now we'd like to have a year where we really have him on a good strength program. When we go on the road, be able to take him through individual workouts, do a lot of different things there, let him prepare at his pace so that next year when we lose some of this size, he'd be ready to go.
Q: Can you talk about how your pre-season schedule might help you in a selection committee's mind?
Alford: That's something we've always looked at. We want to obviously get prepared for the Big Ten. There's always that fine line of getting prepared but also having confidence going into the Big Ten. We were not playing well late in the non-conference season. That was the first time we'd played 13 non-league games, I hope that will help us going into this year when we potentially could play 14, but playing 13 games before January 1, plus the travel to Maui, I didn't like the way we played the second half of Air Force and the entire game of St. Louis. Those three halves, you could see something coming, and unfortunately, then we got Michigan in here on a snow storm and we played like we were in a snow storm. We got beat in a tough game and it got us off on the wrong foot. This year when you look at it, we could possible play 14 non-league games, then we start at Wisconsin who has lost 1 home game in 4 or 5 years there. That's a tough way to start, then you come home with Illinois. We've really got to be prepared, but also be confident going into those January games.
Q: (On Brunner playing at the University Games)
Alford: I think it's always good when you get to be around other players that are playing at major conferences just like you are. You get to talk with your peers that are from outside of the normal peer group that you have in the Big Ten, then just the overall experience. Getting to play overseas, having those overseas people see him, I know I went out to Colorado Springs and spent a day and a half when Jeff and he were out there, the pro scouts that are out there. And then get other coaches talking. It's a little bit like Jeff. When you're a little bit under appreciated, if another staff can be with you, now that just helps get the word out there just what kind of person and player you are. I think if you call up Jay Wright, he'll tell you how much he thinks of Greg Brunner. Any time that happens, here's a coach in the Big East so it's somebody that's out east that can spread the word a bit on Bru. I think that's always beneficial to the player.