Hoops Reality

January 13, 2010

Written by Jon Miller

If it seems like it’s been a while since I have written about the Iowa basketball program, it’s because it has been.

I have often given advice to folks that frequent my message boards that sometimes it’s best to type a post, step away from the keyboard for a little while then come back and reread it and see if you have the same passion and spirit for what you wrote, or if it was just pure emotion.

I have taken my own advice, in addition to having a blast writing about Iowa football.  The Iowa football commentaries are not going to stop, not hardly; we have eight months to go before Iowa begins fall practice and I intend to do my part to preview, prod and prognosticate up and until I leave for Chicago in late July and never stop until next season is over, then keep on going.

However, with Iowa taking a brief one game break from its Big Ten schedule that resulted in a win last night in front of ‘friends and family’ in Carver Hawkeye Arena, perhaps this keyboard will be cathartic.

First off, this is not going to be a column railing on the fans for not showing up.  When I go to Iowa games, I do so with a credential, which means I do not have to pay.  I find it very difficult to then criticize anyone for not going to games that has to pay their own way to get in the door.  On top of that, the product that you are paying for, whether it’s in the world of business, merchandise or in this case, entertainment, needs to provide equal or better value than what you pay to see it.

As it relates to Hawkeye basketball, that’s just not the case right now.  I hate writing things like this, because I know how hard the players are working to win games.  I know the coaching staff is working hard to turn things around, too.

When Todd Lickliter got to Iowa, he arrived at a program that was in the worst shape, facilities wise, of any of the 10 public institutions in the league.  In this era of athletics, you are either in the facilities arms race, or you are not going to compete.  You do have a choice.  And a choice to not invest in that area is indeed a choice made, with ramifications.

Simply put, it hurts recruiting.  That’s an area that Iowa has always struggled with, save a few brief instances here and there, and will likely always struggle with, consistently.  This state does not produce the type of talent on an annual basis that can win Big Ten Championships; you have to go elsewhere to add the pieces to the puzzle.

Look, I know that Adam Haluska, Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner were the heart and soul of Iowa’s Big Ten Tourney title a few years back.  Those are three of the best players this state has produced in the last 20 to 25 years, all in one class, and they all made their way to Iowa.

But that’s rare.  Now, the state’s best players are not all coming to Iowa.  Harrison Barnes didn’t even give Iowa a real look, and he was the best player in the nation.  Doug McDermott has turned himself into a pretty darned competent basketball player, and he is going to UNI.  Speaking of UNI, they are the best team in the state two years running and the best team in the state three seasons ago was Drake.

There was Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison in the same class in the late 1990’s, but Iowa had a lame duck situation there and they both made their way to Kansas where they had historic careers.

With all due respect to Matt Gatens, Brennan Cougill and Eric May, the talent in this state is not enough…and the facilities are as such that to get out of state kids to really give you a look, the kind of kids that are going to help you win titles, you have to be able to tell them that you don’t have to go practice at an athletic facility five miles from campus to get the court time you need…the need to know there is a facility there where the can come in and shoot 24/7/365.  Iowa does not have that, and hasn’t had that for a while.  That is not Todd Lickliter’s fault.

There are typically player defections when a coaching change is made, and it was no different for Iowa.  But those defections have really impacted the program.  Jake Kelly and Jeff Peterson sure would look good on the floor right now for Iowa, wouldn’t they?

Iowa just put together its best recruiting class in years, despite some of the challenges I listed…and that is great.  I am excited to see these players wear the black and gold starting next year…hopefully Iowa has two or three more classes just like this one, if not better.  They will need it to contend for Big Ten titles.

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Iowa’s attendance problem began long before Todd Lickliter arrived.  The level of disconnect some of the fans felt from the Pierre Pierce Part 1 fallout has never healed..then when he had his second incident, that was a game breaker for others.  As the Steve Alford era came to an end, attendance was at then all time lows while apathy was at the highest levels of my lifetime, or at least dating back to the Dick Schultz era, which ended in 1974 when I was three years old.

I had never known the word apathy to be associated with my Iowa basketball program.  Now, apathy has a whole lotta seats registered to it each and every game.

Iowa’s brand of basketball could be a byproduct of what Lickliter inherited combined with what he has had to work with at the start of each of his seasons.  I remember watching his last Butler team and really admiring the way they played, the way they dictated the tempo and terms of each game, whether that was a game won in the 40’s as it was against Tennessee  that year, or in the 70’s or 80’s.

He hasn’t had the players to do that here, so perhaps he is putting together game plans to win with what he has, like he did a few years back beating Michigan State 43-36 in Carver Hawkeye Arena.

However, this brand of basketball is very tough to watch. It’s not pleasing, and that’s not just because they are not winning.  For a lot of people, it’s boring.  Now, some purists may say it’s now how many you score but how many you win by.  OK, that’s fine, but they stopped using peach basket a long time ago.

The announced attendance for the Iowa-Tennessee State game was just over 8,000.  I was not there, but in following various reports on twitter from reporters that were there, attendance estimates were somewhere around 2,000 to 3,000.

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I remember, as a teen in the 1980’s, where shirts and skins games before Iowa football games would have 10,000 or more people in the arena, and the only time some people could even get into the arena to watch the Hawks was for the Black and Gold Blowout, due to an amazing demand for tickets.

Now, you have instances where the games are not even on television.

Finally, the cumulative effects of several factors I have mentioned are on one side, and winning games is on the other.  Iowa is on pace for its worst three year run in program history.  I really don’t see how it’s avoidable.

Dick Schultz had a winning percentage of just .414 during his four years at Iowa.  As of 1/13/2010, Todd Lickliter’s winning percentage is .419.  Assuming Iowa is one and done at the Big Ten Tournament this year, they have 15 games left this season.  To say they will finish 3-12 over that stretch is probably generous, wouldn’t you say?  If they hit that record, Lickliter’s ‘winning’ percentage will be .385 over his three years at Iowa.

He didn’t create the mess that was Iowa Basketball when he arrived on campus.  He didn’t let the facilities fall to dead last in the league.  He didn’t allow players back in the program after allegations of sexual assault.  He didn’t do a lot of the things that have caused this program to fade into irrelevance over the past 11 years, a span of time that has seen just one NCAA Tournament win.

Yet, he is the head coach right now and while there are signs of improvement in the parking lot constructions zone areas outside of the arena, there aren’t many signs on the inside.

I wish I had answers…the only answers I see is to bring in more quality players, keep them on campus, and win games.  Sounds easy enough on the surface, but the first piece of that statement has never been easy.  And when you aren’t winning even 40 percent of your games over a three year stretch, it becomes all the more challenging.

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So to those fans that are incredibly frustrated, you should be.  To those fans that are saying this is a blip on the radar, you just don’t have the data to support that sentiment.  To ignore the issues that are confronting this program is akin to ignoring there is even a program in the first place.

Judging by the number of empty seats in the arena, far too many people have found something else to do with their time, and the costs and effort to bring those people back in will be significant.

One can suggest that an entire generation of future season ticket holders is lost.  That might be dramatic, but as I have written before, today’s college freshmen are tomorrow’s working men and women that will have the disposable income to make choices as to whether or not they purchase Iowa basketball tickets, or spend that money elsewhere, or in times like these, put it in the bank.

Today’s college freshmen have seen just one NCAA tournament win by the Hawkeyes since they were in the third grade.  What kind of lifelong passion does that build into someone?  Just because daddy’s Hawkeyes were fun to follow doesn’t mean that passion automatically is instilled in the next generation.

Where as I had Ronnie Lester, Greg Stokes, Michael Payne, BJ Armstrong, Roy Marble and other former Hawkeyes who played on great teams to stoke my passion for the Hawkeyes, today’s college freshmen weren’t even alive when any of those greats donned the black and gold.

To them, those names are ghosts and echoes, pictures on a wall black and white photos in media guides.

When it comes time to write the check in five to ten years, are they going to do it?  Are the lost fans going to come back and choose to spend the money they used to spend on Iowa basketball that has now made its way to another area of their life?

This is the stone cold reality facing the Iowa basketball program in January of 2010…Iowa hasn’t won a regular season Big Ten championship in 31 years.  That’s a long time, even for people like me that have fond memories of Iowa basketball growing up.

For tomorrow’s season ticket holders, that might as well be 300 years ago.

Iowa has an enormous task ahead of it, and there are no guarantees that the ‘glory days’ of making the NCAA tournament three out of every four years, something Iowa did from 1979 to 1999, will ever return.

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