Who Won The Week? Shabazz Napier, Memphis and Villanova…

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 6th, 2013

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game. But he’s not biking anywhere with a sub-zero wind chill. 

WINNER: Shabazz Napier

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America's top player, and being Who Won The Week's top winner.

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America’s top player, and being Who Won The Week’s top winner.

The stellar UConn guard and his team only played one game last week, matching up against a ranked Florida squad. And Napier stole the show. Including the buzzer-beating free-throw-line fadeaway for the 65-64 win, the junior guard finished Monday night’s game in Storrs with 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting and a game-high three steals. It’s impressive to think that Kemba Walker’s backup backcourt mate during the Huskies’ 2011 title run has a solid case in being judged the best player in college basketball this season. If he keeps playing at his current level – the senior guard averages 16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game – he could solidify that claim by the end of the year. Of course, some more luck coming his team’s way couldn’t hurt; including Monday’s game, three of the Huskies’ eight wins have come by a single point.

LOSER: Florida

Already down the services of Eli Carter for the year and freshman five-star recruit Kasey Hill for a couple more weeks due to injuries, Billy Donovan’s Gators could ill afford to lose another point guard. Bad news in Gainesville: Starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin is expected to be out indefinitely after sustaining a similar injury with three minutes left in Florida’s aforementioned loss to UConn. Wilbekin, who already missed five regular-season games due to an offseason suspension, was tough enough to replace as the starting point guard when Florida’s second and third options at the position were healthy. Instead, the Gators face an onslaught of Kansas and Memphis back-to-back on the next two Tuesdays.

To give credit where it’s due, the 67-66 home win over rival Florida State last week is nothing to sneeze at, though Wilbekin did have seven points, eight assists and five steals in that match-up.

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Will the Iowa Hawkeyes Complete Their Comeback Story?

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 8th, 2013

It’s been almost a decade since the Hawkeyes have had any preseason expectations. In those 10 years, Iowa chased away Steve Alford, a coach who enjoyed moderate success while at Iowa City, only to see him move on and have a successful run at New Mexico and subsequently take the head job at UCLA. Afterwards, they had to endure Todd Lickliter, who ushered in an era of hopelessness. Lickliter compiled the worst three-year record in Iowa history at 38-58. Aside from the losses, Iowa’s brand took a hit from dwindling attendance and rumors of player dissatisfaction with the coach. In 2010, they fired Lickliter and hired Fran McCaffery from Siena. Since then, McCaffery has steadily returned the program back to relevance. In his first season he won 11 games and has improved his record by seven wins the past two seasons. Now, coming off a year where the Hawkeyes went 25-13 and were NIT runners-up, the media and fans expect this squad in the NCAA Tournament come March. Anything less will be considered a disappointment and will ruin this comeback story.

Roy Devyn Marble leads an Iowa team that has expectations for the first time in almost a decade.

Roy Devyn Marble leads an Iowa team that has expectations for the first time in almost a decade.

The Hawkeyes were extremely effective on defense, especially away from the basket. Last season, they held opponents to 91.2 points per 100 possessions (22nd in the country) and only allowed opponents to shoot 29.5 percent from both the three-point line and jumpers inside the arc. If there is an area in which they can improve, it would be their interior defense where opponents shot 62.2 percent at the rim. While the Hawkeyes gave up a high percentage of buckets from down low, they managed to prevent opponents from getting in the paint. Less than three out of every 10 of their opponents’ shots came at the rim. McCaffery has always been more of an offensive-minded coach, but with virtually every player coming back, there is no reason to think the defense will slip.

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Big Ten M5: 03.13.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on March 13th, 2013

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  1. Ohio State has had its struggles this season, particularly in finding a consistent offensive threat outside of Deshaun Thomas. However, the Buckeyes have gone on a hot streak as of late — ironically, they’ve done it in a stretch when Thomas has struggled — and surged to grab the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. Late-season surges such as this are nothing new under coach Thad Matta. As the Columbus Dispatch points out, Matta’s teams have won 15 consecutive games in the final week of the regular season, a streak that dates back to 2005. This year — as we’ve seen before — OSU is peaking at the right time, right before the “win and advance” portion of the season.
  2. Finishing No. 8 in the country and getting a No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament is quite the accomplishment, especially for a team that lost its leader and best player from last season. However, it’s not enough for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. MSU was on top of the conference a few weeks ago, but it lost two close games to Michigan and Indiana down the stretch, which ultimately kept the Spartans from winning the Big Ten regular season title. Not getting that championship is an extra incentive for Izzo and his team this weekend, as they try to claim a Big Ten Tournament championship. Not only that, but a run in Chicago would necessarily include some pretty impressive wins, which would give MSU great confidence heading into the NCAA Tournament.
  3. One of the reasons John Groce got the job at Illinois this season is because of the success he enjoyed at Ohio, particularly in the postseason. His Bobcats won the MAC last season and upset Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, he’s heading into his first postseason as a Big Ten coach, but the competition is much tougher here than it was in the MAC Tournament. Still, Groce is excited for his first opportunity to coach in the Big Ten Tournament, and he’s equally excited for his team, which will get the chance to regain some momentum after a bit of a slide to end the regular season.
  4. Sunday’s Michigan-Indiana game was one for the ages, coming down to the final seconds with a tough roll ending up as the difference between a win and a loss for the Wolverines. However, that game just about defined the season for John Beilein’s team, which has shown its incredible potential at times but has also struggled with consistency. The Wolverines have the talent to be the best team in the country, but Bill Simonson of MLive questions whether they have the toughness to make a serious run in the NCAA Tournament. Can UM shake its most recent loss to IU? The talent is there, but it might be tough to get over it.
  5. Iowa has played its last four games without freshman point guard Mike Gesell, but with do-or-die time looming in the Big Ten Tournament, Gesell expects to play on Thursday when the Hawkeyes suit up against Northwestern. Gesell has a stress reaction in his foot, but since it isn’t fractured, he’s been cleared to play despite the pain that limits his abilities. He said he should be able to go. Head coach Fran McCaffery said he will support whatever decision Gesell comes to, noting that the Hawkeyes could certainly use him this week if he’s able to play.
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Big Ten M5: 03.12.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on March 12th, 2013

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  1. As if the end of Sunday’s Indiana-Michigan game wasn’t crazy enough, Tom Crean made it even more interesting when he approached Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer to confront him about his time as an assistant at IU. Crean told Meyer that he “helped wreck the program.” Meyer was a Hoosiers assistant under Kelvin Sampson and was partially responsible for some of the NCAA sanctions leveled against the program in the late 2000s. Crean said he later called to apologize and that his actions were inappropriate, but Michigan coach John Beilein wasn’t happy. “We’re never going to use victory or defeat as a platform for any frustrations we’re going to have,” he told MLive. I’m really proud of the way Jeff showed great poise and handled himself in the aftermath of the disappointment in that loss.
  2. It’s hard to dispute that the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball right now, but what does that mean for the conference when it comes to the NCAA Tournament? Some would argue that it helps the Big Ten teams, because they’ve been tested so much during the season, but others would argue that it may have worn some teams down. Tom Izzo claims it’s the former. He says it gives him and his players confidence heading into the Big Dance knowing that there’s nothing they haven’t seen. He also said the upcoming Big Ten Tournament has the potential to be “maybe one of the great conference tournaments of all-time.”
  3. Wisconsin has lived and died by the three at times this season, and it barely stayed afloat thanks to a buzzer-beating three by Traevon Jackson to guide the Badgers past Penn State. Threes have led to late-game heroics for the Badgers a few times this season, but Wisconsin must do a better job of finding scoring options inside if it is going to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, or even the Big Ten Tournament. UW can’t afford to keep banking on the long ball, because for every game that the shots are falling, there is going to be a game when they aren’t. It’s going to be hard to win four games in four days if the three is Wisconsin’s only offensive weapon.
  4. As the season comes to a close, Bill Carmody’s seat has gotten even hotter, despite the injuries Northwestern has had to deal with this season. NU will miss the NCAA Tournament once again, and that’s enough for many fans to call for Carmody’s job, even considering all the team’s injuries. However, with or without Carmody, the NU program has some problems. There’s no reason to believe things will get easier for a new coach if the basketball facilities don’t receive an upgrade and the stringent academic requirements aren’t loosened.
  5. Iowa has a very young frontcourt this season, with freshman Adam Woodbury and center Gabe Olaseni splitting time at center; and while they’ve had their ups and downs, they’re playing their best basketball of the year right now. Woodbury scored 20 points combined in Iowa’s final two games, while Olaseni has shown improvement on both ends of the floor. He had seven blocks against Illinois and was also a force on the offensive end against the Illini and Nebraska, thanks to his athleticism in the post. Woodbury and Olaseni both should be much improved next season, but they still have a chance to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament.
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Big Ten M5: 02.14.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on February 14th, 2013

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  1. Michigan State was always considered one of the better teams in the Big Ten, but it hadn’t been considered one of the favorites for the conference title to this point. The Spartans’ blowout win over Michigan on Tuesday night represented a shift in that thinking. MSU is peaking at just the right time after some inconsistency early in the season. Veterans Derrick Nix, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson are all stepping up, along with star freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. Tom Izzo’s teams are notorious for their ability to turn things on at the end of the season and play well in March. MSU has to stay consistent, but if the Spartans play like they did against the Wolverines, they’ll be tough to beat many more times this season.
  2. Ohio State needed to fill a void in leadership and on-court production when it lost Jared Sullinger last year, and the most obvious player to fill that void was Deshaun Thomas. Thomas has lived up to the calling and become one of the most productive players in the Big Ten. However, he has changed a lot off the court, as well, thanks to his infant son. Deshaun Jr. was born the night Ohio State played Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament last March and it has changed Thomas’ perspective. Having a son has helped him become more responsible and made him realize that he now has someone looking up to him. That means less time for celebration of games, but it’s still rewarding for him to be able to go home and spend time with his son.
  3. When Fran McCaffery came to Iowa City, his fast-paced offensive style was a welcome change for a program that had just endured three years of slow, unexciting basketball under Todd Lickliter. However, while McCaffery has helped turn the Iowa program around, he recognized the need for better defense if the Hawkeyes were to take the next step. This year, his team has largely delivered on its promise to play better defense. Last year, Iowa gave up an average of 72 points per game through 24 games, but the Hawkeyes are down to 63.9 points per game this year through the same span. Iowa gave up 74.2 points per game through 11 Big Ten games last year, but has given up just 67.2 points per game through that same span this year — and this year’s schedule is far more front-loaded. That’s the largest drop in the conference and a big reason why Iowa is back in the conversation for NCAA Tournament contention.
  4. Over the past week, Illinois has regained the impressive form that it showed early in the season, and part of that is due to the contributions of Sam McLaurin. McLaurin, a fifth-year senior transfer from Coastal Carolina, earned himself a spot in the starting lineup this year and has provided a boost for the Illini on both ends of the floor. McLaurin did a nice job making plays off the ball against Indiana, but Illinois coach John Groce was especially impressed with his performance on defense against Minnesota. Groce said McLaurin received higher grades on defensive hustle stats in that game than any player he has ever coached. For a team that is a bit undersized in the frontcourt, McLaurin’s contributions will continue to be important down the stretch.
  5. Like every year it seems, this was supposed to be the year that Northwestern finally broke its NCAA Tournament curse. The Wildcats seemed to have the talent coming into the season, but they’ve been hit by a number of personnel losses, and two more hit recently. Jared Swopshire and Alex Olah both went down in NU’s loss to Iowa, and while Olah has a concussion and will return, Swopshire is done for the year after having arthroscopic knee surgery. The Wildcats now have very little depth in the frontcourt due to all of this year’s injuries. Sippin’ on Purple does a good job of rehashing all of NU’s injury struggles this year. First, JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season (not an injury, but still a problem), then Drew Crawford went down in December. Freshmen Sanjay Lumpkin and Chier Ajou also had season-ending injuries, while Nikola Cerina, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio have all dealt with injuries at one time or another this year.
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Breaking Down Iowa’s Best Path to the Dance

Posted by KTrahan on February 13th, 2013

What can we make of Iowa right now? That’s a tough question to answer. Most people would probably agree that the Hawkeyes are better than their 4-7 Big Ten record. Some would say it’s impressive that Iowa has hung with so many good teams — such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan State. Some would say the fact that the Hawkeyes can’t get over the hump shows that they’re still a year away. Some would say both. As the schedule cools down, Iowa’s conference record will inevitably improve. That means the Hawkeyes will likely be inserted back into the bubble conversation and should be right on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament come March. But will Iowa have the resume necessary to make it back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2006? That’s up for debate.

Fran McCaffery Needs a Few Breaks But His Team Can Get There (AP)

Fran McCaffery Needs a Few Breaks But His Team Can Get There (AP)

There’s a lot of speculation that a 9-9 conference record is more than enough to get Iowa into the NCAA Tournament because of how good the Big Ten is this year. However, I don’t buy it. That’s not how the selection committee works. They don’t let teams with a certain conference record in just because that conference is good, nor do they only allow a certain number of teams in from each conference. Resumes are based mainly on quality wins compared with bad losses, and if a team from another conference has more quality wins and fewer bad losses than a 9-9 Iowa team, that team is going to get the nod over the Hawkeyes.

So the question is whether Iowa can improve its resume enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. If the season ended today, the Hawkeyes don’t have enough. Iowa is 4-7 in the Big Ten, but more importantly, they have just two quality wins: Wisconsin and Iowa State at home. The team is probably good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but it hasn’t done enough to finish in close games yet, losing heart-breakers to all of Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Purdue. Any one of those losses — save for maybe the Boilermakers — could have counted as a quality win. However, Iowa fell short in all of them, so its postseason fate now sits in limbo.

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The Battle for Sixth Place in the Big Ten is More Important Than You Think

Posted by KTrahan on February 11th, 2013

The battle for the top of the Big Ten this season has been well-documented. Indiana and Michigan look like the front-runners right now, but Michigan State has a chance to threaten for the conference crown as well. Then there’s Ohio State and Wisconsin, both of which have knocked off and hung with the top tier teams this season. Unless there’s a major turn of events in the next few weeks, those five teams will occupy the #1-#5 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament, although the order is completely up in the air. The jockeying for position among those teams will certainly be interesting to watch, but after seeing this comment on Twitter last night, the battle for the #6 seed looks almost as compelling.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that race should be extremely interesting and close the rest of the way. All four teams are either 4-7 or 5-6 in conference play right now, but the #6 seed figures to need to finish at 10-8 or 9-9. Purdue’s road to the position is the toughest — the Boilermakers have trips to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin and visits from Michigan and Minnesota. Still, the jockeying among Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota with the Boilers should be very close. Right now, Iowa and Illinois sit at 4-7 while Minnesota is 5-6. Iowa has the toughest part of its schedule behind it, while Illinois has plenty of momentum looking forward.

First, it’s important to understand why this is important. The difference between being a #6 or #8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament this year really could mean the season for any of these teams. A top-half seed in the toughest conference in college basketball means that team would likely have a strong enough resume to make the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t to say the selection committee will necessarily choose a team based off of  its position in the conference standings — it doesn’t work that way — but it will take a number of quality wins to get to that slot in the Big Ten race, which enhances that team’s resume. It’s also important to draw the #6 seed for match-up and bubble reasons — it’s much easier to have to play #11 seed Nebraska than inconsistent but dangerous teams like possible #9 or #10 seeds Purdue and Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the road to get to the elusive #6 slot for the three teams we’re considering.

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Late Game Struggles Continue to Haunt Iowa

Posted by KTrahan on February 8th, 2013

With 20 seconds left in regulation of Wednesday night’s Iowa-Wisconsin game, Traevon Jackson’s three-pointer bounced off the rim, then the backboard, then fell into the hoop to tie the game up. Josh Ogelsby’s three-pointer just before the buzzer looked good, but then rimmed out. Thus has been the story of Iowa’s season so far, as the Hawkeyes went on to lose 74-70 in double overtime. Iowa certainly has a squad that looked capable of making the NCAA Tournament this year, but the script in every chance to get a marquee win has been the same — a blown late lead and a heartbreaking loss. The Hawkeyes have blown late leads to Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota and now Wisconsin. The only late leads that they’ve held onto against marquee opponents have come against Wisconsin (in the previous meeting this season) and Iowa State. Jon Rothstein and Ken Pomeroy both sympathized with Iowa fans after the loss:

Fake Fran McCaffery was clearly frustrated, as well (great Twitter follow, by the way):

Apparently it was possible to get closer to the hump without going over it. Dammit.

— Fran’s Red Face (@FransRedFace) February 7, 2013

It’s tough to know what to make of all of Iowa’s late-game collapses. The Hawkeyes have clearly had trouble figuring out how to play with a lead at the end of games — they nearly even blew the home lead to Wisconsin. It’s almost as if Iowa goes into prevent defense, to use a football term. And, as the saying goes, the only thing prevent defense does is prevent you from winning the game. The Hawkeyes try to avoid fouling and get very conservative, which allows the other team to get back into the game. Since Iowa isn’t a great shooting team, it’s tough for the Hawkeyes to make the last shot at the end of games.

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Big Ten M5: 01.16.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on January 16th, 2013

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  1. Despite a valiant comeback effort that nearly resulted in a win at Assembly Hall, Minnesota ended up falling to Indiana in its first Big Ten loss on Saturday. The Gophers fell behind by 23 at halftime due to a slow start, and Tubby Smith said part of that was due to a lack of aggressiveness. The Indiana game wasn’t the only slow start Minnesota has had. The Gophers also got into an early hole against Illinois before coming back for an impressive win. They did the same against some inferior competition in non-conference season. Minnesota has the talent to hang with anyone in the country, but in games against top teams,the Gophers must make sure they are strong from the start.
  2. The Big Ten has some fairly active coaches on Twitter. Indiana’s Tom Crean tweets a lot of biblical passages while Nebraska’s Tim Miles tweets about his games at halftime. But don’t expect Tom Izzo to join Twitter any time soon as the Michigan State coach hates the social media platform. There are a lot of good quotes in that article from Izzo, who said he thinks his players listen to criticism more because of it. He has also had conversations with Derrick Nix, who searches his name after every game to retweet fans who criticized him during the game.
  3. In Tim Miles’ first season in Lincoln, nobody expected Nebraska to make much noise in the Big Ten. And while the Huskers have still yet to win a conference game, they have kept things close with both Michigan and Michigan State on the road, thanks to stellar defensive play. Tom Izzo came away impressed with Miles’ squad and said, “I don’t think anybody wants to play them home or away.” Even more impressive, Nebraska held its own against Michigan State without top player Brandon Ubel.
  4. Ohio State has struggled to score this year, and that was very evident at Illinois in a lopsided loss. The Buckeyes have been able to score in transition and have gotten points in the paint at times, but they don’t have consistent shooters. However, the defense was outstanding in their win over Michigan on Sunday and the offense was good enough. Aaron Craft frustrated Trey Burke and the Buckeyes did the same to freshman stars Nick Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. The Wolverines admitted to noticing the pressure. Considering how inconsistent the offense is, Ohio State’s season outlook could depend on how the defense plays from here on out.
  5. When Wisconsin arrives at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, Iowa will be facing the Big Ten’s lone undefeated team. That plus the prospect of playing a rival makes the game a good one, but an added emotional dimension will be in play, as well. The Hawkeyes will be honoring the legacy of former player Chris Street, who died in a car accident 20 years ago. Rick Brown of The Des Moines Register has a nice story on Street’s legacy, his family, and the impact he has left on the University of Iowa.
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Big Ten M5: 01.11.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on January 11th, 2013

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  1. Northwestern suffered through two straight blowouts to open Big Ten play, so the Wildcats were desperately in need of a confidence booster. They got that in by routing Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday night. NU had been struggling with its shooting and its freshmen had suffered some discouraging performances, as most freshmen do, but the shooting improved and the freshmen got involved in the win over the Nittany Lions. A blowout like that is just what the doctor ordered, writes Chris Emma of Scout.com. NU is still a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament this season, but this year is all about helping the freshmen gain confidence and improve, and they certainly showed as much against Penn State, which could carry over in the coming games.
  2. People keep wondering if this is finally the year that Iowa breaks through and makes the NCAA Tournament under Fran McCaffery, and while an NCAA berth is certainly coming soon, it may still be a year away. The Hawkeyes have had three chances for marquee wins in the Big Ten so far, with the latest coming Thursday night at home against Michigan State, but they’ve come up empty in each. Thursday’s game was there for the taking, but Iowa couldn’t close it out, which is the mark of a young and inexperienced team. The Hawkeyes need a big win to get over the top, says Mike Hlas of The Gazette, and a close game with the Spartants was an outstanding opportunity to do that to springboard into the rest of the Big Ten season. Now, Iowa is still searching for such a win, and Big Ten games are becoming much more important as its losses pile up.
  3. The “greatness” debate comes up whenever a very good team seems to be on the verge of a special season, and with Michigan undefeated and about to hit the toughest part of its schedule, that debate has arrived in Ann Arbor. There are some criticisms of this team that aren’t really fair, and given the outstanding talent the Wolverines have on hand, there’s no reason that John Beilein’s team can’t be special. Soon we’ll know for sure if Michigan can silence its critics, as the Wolverines go on the road to face Ohio State and Minnesota in the next week. It’s gut check time for this young group of players. Even losses in those games don’t mean Michigan can’t win in March, but two wins could certainly solidify this group as the top team in the country.
  4. When Michigan heads to Columbus for its game against Ohio State this weekend, it will be a homecoming for the Wolverines’ star point guard Trey Burke. It’s rare that a Columbus product would end up in Ann Arbor, but in this case it’s because Burke didn’t even have an offer from the Buckeyes. Thad Matta has to be regretting that decision now, as Burke could have given the Buckeyes just about everything they lack — a consistent, versatile scorer with the ability to burst for bunches of points. The Buckeyes already have a very good point guard in Aaron Craft, and it’s tough to know which recruits will pan out, but OSU has to wonder how different things might have been if Burke were wearing scarlet and gray rather than maize and blue this weekend.
  5. Recruiting never stops in college basketball, and thanks to an NCAA rule change that allows high school juniors to take official visits after January 1, Indiana will have a special visitor from halfway around the world coming to this weekend’s game against Minnesota. The Hoosiers will be hosting Dante Exum, who ranks as the No. 17 guard in the 2014 class by Rivals. He’s also being looked at Boise State, Georgetown, LSU, SMU, Tulsa and Vanderbilt. If there were ever a game for Exum to fly halfway around the world to see, it would be this one, as Assembly Hall will be packed and should have an electric atmosphere for a top 10 match-up.
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New Years Eve Date with Indiana Offers Iowa Basketball a Grand Stage for its Return

Posted by KTrahan on December 28th, 2012

The loudest I’ve ever heard a crowd at a sporting event was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was Big Ten-leading Iowa vs. #20 Michigan on February 20, 2006, and I was a seventh-grader who put tickets to an Iowa basketball game at the top of my Christmas list. Those days in Carver-Hawkeye were special; they were the beginning of my love of college basketball. The Hawkeyes walloped Michigan 94-66 on that particular day en route to a Big Ten Championship season. I sat there taking in the atmosphere, preaching to my dad — a Syracuse fan — that nowhere in the country could top the Carver-Hawkeye experience.

Nearly seven years later, a lot has changed for Iowa basketball. The Hawkeyes’ decline has been well-documented, marked by the Steve Alford soap opera and the failed Todd Lickliter era. By the end of the Lickliter era, local high school games rivaled the atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Now, the healing has begun in Iowa City, as Fran McCaffery enters year three of his rebuilding project. Iowa has gone from cellar dweller to a program on the rise, and as Big Ten play approaches, Iowa is back in the NCAA Tournament conversation for the first time since, well, that season in 2006.

Fran McCaffery has C rocking again (Cliff Jette photography)

Fran McCaffery has Carver-Hawkeye Arena rocking again (Cliff Jette photography)

Iowa has been eating up the “on the rise” slogan — in fact, it’s the team’s official slogan this year — and the fans seem to be buying in. The Hawkeyes have been on the rise for awhile, and considering the steady progress that McCaffery has made, the fans have been patient with what they knew would be a painstaking rebuilding process. But nobody has mistaken the rise of the program with being “back.” That’s the next step for this program, and could come in the waning hours of 2012, as the Hawkeyes host #5 Indiana Monday in the first game of the Big Ten season.

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Big Ten M5: 12.26.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on December 26th, 2012

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  1. It’s been hard to convince anyone who has watched or covered Hawkeye basketball for much of the past decade to jump onto the “Iowa is back” bandwagon just yet, and for good reason; the Hawkeyes have been inconsistent at best. But this year, after an 11-2 start, Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette is ready to jump on the bandwagon. The Hawkeyes have a very young team and have been inconsistent at times, but they have impressive wins against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and they’ll be a tough out at home this year. The Big Ten slate starts off against Indiana at home and then with two on the road against Michigan and Michigan State, so it certainly won’t be an easy task to get to March. Still, with a Big Ten slate that is easier than most teams’ schedules in the conference, this may finally be the year Iowa returns to the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Non-conference basketball means cupcake season for the most part, and that has led to criticism of top teams like Indiana that play so many guarantee games in November and December. However, Terry Hutchins of the Indianapolis Star said that the criticism is misguided, because much of the reason for the easy schedule is revenue-driven. The Hoosiers need to make sure that they have 18 to 20 home games per year, and an easy way to do that is to pay teams a fee to come to Assembly Hall for a beatdown. That leads to more home games and more ticket sales, which is what non-conference games are all about. The Hoosiers always go to some early season non-conference tournament, play an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, and, this year, will have a very difficult Big Ten schedule. Playing a few cupcakes in the first two months of the season certainly isn’t something to get up in arms about.
  3. Minnesota has a history of starting fast in the non-conference season and then slumping at the start of Big Ten play, but this year’s Gophers have put together an impressive resume and look like the real deal. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently handed out a report card on Minnesota’s non-conference schedule, and a lot of the focus is on Trevor Mbakwe, a player who is starting to look like he did before last year’s ACL injury. He is gaining strength and could potentially re-enter the starting lineup which already features stars Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. The Gophers have so much depth that this certainly looks like Tubby Smith’s best team yet in Minnesota. Now, with conference play about to start, we’ll get some more answers about a team that has a lot of potential but still also some unknowns.
  4. When eight-year-old Mackenzie Kelley found out that her favorite player, Penn State star Tim Frazier, might not be able to play next year if he isn’t granted a medical hardship waiver, she decided to take the matter up with Santa by asking him to put a good word in with the NCAA. Kelley is a diehard Penn State fan and has met Frazier a couple of times. After she met him initially at a preseason event, she met him again and was excited to find out that “out of all the people he meets he remembered me.” Frazier got a hold of the letter and thanked Mackenzie on Facebook; luckily for Mackenzie — and Frazier — the injury happened early enough in the season that Frazier should be back on the court next year, a gift from old St. Nick indeed.
  5. Derrick Nix has been asked to take on more of a leadership role for Michigan State this year after the departure of Draymond Green, and he’s still improving, as exhibited by a career high 25 points to go along with 11 rebounds in a win on Saturday against Texas. However, the area in which Nix has improved the most isn’t something you would expect from a man his size — free throws. Nix was a bad free throw shooter when he first got to MSU, but endless hours of practice has helped him become much better, improving from a 27 percent free throw shooter as a freshman to a 70 percent free throw shooter this season. Nix said that coach Tom Izzo would rather he was moving around more before practice, but he’s always at the free throw line practicing his shot, and it’s paid off for the Spartans in the long run.
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