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Archive for February, 2008

The border battle

Friday, February 29th, 2008
Usually, two Iowa-Illinois basketball games in a single season is enough to keep hoop junkies in these parts talking over the water cooler at work for weeks. These are anything but usual times for the Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini. The teams meet just once during the regular season -- odd enough in itself as part of the rotation that exists in the Big Ten's newfangled 18-game schedule. But Saturday's match-up is even more unique. For the first time in 30 years, both Iowa and Illinois will finish below .500 in the Big Ten in the same season. Clay Hargrave and a young Ronnie Lester were on the court for the Hawkeyes and Audie Matthews captained the Illini that season. That tells you how long its been since an Iowa-Illinois match-up didn't feature at least one team attempting to make something out of its season. Or is there something to play for in Saturday's 5 p.m. game which will be played in front of the second sellout crowd of the season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena? Illinois coach Bruce Weber believes the Illini (11-17, 3-12) have plenty left to play for in the game, echoing comments he made a week ago when five regular-season games remained on the schedule. "I said last week I thought we could win all five games, but that we could lose all five,'' Weber said. "I still feel the same way about these three. If we could get a few things to go our way, we could win all three and have a nice run into the Big Ten Tournament.'' Illinois hasn't played since losing 49-43 at Michigan last Saturday, and Weber has split practice time this week. The first 30 minutes have focused on players who will return next season. The rest have been spent on game preparation and the week has included a couple of high-intensity workouts. "I think they've had some life. We can't just walk around and feel sorry for ourselves,'' Weber said. "Let's see what we can do Saturday, then we have two home games (with Michigan State and Minnesota). We have an opportunity. Let's make the most of it.'' Iowa has the same ambition, although coach Todd Lickliter described Wednesday's 65-64 loss at Penn State as "one that hurts.'' The Hawkeyes will recognize their three senior players, one senior manager and a graduate assistant athletic trainer, prior to the start of Saturday's game -- a change from recent seasons. "We need to send those guys out with a win,'' Iowa freshman Jake Kelly said. "They've been a big help to all of us and we need to win the last one for them.'' Iowa, which has struggled offensively with many of the same issues Illinois has dealt with, continues to scramble for a seed for the Big Ten tourney and Lickliter continues to search for that elusive consistency. "We have stretches where things have gone well, but we haven't been able to sustain things. That's been our biggest issue,'' he said.   

Sold

Friday, February 29th, 2008
Who says the housing market has gone south? After nearly a year on the market, former Iowa basketball coach Steve Alford has finally sold the 10,000-square foot home he had built for his family in Coralville during his tenure with the Hawkeyes. Jeff Whitehead, an Iowa City resident whose family includes six children, paid $1.2 million for the house which was constructed in 2003 and sits on a two-acre lot north of Interstate 80. The listing for the property indicated that the home includes a gym, sauna and locker room, a pool, built-in hot tub and spa as well as a projection TV room. The initial asking price for the property which has been on the market since Alford left for New Mexico last April was $1.6 million. According to Johnson County records, it had an assessed value of $1.3 million in 2007.  Current Iowa coach Todd Lickliter has been asked if he had any interest in the property. He has consistently deadpanned that his wife thought it would be too much to clean.

Proud papa

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008
Todd Lickliter got his wish. Because his Iowa basketball team was traveling to Penn State on Tuesday night, the first-year Hawkeye coach knew he wouldn't be able to watch his son, John, take the court with his Iowa City High teammates in an Iowa Class 4A substate game against Iowa City West at Cedar Rapids. "Hopefully, there will be another game after that. It's great for any parent to get a chance to see their child play in the state tournament. I'd like to be there to watch my son play his final high school game,'' Lickliter said. "It would be tough to miss out on that.'' The Iowa coach will get that wish. City High won a seven-point game over its crosstown rival and will advance to next week's Class 4A state tourney. The Big Ten schedule makers will even give Lickliter a chance to be a proud parent in the stands at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Iowa plays its only game next week on Tuesday night at Northwestern, allowing Lickliter to watch the Little Hawks in any state tourney game they play. John Lickliter intends to walk-on to the Iowa program next season while City High's Matt Gatens is one of four recruits who signed letters of intent to play for the Hawkeyes during the November signing period.

Slow to go

Monday, February 25th, 2008
Saturday's loss at Michigan State continued a recent trend of slow starts for Iowa. It took the Hawkeyes 10 minutes, 22 seconds before Seth Gorney hit the team's first field goal to cut into a Spartans lead which had reached 20-1. Michigan State was less cooperative than Northwestern, which led just 5-1 when Jake Kelly collected Iowa's first field goal 8:45 into last Tuesday's win over the Wildcats. The droughts haven't gone unnoticed. "We haven't got things going the way we need to and that makes it tough because it's never easy when you're playing from behind,'' Iowa guard Tony Freeman said. Coach Todd Lickliter said he felt his team was getting fairly decent looks as the Spartans raced out to their early lead. "We just weren't hitting them,'' he said. "We got good looks but to Michigan State's credit, we only got one look. The way they rebounded the ball, they didn't give us any second chances.'' Iowa eventually held its own with the Big Ten's top rebounding team. The Spartans owned a 33-30 edge on the boards for the game, but collected six more points off of the offensive glass than the Hawkeyes did.

House of horrors

Friday, February 22nd, 2008
Iowa's basketball team will spend Saturday at a place that has been a virtual house of horrors in recent seasons for the Hawkeyes. No player wearing an Iowa uniform in the 1 p.m. game at Michigan State will have played in a game at the Breslin Center decided by fewer than 30 points. The Hawkeyes have played there just twice in the last three years, but coach Steve Alford's teams were beaten by 30 and 32 points in a venue where Iowa hasn't won since 1993. The fact that the Hawkeyes limited the Spartans to 36 points in an outing that coach Tom Izzo labeled "embarrassing'' in Iowa City in January only adds to the difficult environment Iowa will face this weekend. By the way, Izzo will be attempting to win the 300th game of his career as well. This sets up as a big game for the Spartans in several ways. With games next week against Wisconsin and Indiana, Michigan State needs Saturday's game if it hopes to grab some late-season momentum. Costly road losses to Iowa and Penn State have dropped the Spartans below the league-leading pack of Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin and home games this week against the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes are being viewed a springboard for the league's preseason favorite.

A second chance

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008
In the second half of the Iowa basketball team's 53-51 win over Northwestern on Wednesday, Dan Bohall made the most of his second chance. The sophomore from Sioux City recorded a steal and lay-in which gave Iowa a 40-39 lead with 6 minutes, 46 seconds to play and then hit his first 3-pointer in a game since Nov. 30 to help distance the Hawkeyes from the Wildcats. It was sweet redemption for a player who stumbled after being presented with an earlier opportunity. A former walk-on, Bohall was given a scholarship for the current year in late August, a reward for the work had put into his game since Todd Lickliter arrived on campus. When Tony Freeman broke a bone in his foot in Iowa's exhibition game, Bohall benefited and moved into the starting lineup. Shortly before Freeman returned, Bohall was arrested and pled guilty to charges of public intoxication. He didn't suit up again for nearly a month, fulfilling conduct requirements set forth by Lickliter and the university's athletic department. He has seen only a handful of minutes since returning to the team at the start of the Big Ten season. "I made a mistake. All I wanted was another chance to prove myself,'' Bohall said. "Coach told me to go in and see if I could give the team a spark. I did what I could.'' Lickliter said that Bohall and two other players who have seen plenty of time on the Iowa bench, David Palmer and J.R. Angle, have continued to work hard in practice and prepare for whatever opportunity might come their way. "About four or five days ago, we asked all of our guys to concentrate on communicating and to be sharp and Bohall, Angle and Palmer were the sharpest,'' Lickliter said. "They communicated the most and didn't let circumstances dictate their attitude. It was good to watch guys put the team first and I appreciate that.''

Seven minus one

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
Jeff Peterson, one of the seven Iowa basketball players who has seen action in each of the Hawkeyes' last five games won't be seeing action tonight against Northwestern. The freshman is on the bench in street clothes as he recovers from a virus that has kept him off the practice court since Sunday.

Seven up

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
Is seven enough? It has been in the last four games the Iowa basketball team has played. That is as deep as Iowa coach Todd Lickliter has been willing to go into the not-so-deep Hawkeye bench. Lickliter doesn't believe fatigue should be a factor given the TV timeouts that are called every four minutes in every game Iowa plays. "I think I could put five of you guys on the court for four-minute stretches with a two-minute break and fatigue shouldn't be a problem,'' Lickliter said, pointing to a room full of reporters whose most-athletic moments can be found in the rear view mirror. "We're talking about 19 and 20 years old here. Guys like that should be able to play all day.'' Facing opponents who are rotating nine or 10 bodies on the court, Iowa players say they believe fatigue can be a factor in games. "There are a few times when you get tired,'' senior Seth Gorney said. "I tried to come out of a game earlier this year and I got yelled at for it. Being a senior, he expects me to play as much as I can. It can be tough some times.'' Gorney is one of three Hawkeyes averaging more than 32 minutes per game. Tony Freeman and Justin Johnson are the others and the two guards rank among the top five in the Big Ten in minutes played this season. "You just play,'' Freeman said. "As a player, you want to be on the court. We're getting that chance.''

Tale of two halves

Friday, February 15th, 2008
The good, the bad and the ugly all made an appearance Thursday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa's 60-52 loss to Michigan was filled with a little of each. The good? During opening 17 minutes of the game, Iowa played as well as it has on both ends of the floor in some time. The Hawkeyes moved the ball well and put their teammates in positions where high-percentage looks were available. That is the way the Iowa offense is supposed to look. That level of execution carried over to the other end of the floor, where the Hawkeyes defended well and forced Michigan into eight first-half turnovers.  The bad? It followed the good. Iowa reverted to some bad habits as the Wolverines rallied for the win. Michigan made plenty of shots early in the second half. Some were defended well. Others weren't, but with each make, the Hawkeyes lost a little of the patience that had allowed them to build that 16-point lead. They made poor decisions with the basketball and more often than not, put the ball up too quickly. That only played into the hands of the Wolverines, who dictated tempo while rallying to the eight-point win.  The ugly? It came after the game. Iowa players filled notepads and recorders with the usual words of disappointment and frustration. Hawkeye coach Todd Lickliter opened up a bit though, talking about the difficulty he has had in getting his message across to this team. He went as far as to say it would be a "novel idea'' if Iowa players actually attempted to execute the plays in situations that they've worked on in practice. That paints a pretty clear picture of what is taking place, albeit if they are the words of a coach who is every bit as frustrated as his team. Wednesday's loss was costly. Its ramifications will likely be felt when seeds for the Big Ten tourney are served up in a little over three weeks. The only way the Hawkeyes will be able to avoid a further freefall is to look in the mirror and understand the reasons behind their frustrations, then learn from them.

Turnover troubles

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008
Iowa's game at Minnesota left the Hawkeyes as visibly frustrated as any game this season because once again, turnovers proved to be the difference. While the Gophers have been forcing opponents into an average of just under 20 turnovers a game with the full-court pressure Tubby Smith's teams have always deployed, the 21 extra opportunities Iowa gave the Gophers mattered in a 13-point game. The same could be said about the 22 times the Hawkeyes coughed up the ball in a 1-point loss at Purdue on Jan. 30. Coach Todd Lickliter, who finds it difficult to stomach a handful of turnovers, was as frustrated as his players. Passing and catching the basketball is about as basic of a fundamental as it gets. Senior Seth Gorney said the two-handed approach on both ends of the equation has been stressed more this season than at any point in his career. "It's something he harps on all the time, but we haven't done a good job with,'' Gorney said following Saturday's game. "Nobody tries to make a turnover,'' guard Tony Freeman said. "It's something we have to keep working at.'' The harping and the working to improve will likely continue this week as the Hawkeye schedule eases a bit. Iowa has just one game this week, the first of two byes the Hawkeyes have during the course of their 18-game Big Ten schedule. The extra practice time leading up to Thursday's home game with Michigan will lead to some additional work on the fundamentals. At this point, that's not a bad thing, providing players with a chance to focus on something other than preparation for the next opponent. Iowa has made strides this season. With only one of its final six games against an opponent with a winning record in conference play, the team's ability to further reduce its turnover problems will likely determine just what type of seed the Hawkeyes will find themselves one month from now when the Big Ten tourney tips off in Indianapolis.