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Archive for March, 2009

Shopping around

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009
Last week's departure of four players from the Iowa basketball team has kept Hawkeye coaches busy on the recruiting trail. While the talent pool isn't as large as it would be during the fall signing period, there are talented players out there still looking for situations that will help them further their careers. Iowa coaches have had Chipola JC teammates Malcolm Armstead and Torye Pelham on their radar for some time. They're not alone. Armstead is a strong point guard with three years of college eligibility remaining while Pelham is an exceptional athlete who plays the forward spot. They aren't necessarily going to land at the same place, but being able to offer two players off a team that finished third in the national juco tourney the chance to stay together isn't a bad situation. Coaching changes elsewhere provide opportunities as well. Iowa is back on the radar of Cully Payne, a 6-footer who grew up in Burlington, Wis., and had signed with Alabama but was released from his letter of intent following the coaching change there. Payne was an AAU teammate of another player the Hawkeyes have offered, guard Marcus Jordan of Chicago Whitney Young. The stock for the son of NBA legend Michael Jordan has been rising after he helped lead his prep team to the Illinois 4A state title. No question that the clock is ticking as coaches and players work toward the April 15 signing date, but the cupboard at this point is far from bare.

Wish you were here

Sunday, March 29th, 2009
Just back from a week off. Anything new in Hawkeye land? I'm glad I didn't send Todd Lickliter one of those "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here'' postcards although there were probably a few moments last week when he wished he was somewhere other than Iowa City. I can't say that anything that transpired last week involving the Hawkeye basketball program really shocked me. Jake Kelly is obviously going through a challenging time in his life, much as Tyler Smith was two years ago when he left Iowa and much as Luke Recker was when he decided to leave Arizona for Iowa after his girlfriend at the time was severely injured in an auto accident. In each of those cases, life led to the need for a change of scenery. About all a coach can do is wish the athlete the best. Fans would be smart to do the same. I believe Jake was sincere when he told reporters earlier this month that he intended to stay at Iowa. He obviously has changed his mind as he continues to wrestle with the emotions that followed the tragic death of his mother last summer. The other three departures are basketball related and in the case of each, I believe future playing time -- or the potential lack of playing time -- is at the heart of the matter. There had been some rumblings about Jeff Peterson's future at Iowa for nearly two months, while the late-season seats on the bench filled by David Palmer and Jermain Davis provided a crystal-clear picture of where their collegiate careers were heading. Peterson was visibly frustrated at times this season. He did make strides between his freshman and sophomore seasons, but the consistency in his play at the point lacked the necessary efficiency to make Iowa's offense work. When Lickliter began talking about the need to add a point guard to the roster during the spring signing period, it becomes somewhat easier to understand why Peterson saw a diminished role in his future. Couple that with Peterson's desire for expanded opportunities on offense and you are left with colliding visions that cannot successfully co-exist within the framework of a team game. Palmer and Davis had their moments this season. Palmer surprised Purdue and Wisconsin with 40 points when he moved into the lineup in place of injured Cyrus Tate. When Michigan State got physical with Palmer in the next game, he finished with six points and had just 15 more over the rest of the regular season. The big man with a solid outside touch simply did not have the ability to compete effectively down low. Without that presence, Iowa struggled. Davis shot 28 percent from the field during Big Ten play and quietly dealt with some health issues as well throughout the season that impacted his consistency and availability. Both Palmer and Davis, who will be playing next season at his fourth school in four years, should find greater success at a lower level. While the volume of departures is somewhat disturbing, it is not totally uncommon when a coaching change has taken place, a change created in part because of the lack of recruiting success of the previous staff. The charge now for Lickliter and his assistants is to fill the roster void with talent that will elevate Iowa's level of play to compete more favorably against its Big Ten peers. The Hawkeyes have had just three winning seasons in the conference in the last 10 years. Talent can be found during the spring signing period. Promising freshman forward Aaron Fuller and 3-point specialist Devan Bawinkel, a junior college transfer, were among Iowa's spring signings a year ago. Landing a similar crop of talent now becomes a necessity if the Hawkeyes hope to build on the progress that did occur during the 2008-09 season.

New game in town

Saturday, March 21st, 2009
Iowa has rolled out the required blue carpet this week for the first NCAA women's basketball tourney to be played in Iowa in 11 years. It's about the only local connection to the madness of March in these parts since the NCAA decided to move its wrestling tourney to off-campus sites a few years back. The field for the opening-round games being played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is worth the price of admission. Led by three-time all-American Courtney Paris, Oklahoma may be one of the best basketball teams -- mens or womens -- to visit Iowa in several years and the uptempo style played by Georgia Tech and Prairie View A&M add to the proceedings. Throw the home team into the mix and an investment in a ticket should create a good night of entertainment, win or lose. "It's something we don't get to host every day,'' Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "A lot of people have put a lot of hours into planning and organizing and I know we'll do a good job of hosting. There is a lot of experience on staff here and they do a great job.'' Bluder's role is simply to prepare her team for its sixth NCAA appearance in her nine years. "I've never had the chance to sleep in my own bed the night before an NCAA tournament before. It's a special opportunity,'' Bluder said. Ticket sales passed the 4,000 mark on Saturday and Iowa officials are hoping for crowds in excess of 5,000 for Sunday's session.

‘Impact’ players

Thursday, March 19th, 2009
During a late-season news conference, Todd Lickliter indicated that the Hawkeyes were still actively recruiting for the spring signing period with hopes of landing an "impact'' player. The Iowa coach did not provide an example of his definition of an "impact'' player, but from the emails I've received and the message boards I've seen fans seem to be having a tough time wrapping their arms around the notion that Devon Archie might be that impact player. After all, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound power forward doesn't have the most eye-popping stats. He averaged 6.6 points, 6 rebounds and blocked more than 1 shot a game this past season at Vincinnes. Archie is apparently a player who has grown 3-to-4 inches since his senior season at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, a traditionally-strong basketball program in that state. He also apparently brings a blue-collar approach to things, a player who doesn't mind playing a little defense, welcomes the challenge of working the offensive boards and has been known throw in a crowd-pleasing dunk or two along the way. If he can provide those things, he can contribute inside for an Iowa program in need of inside help to complement Jarryd Cole and newcomer Brennan Cougill as it works toward the 2009-10 season. In reality, that is probably what Lickliter is talking about when he speaks of "impact'' players, players whose skills can contribute within the framework of the team game. Archie may fit that definition. Archie is the third member of Iowa's recruiting class. Don't be surprised if he is not the last. Lickliter and assistant coach Chad Walthall have spent time on the road looking at junior college talent this week, including Chipola JC point guard Malcolm Armstead. Any additional recruits will put Iowa over the limit of 13 scholarship players for the 2009-10 season, but coaches have until the start of fall semester classes to determine just who holds those 13 available scholarships.

Passing fancy

Sunday, March 15th, 2009
Watching Brennan Cougill play in the Iowa Class 3A state championship game on Saturday, it's easy to understand what Iowa coaches see in the 6-foot-9 Sioux City Heelan prep who will join the Hawkeye program next fall. Cougill's passing skills make him a natural fit for the system Iowa runs. He was rewarded for his work in Heelan's championship run, including a title-game victory on Saturday over Norwalk. Cougill was named as the captain of the Class 3A all-tournament team and received the most outstanding player award for the entire tournament, an honor presented to the top senior in the tourney each year. Cougill helped his team finish a 25-2 season with 28 points in the championship game. For the three games Heelan played in Des Moines, he averaged 21.7 points and 10 rebounds. Former Hawkeye Russ Millard was also honored Saturday night, inducted into the hall of fame for his play as a prep at Cedar Rapids Washington.

Final thought

Saturday, March 14th, 2009
There must be something to the old cliche that it is difficult to beat a team three times. Ohio State and Purdue each avenged a pair of regular season losses in the Big Ten semifinals on Saturday, setting up a title match on Sunday between the third-seeded Boilermakers and fifth-seeded Buckeyes. It's the first time since 2003 that the No. 1 seed has not reached the championship game and the first time since sixth-seeded Iowa defeated fourth-seeded Indiana 63-61 in the 2001 title game neither of the top two seeds hung around until the final day. That speaks to the balance that existed within the league this season and on Saturday, strong starts fueled both the Buckeyes and Boilermakers. Ohio State will be making its fifth appearance in the title game in the past eight years, while Purdue will be playing for first for the first time since losing to Michigan in the final of the inaugural Big Ten tourney in 1998. The Buckeyes are 2-2 in title game appearances, winning it all in 2002 vs. Iowa and in 2007 vs. Wisconsin. Purdue and Ohio State split two games this season, with the Buckeyes winning an 80-72 overtime game at home on Feb. 3 and the Boilermakers routing OSU at Mackey Arena 75-50 two weeks ago. Sunday's championship game features teams that finished second and third in the league in scoring, with Purdue also maintaining an edge in scoring defense, finishing fourth to Ohio State's ninth. The Buckeyes have proven in each of their tourney wins why coach Thad Matta has called this the best shooting team he has coached. As for the now-healthy Boilermakers, they have shown Penn State and Illinois what they would have been capable of if they had been healthy throughout the conference season. Seemingly, coach Matt Painter's team is on a mission. Sunday's pick: Mission accomplished. Purdue by 7 because of its defensive abilities as well as the steady play of JaJuan Johnson, Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer.

Semi tough

Friday, March 13th, 2009
For just the second time in the Big Ten tourney's 12-year history, the top three seeds have reached the semifinals. That should lead to a competitive Saturday on the court at Conseco Fieldhouse, where the top two seeds will be looking for their third win of the season over their semifinal opponent and a spot in Sunday's finale. Here's a breakdown: Michigan State vs. Ohio State: The league's best team faces the league's best player. Balance has been huge for the Spartans this season and don't expect that to change against the Buckeyes, a team MSU beat by nine at home and by 11 on the road in a pair of January games. Evan Turner and fifth-seeded Ohio State played strong fundamental basketball to get past Wisconsin on Friday. They'll need their best game of the season to beat Michigan State, which has outrebounded OSU by 10 each time they met. If the Spartans hit the boards as usual, and continue to get solid play from their bench, the Buckeyes could be in for a long afternoon. Illinois vs. Purdue: The steadiness of Illinois' play despite the absence of Chester Frazier was impressive in Friday's win over Michigan, which got a taste of what it dished out against Iowa in the loss to the Illini. The third-seeded Boilermakers, who know a little about playing without a leader themselves, dropped two regular-season games to the Illini, losing 71-67 in overtime in late December and getting blown out 66-48 in Champaign on Feb. 8. Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer appeared to be back in good health in Friday's rout of Penn State and if both can stand the wear and tear of playing on consecutive days, they will give Purdue a chance. The Boilermakers, however, must find a way to match the Illini's tenacity, something they were unable to do in either regular-season meeting. Expect a close, defensive battle. Today's picks: Michigan State, Purdue.

The morning after

Friday, March 13th, 2009
For the third straight year, the Iowa basketball team isn't around to experience the second day of the Big Ten tourney. It's a day when the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders, a day when a Thursday Cinderella traditionally sees if the upset slipper still fits against the league's best. Thursday's games played out in front of just over 12,000 fans and lopsided starts in the final two games of the day -- Michigan vs. Iowa and Penn State vs. Indiana -- kept things fairly quiet at Conseco Fieldhouse. That won't be the case today. Breaking down the quarterfinals: Michigan State vs. Minnesota. The Spartans have beaten the Gophers twice this season, including a rout in their most recent game. These are two of the quicker teams in the league, so expect a more uptempo brand of hoops. Expect a Michigan State win as well, albeit in a much closer game than the 76-47 one the teams played last month at the Breslin Center. Wisconsin vs. Ohio State: Today's 4-5 match up is one of the most intriguing of the tournament. The Buckeyes and Badgers are still trying to assure themselves of an NCAA bid and today's game could prove to be an elimination game for one of the teams. Wisconsin is the defending champion of the tourney and returns four players who started in the title game in 2008. Expect a tough, physical game. Expect the Badgers to repeat the 55-50 win they had over OSU last month. Michigan vs. Illnois: Chester Frazier's health and availability will go a long way in determining the outcome of a match-up between teams that split a pair of regular season games. Illinois needs its senior defensive leader against the Wolverines' 1-2 punch of DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris. The Illini are certainly better suited to deny Sims the type of start he got off to against Iowa on Thursday. In a match-up between teams that last met on Jan. 14, Harris may be another story. Purdue vs. Penn State: Could this be the Boilermakers' year? Good season or bad, Purdue has typically struggled in the Big Ten tourney, ranking last among league teams in wins in the 11-year history of the event. No. 10 seed Illinois upset the Boilermakers a year ago, but this team should arrive at Conseco better prepared to deal with a Penn State team it split two games with this season. It may not matter. Friday's favorites: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State.

Quick exit

Thursday, March 12th, 2009
Iowa barely had a chance to unpack its bags before an early exit at the Big Ten tourney -- again. Michigan sent the Hawkeyes home with a first-game loss in the tourney on Thursday, the second straight year the Wolverines have had the honors and the third straight year Iowa has been one and done at the league tournament. "This isn't the way we wanted it to end,'' senior Cyrus Tate said. "It's sad to have it come to an end like this, especially playing the way we did. This is a day when you're supposed to be at your best. We weren't.'' Michigan and the hot start that DeShawn Sims gave the Wolverines had something to do with that, but the Hawkeyes were frustrated for the second straight year by poor shooting and an early deficit that proved to be too much to overcome. There was no 161/2-minute drought from the field like there was a year ago when Michigan beat Iowa 55-47, but 26-percent shooting in the first half was enough to end the Hawkeyes' season at 15-17. "We're better than that. We just didn't show it,'' freshman Matt Gatens said. "We got plenty of motivation today that should carry us through the offseason. Part of the next step for us is to come back and win here next year. We can't change what happened, but we can learn from it.''

Tipping off

Thursday, March 12th, 2009
There's a pretty good chance that any of the basketball teams playing today in the Big Ten tourney did not get a great night of sleep on Wednesday. A three-alarm fire broke out at a downtown Indianapolis condo complex early this morning and in addition to filling the sky with flames, smoke and soot, the sounds of sirens wailed through the night as firefighters and other public safety personnel headed to the scene just northwest of downtown Indianapolis. Most of the hotels where Big Ten teams stay sit between the site and Conseco Fieldhouse, which sits in the southeast quadrant of downtown Indianapolis. The scene is creating traffic issues in the downtown area for fans, a situation that is expected to continue throughout much of the day. On the court, today's games should be an interesting mix as they illustrate the balance that has been Big Ten basketball this season. In the 11 a.m. opener, Minnesota's aggressive defense will be tested by Northwestern's patience. The Gophers struggled down the stretch run of the regular season while the Wildcats have played some of their best ball of the year in recent weeks. Expect a low-scoring game. In the 1:30 p.m. match-up, Iowa and Michigan are far from strangers. This is the sixth meeting between the teams in the past two seasons. A couple of things to keep an eye on -- Iowa's ability to knock down jump shots and how successful the Hawkeyes are in defending the Wolverines' two scoring leaders, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Against Michigan's 1-3-1 zone, Iowa will need to have some success from the perimeter, something that with the exception of a game at Ohio State has been problematic at times. The Hawkeyes will only help themselves if they can get Harris or Sims off their game. When Michigan has thrived against Iowa, both have dominated. Iowa limited Harris to nine points last month in Iowa City and gave itself a chance to win. The day's final game features Penn State and an Indiana team that will have a large crowd supporting despite its season-long struggles. The Nittany Lions won a 61-58 game at home against the Hoosiers on Feb. 28.  Coach Ed DeChellis will need to get his team to move beyond a pair of emotional games last week -- a last-second win against Illinois and a double OT loss at Iowa -- if Penn State hopes to avoid a potential upset today.  Thursday's picks: Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.