Monday, April 27, 2009

33 years and counting...

That's how many years in a row a Hawkeye has been picked up in the NFL draft, and the quality of that number has just skyrocketed since Coach Kirk Ferentz arrived at Iowa in 1999. Everyone from left tackle Robert Gallery getting picked up at number 2 overall in 2004 to Bobby Sanders, 2007's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, falling to the 2nd round, Kirk has used his NFL experience (coordinator with the Browns for almost a decade), pro-style offensive/defensive coaching tactics, and stable of well-qualified assistants to develop connections and future NFL players just as well as top programs like Oklahoma and Florida, incredible considering the disadvantages he has to work with at Iowa compared to other top programs. Iowa will never stand atop the Rivals recruiting rankings with the state's climate, flat plains, and general mass of Caucasians, amassing a glut of 4 and 5-stars like Easter candy, but its what Kirk and crew are able to do with their players once they arrive at Iowa that is the amazing thing. Player development and improvement is a key sign of a coaches' ability, and Kirk is as sterling as it gets. That definitely shows in this season's draft of Hawks, where pure athletic talent isn't overabundant but hard work and productive college careers are. Shonn Greene, fresh off a gawd damn grandiose one season where he shattered every record in the Iowa books while nabbing the Doak Walker Award for best running back in the nation, is the quintessential example of great coaching and greater effort overcoming expectations and lack of pure physical talent, while Mitch King, a 4-year starter who played with more intensity and reckless abandon than any Hawkeye in recent memory, made up for being criminally undersized with a motor that never stopped and leadership that can't be taught in the classrooms. Two great Hawkeyes who weren't highly recruited, but bided their time and became superstars on a national level. Let's start with Greene, Mark Sanchez's new workout buddy...

Greene, the newest member of the New York Jets as the first pick of the 3rd round, should factor in as a direct backup immediately and eventually succeed as the main back under the bright city lights. New coach Rex Ryan obviously wanted Greene, as he traded up 3 draft picks to nab him right off the bat on day 2, and gloated over the "pound and ground" attack that he desires. That is definitely Greene's preferred style, as his robust size, pulverizing rushing style, and frenetically quick feet for a guy his size all combine to make him a complete rusher. He won't be a speedster, as he possesses average burst, but once he hits the hole he has as much quickness as anyone. Iowa didn't use him as a receiver much, but he proved at the combine that he can definitely catch passes out of the backfield, important for the Jets in their offensive scheme and for grooming a young QB like Sanchez, who will be looking to dump off plenty with NFL defensive pressure in his grill. Thomas Jones, the incumbent Jets runner, had a great season last year, one of the best in the AFC, but he is on the decline for a running back (age 31), he is disgrunted and holding out of training camp (not good with a new coach), and is seriously underpaid and looking to be overpaid. This is all setting up for a very Shonn Greene future.

The very next pick of the 3rd round went to the St. Louis Rams, and they selected Iowa defensive back Bradley Fletcher. Fletch showed as much improvement as anyone on the team from his junior to his senior season, becoming a legitmate All-Big Ten lockdown corner and our most reliable cover guy. He has the speed to hang with NFL wideouts, and he is a more than solid tackler, but he is undersized and might get pushed around a bit if he stays at corner. His combine numbers got him drafted this high after a relatively quiet college career, but with his athleticism and tackling ability I envision a Charles Godfrey-esque move to safety. The Rams have a horrible secondary, and look for Fletcher to start off on special teams and move into a starting role right away.

Right guard Seth Olsen was snatched up by the Denver Broncos in the 4th round. He has been our most consistent lineman for at least 2 years, and was a valuable leader last year. He has fantastic size, but is a bit slow to play tackle, so look for him to immediately move into a backup role for Denver with an eventual starting spot coming up. The Broncos were known under Mike Shanahan for having a faceless, autonomous unit that stressed the "oneness" of the group over having individual guys. They had amazing success, with some absurd streak of having a different 1,000 yard rusher every year, and they had few defections, but they are rebuilding somewhat with new coach Josh McDaniels and I think Olsen will fit right in with the zone-blocking running scheme, which is what he ran at Iowa. Seamless transition.

The final Iowa guy picked up in the draft was tight end Brandon Myers going to the Oakland Raiders, who surprisingly traded up to get him in the 6th round. I never would have thought Myers would get drafted and King not, but I'll take it. With the Raiders' recently checkered draft history, including the selection of Hawkeye Robert Gallery 5 years ago (widely considered a bust), I don't know how happy I should be, but Myers will start off right away as the backup and a blocking tight end for pass catching threat Zach Miller. Myers was supposed to be a career backup, but due to injuries to talented starter Tony Moeaki, Myers was forced to step in and essentially became a 2-year starter. He doesn't have great speed, but he does have excellent hands and made a more than capable possesion guy. He also has the size to be a valuable blocker.

A plethora of black and gold headbusters were also picked up as undrafted free agents. Mitch King, who should get some reps at fullback and linebacker, is too small to play D-end in the NFL, but has more heart than most of the players taken ahead of him and the speed to beat most NFL O-linemen. I guarantee he will stick with someone, whether it is the Tennessee Titans (who picked him up) or not. Matt Kroul, his 4-year counterpart on the D-line and a steady run stuffer, is also undersized, and without the quickness of King I can't see him sticking with the NY Jets. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked up center Rob Bruggeman, who I think will actually stick with somebody. The former walk-on was a key part of the Iowa resurgence on the O-line this past season, as his strength, work ethic, and smarts all made him the leader there with Olsen. He might not have NFL athleticism, but I really think with his work ethic he can make it. Finally, wideout Andy Brodell was picked up by the Green Bay Packers. Brodell showed against Texas in the Alamo Bowl that he has the speed and moves to be a playmaker, slicing up NFL cornerback Aaron Ross like swiss cheese, but he doesn't have the speed of most pro wide receivers and will probably make a team on special teams, if anything. I'll always remember that Alamo Bowl performance, though...

Here's a little Mitch King to send you off...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yao Ming, Underrated???

Everyone's favorite square-headed, 7 foot 6 Chinese man is the best center in the NBA. Period. What, you don't agree? You don't like his penchant for layups when an inch off the ground would guarantee a dunk, or you don't like his choice to shoot fadeaway jumpers instead of power finishes, or you marvel at his lack of footspeed?The guy is one of the least athletic players in the entire league, and he lacks that swagtastic aggressiveness befitting guys like Amare Stoudemire or Shaquile O'Neal, in his prime anyway, or guys that are beleived to be the great ones. This is a player who was widely considered to be a novelty act, another oversized foreigner with skills whose size would inevitably be the death of him (a George Murhesan, basically). So why is the man I affectionately call "The Big Poo-Nanny" the best big man in the league? Let's start with the statistical evidence, 1st pairing him with the guy who is widely considered to be Yao's biggest challenge to the title of best center in the league today, Dwight Howard. There is no denying Howard is a physical freak, with a chiseled body usually reserved for the gods and sick hops rarely seen on men his size. The general consensus is that Howard is the better ballplayer, but is that really the case? Maybe more exciting, but in no way better. I think it just reflects the common basketball fan's obsession with rim shattering dunks and superhuman characteristics on their athletes, or something that makes greater than us, with skills mere mortals could never hope to acheive. Sportscenter has pounded this image into our heads, and we have complacently taken the beating. Stromile Swift has been on ESPN's Top Ten Plays more times than Yao has...does anybody give a Chinaman's ass who Stromile Swift is (he specializes in sitting on the bench and looking dapper in a suit for some team, I just can't remember who because he's traded every summer)? Hell no! Most fans would probably think that with Yao Ming's height, they could be in the NBA, or just as good. Sure. You try bending over to tie your shoes at 7 ft. 6 without tipping over like the leaning tower of Pisa, only falling over in the process. Hell, I'm 6 ft. 5 and had trouble walking in a straight line in 8th grade! In this flashy, superficial modern era of ESPN, when true substance and the passion of sport is replaced with 30 second blips and sounds and Dr. Dunkensteins all over the world rule the highlight reels, a good ole' fashioned finesse big man like Yao Ming goes unappreciated for the skills that he brings to the table. Also, when we become blasted with so much fan hatred and criticism making fun of Yao's inability to jump or move laterally, we as fans start to let that poison seep into our subconsciousness and view Yao Ming with preconceived notions that he's going to suck, so every time he misses a blockout or lays the ball in softly over an embarassingly smaller defender, we scoff at our television in pompous disgust!! Well let me show you the stats first, and then you can be the judge...

First, we'll start with the career point averages. Ming averages about 19 ppg, while Howard averages 17. Not much of a disparity, especially considering Howard came into the league as a raw high schooler who could do nothing but catch and dunk (one could argue that is still all he does, simply with more power), while Yao had Chinese professional experience. First off, Chinese pro basketball is about as competitive as Howard's high school league, but I digress. Howard's career field goal percentage is 57 percent, while Yao's is 53. Once again, not much of a disparity, especially considering about 90 percent of Howard's shots are dunks and Yao is taking much tougher jumpers and hook shots. So, both of these guys are making more than half of the shots they take, and seem to be reliable post options at anytime. Yao is obviously the most offensively skilled of the two, while Howard is much more physical and explosive, so where is the big seperation in stats that decides this debate? Definitely not in the blocks per game, where both big men have a 2.0 career average. Howard is considered to be more of a defensive stalwart, but Yao clogs up the middle with just as much ferocity. If you're huge, you're huge, and people are going to have a tough time shooting over you no matter the quickness level. Both guys have been questioned on their character (not the bad connotation of character in today's sports world),and that they lack the killer instinct to take over a game and just have the want to brutalize their opponents. Howard has been called too goofy and too lackadaisacal, not taking the game seriously at all times, while Yao's cultural alienation and soft-spoken nature have been used to excuse his at times passive play and unwillingness to demand the ball when he is obviously the best option. In playoff games, defense and free throws are often the seemingly minuscule factors that decide close games. When the interior battles get more physical and cuts/bruise become a daily occurence, having a big man able to knock down free throws at all times is a huge benefit and rare luxury that hasn't been afforded to many teams over time. It is almost like having an unstoppable weapon when you can just throw it inside every time, expecting either a layup and a foul for an easy two. This, my friends, is what seperates Yao from his evil antagonist, Dwight Howard, whose kryptonite is his barely 60 percent free throw shooting. His stroke may not be as caveman-esque as Shaq's, but it is difficult for men built like Howard to stroke with the purity of Yao, who is a career 87 percent free throw shooter, astonishingly high for a big man and one of the best all time, period. Having a guy like Yao in clutch situations, such as the playoffs, is so much more valuable than having a guy like Howard, who, when the defenses tighten up, can really only score on putbacks and dunks. In Ming, Houston has an automatic two points whenever they please. Yao is too tall for smaller, athletic bigs, while physical, pushy hacks like Greg Oden will only send Yao to the line, where he is most dangerous. The biggest Yao critics will probably wonder why Houston has never left the 1st round of the playoffs in Yao's tenure, or why he doesn't dominate more than he does with these kind of so-called skills I've been harping on, but it is just not in the poor guy's personality to dominate. He has gotten better at demanding the ball and playing with a fiesty edge, but he still has a lot to learn.

Yao haters would probably like to point out that I failed to mention the rebound statistcs, where Dwight has a 13-10 career advantage. I will acknowledge that Dwight is a better rebounder, an immovable force impossible to block out who could just jump over you anyway, and that Yao doesn't chase the ball enough, but while Yao has good rebounding companions at power forward in guys like Luis Scola, Carl Landry, and Chuck Hayes, Howard has offensive-minded softies like perimeter oriented big Rashard Lewis and finesse swingman Hedo Turkoglu as his power forward companions. Those guys wouldn't venture into the paint if a flock of naked virgins were lying underneath the basket. So, the debate is over, right? I'm sure many of you still aren't convinced. I'm willing to acknowledge Yao's faults, but all I'm asking is that you appreciate his gifts, immense talents, and fantastic heart. For a guy his size, he moves incredibly, and just watch his brilliant one-half performance in Game 1 against Portland if you want an example of what this guy can do when he is aggressively attacking the basket. Hell, he almost broke Hakeem the Dream's playoff record of 1st half points, and we all know about the two rings Hakeen has on his fingers, right? I didn't even mention Yao's aptitude for passing out of double teams, with an assist record matching that of Shaquille O'Neal and Amare himself. He rebounds better than Amare, and has an almost identical career scoring arc. Shaq obviously surpasses Yao in virtually all categories, but this isn't about the best center of the past decade in a half, it's about the best center right now, and that man is YAO MINGGG

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Tangent Express

Ladies and gentleman, thought it may be approaching the wee hours of the morning, my one blog post a day must be sustained, plus I've wanted to rant and rave about this particular issue since Monday. Is anyone else uber-pissed at Kevin Westerman playing in the Texas A&M spring game? Not the fact that he played, but that it raises a few major gripes in my eyes. To me, it emphasizes all that is wrong with STJ athletics. It proves that a certain coach has his backwards-thinking head shoved so far up his traditionalist ass that St. Joes will never be able to evolve and transition into a potential state-title winning team. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we will ever be on the consistent level of a Dallas, Houston, or even SA school because of the wide talent pool and range of boosters, but let me explain my point here. Too afraid to deviate from the old school, wishbone-style offense made famous in the 50s by such legends as Forest Evashevski and some other dead irrelevant guy, STJ is faced with de-evolution. Being creative and open to change are crucial elements to STJ competing on a larger stage; playing physical, 3 yards and a cloud of dust football may tear apart the district when you have a cast of guys who play hard and play together (cliche, I know) and are just plain bigger than the runts from Hyde Park, but once we run into a bigger/more athletic squad, airing it out and throwing in some "exotics," what legendary Iowa coach Hayden Fry called trick plays, become a must. The playoff game against the Dallas school is all the tangible evidence you need that we have the skill position talent. There is something to be said for sticking to a certain system and style that you know brings success, and not changing your values just to "keep up with the times," but this is the same issue I have with a certain Theology teacher-when does sticking to one's values become plain ignorant and close-minded?

This is all brings me to my point about the strong-armed Westerman, and how embarassing it is that he didn't start his senior year. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong at any time, seeing as I have a generally limited view of what goes on with the team seeing as I never played football. But with Kevin, we have a guy who, in his last game at Patti Welder stadium (a playoff game no less), got in the game on the last drive, with a victory already assured, leading the Flyers down the field in about 30 seconds with a series of crisp passes. Of course, you're gonna let the senior finish the drive out, correct? Wrong. Kevin was promptly pulled for a young Andre (nothing against Andre here, just a pawn), who got to run 3 straight zero gain QB draws to end the game. Is this how you reward one of your seniors, already slighted by the coaching staff in the 1st place? Now, this guy is a QB on a frickin major conference BCS school, while the preferred option QB who started in his place is now living it up in Lubbock, Texas. How do you justify not playing him now? If he's good enough to make the Aggies roster, he was good enough to play in TAPPS. It is an embarassment for the program, and a sign of the obstacles that STJ will always face to innovation and change for the better if they cannot look past their own narrow blinders and see the stud right beneath their eyes, preventing us from making that small leap from consistent success to a potential state title. I'm starting to ramble, so let me clarify that I am no big Kevin fan by any means, and this is nothing against the guy who started ahead of him, but seeing K-Dub play in the spring game filled me not only with Flyer pride but also a real bitter taste in my mouth that never should have been there...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writer's Block? Excuses, Excuses

Sitting on my bed, pen in mouth and paper in hand, I sometimes hit a lull. Ten minutes stretches to thirty, with my eyes sometimes straying to the game on television or fingers clicking rabidly for Facebook updates. Already deep in a pile of distraction, I can't think of anything to write, so I put everything away and set that demonic alarm clark for 5 a.m., where the springs of inspiration can be found. Is this writer's block, or sheer laziness? Our good friend Paul Vincent brought up a simple yet compelling point the other day when he dismissed writer's block as nothing more than an excuse for bad, apathetic writers who only pump out work for the pleasure of getting compliments from others, not for their own satisfaction. True? In a way, definitely. I think writer's block is a legitimate gripe, especially when rest is elusive and life's duties are aplenty, but that is more a sign of external factors rearing their ugly heads than the creative well running dry. I always have thoughts and ideas racing through my mind 24/7, and I write them down as soon as I think of them because I know they'll disappear if I let myself go on through the day or, God forbid, fall asleep! This only adds to my distraction and disorder, preventing me from getting to the work I need to, as I have countless poems, stories, and essays tearing through my poor brain. This isn't writer's block, because I have the juices flowing in abundance, but I'm still not writing for these various reasons.

So what I'm trying to say is that society is the ultimate writer's block, not the gates of our own mind, which are wide open more often than we like to think in the mainstream world. I think a lot of lazy writers use it as an excuse, a break, one more item on society's laundrylist of lies and substitutes, a quintessential reflection of our overinflated, overmedicated nation that prescribes medication for something like restless leg syndrome. Even if the creative spigot runs dry, there is always something on our minds, right? I don't buy the excuse that you can't write anything. Simplicity is the ultimate tool, in my opinion. Turn off all distractions, and immerse yourself in your thoughts and in your passions. You know what you love to do and what you are knowledgable about, so write about it. It doesn't have to be beautiful expression or artistic gold, but the fact that you are producing something and working at it is better than filling your brain with a barrage of television images or checking your Facebook every 5 minutes. I know, I'm guilty too, and my mind is so distracted in disarray that it's a wonder I can even come up with anything. But I really think the ultimate way to end the block of the mind is to merely break it with simplicity. And, if all else fails, just turn off the news and get pissed off about something. It's not that hard :). My final point is that we all have an innate desire, whether expressed or not, to receive critical acclaim and praise for our stuff. We may claim to be non-conformist rebels to the powers at be and just be writing for our own pleasure and satisfaction, or, as our brilliant old crustball friend Zulfikar Ghose stressed, because "we are bored," none of us would pursue writing as a career and as a living if we didn't want some kind of feedback or reimbursement from it. The best writers are usually the ones who look at the world with a different perspective, seeing things that others see as normal routine or "just the way things are" as out of the ordinary or disturbing. Unfortunately, this also causes them to kill themselves, but it's what makes them great! They are not worried about commercial success, and their writing is able to flourish and grow without the constraints of a pushy editor or publishing house that wants you to create something that the masses will soak up, like that Twilight bullshit. Those are two extremes: writing purely for other people's entertainment, or purely for yourself. Finding that balance and recognizing that you can write for yourself while still speaking to others is the ultimate goal, and the most difficult. The constant brouhaha of society's noise and demands sometimes cause to write things that we may feel other people will like, ignoring our passions and our own voice, and realizing that voice is present and bringing it back is the key to killing the affliction known as writer's block. We write for ourselves, and if it is good, other's will follow. So if Jared and I are sitting in a cofee shop someday, poor, smelly, and homeless, clutching our laptops and the remains of our wallets, have sympathy for us. We may have avoided writer's block, and have nothing but the pride of our own individuality to show for it. Happy Patriot's Day bitches, let Zenmaster Gorney leave you all with a message of peace and fulfillment...

When one finds tranquility within self, one's expression flows like a streaming river

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Tidbits

Next week, I'll be starting a series based on A.C.T.S., addressing any doubts or misconceptions while imparting a scripture passage, quote, of theme/ideal to meditate on based on that day's readings or other spirtual inspiration. This will be starting on Wednesday, and until then, it's Hawkeye football, baby. My brain is maintained by a black and gold fever that won't be quenched until September, as you, my ambiguous reader, can understand that I'm having a tough time during this period of sports duldrums, with baseball bats and crackers jacks doing little to satisfy my needs. Spring practice has reached its climax, and there's a lot that is set in stone to go along with a plethora of questions marks. Iowa had a very satisfying bounce-back season last year, going 9-4, losing 4 games by a total of 12 points, and finally learning how to close a team out by winning 5 of their last 6 games, including a thrashing of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Sitting at 3-3 and finishing 9-4 shows a lot of character, but the problem is a lot of the leaders who helped contribute to such an impressive turnaround have graduated, including record-setting running back Shonn Greene, right guard Seth Olsen, and 4-year starter defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. The fortunate thing is that there are clear, established replacements at all these positions, but with that problem solved comes a more pressing issue...the schedule. The Hawks had Ohio State and Michigan off their schedule the last two years, but the two conference behemoths return this season. Iowa has to play a revenge-minded Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin on the road, a brutally tough trio. Talent galore returns at the skill positions, including a stable of thoroughbreds to replace Greene, the deepest linebacking core in the Kirk Ferentz era, a mammoth offensive line, and a leader at QB who played his best ball to end the season. I think if we can play well and steal one of those games on the road, then we could be in for another upper echelon Big Ten finish, but in college football, a team is truly different year by year. I'll tackle each storyline position by position, starting tomorrow with the QBs and the ridiculously good looking Ricky Stanzi a.k.a. Swingin' Dick Stanzi. Enjoy ladies..

umm shit, that's Seth Gorney

theree we gooo

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Playoff Update and Iowa Spring Game

I'm a little sports crazy at the moment, but I promise I won't keep publishing 5-page essays about the NBA and the Hawks, who I know 90 percent of you guys out there couldn't care less about! Good set of playoff games today, with the road teams controlling things starting with the Bulls over the Celtics. Derrick Rose and his playoff record-tying 36 point debut was incredible; no one could stop him from getting to the basket, and his poise was chilling. The dude didn't even crack a smirk all game. He is a complete assassin, and will be an All-Star for a long time. Don't you think John Calipari at Memphis last year wishes Rose could have shot free throws like that back in the title game though?? Cavs toyed with the Pistons all game, and Lebron was his usual jaw-dropping self, which is becoming so routine it's hard to be amazed by what he does anymore. Dallas beating San Antonio in Game 1 was a minor upset considering the game was in the hostile Alamo City, but your boy here called it. The surprising sparks for Dallas were tiny fetus-like Jose Barea and strong man Brandon Bass, who provided good sparks off the bench that the Spurs didn't get from their own bench. Parker was great from what I saw, but Duncan looked average and their defense wasn't very good. I'm telling you, their time is coming! Finally, Houston absolutely throttled Portland on the road, surprising even a die-hard like myself. The Rose Garden is so loud, like a college arena, and I thought H-town would be a tad rattled, but no way. Yao Ming took over from the start and played amazing ball, going 9-9 in the 1st half for 24 points and 7 boards. He didn't even take a shot in the 2nd half because the Rockets were up by 30 the whole time! Portland is a great young team and they will fight back, but remember they are all young and probably had the adrenaline racing tonight. Aaron Brooks had 27, Scola 19, and Artest 17 in a fantastic, balanced effort where the defense was there and the shots were falling. Every night isn't going to be this easy, but getting so much rest for the starters was crucial. Game 2 on Tuesday.

Not much to note from the Iowa spring game, which isn't even an official game. More of a glorified practice, especially considering they played it on the practice fields with the Kinnick grass getting torn up for turf transportation. Defense dominated, as is procedure in these things, but Ricky Stanzi looked more than solid and redshirt freshman running back Jeff Brinson looked really impressive before going out with a minor ankle tweak. Everybody on defense looked stout, and look for Clayborn and Ballard to shift inside frequently to make up for the loss of Mitch King and Matt Kroul. These guys are definite leaders, as long as Adrian doesn't punch anymore cab drivers in the middle of the night. The offensive line was shuffled up a bit, but the main thing was seeing Dace Richardson back out there, which was amazing. Dace was a 5-star lineman out of Chicago, but his knee is so torn up he's basically running bone on bone. Kirk said last year it would be nearly impossible for him to return, so it's a great story to see him working his way back all the way into the starting rotation. One major disappointment on offense, which also reflects a major positive, is flashy playmaker DJK's current spot in the wideout doghouse. He was in and out of Kirk's trouble-zone last season, scolded for wearing shades and a hat during a postgame interview, but came on at the end of last season with a bevy of productive games. He is one of the most talented guys on our roster, but Kirk is apparently sending him more messages about his focus, placing him 2nd team on the depth chart. Not a pass was sent his way all day today, either. On the other end, converted QB Marvin McNutt, trying to work as a wideout, has worked hard enough and impressed so much with his natural ability that he earned the number 1 overall spot on the depth chart. He has an excellent work ethic and fantastic natural athletic ability, and it's obvious the coaches want to get him on the field as much as possible. Hopefully, this is more McNutt outworking DJK than DJK hurting himself. Finally, I'll leave you with this last little tidbit until August rolls around...

Iowa Basketball-What Now?

Iowa Basketball has officially hit the panic button, at least in the eyes of the rabid, fickle Hawkeye faithful. There have been no reports of Todd Lickliter reading to little tykes at the local children's hospital as news of 4 players' transfers reached him, and no rushed, misguided attack on some distant enemy only partially responsible for our suffering, but Lickliter is still stuck in one of the most pressure packed situations since George Bush had to react after the 9/11 attacks...okay, maybe not that much, but the whole damn cornfed state of Iowa has their bloated blue eyes focused on him, and if he can rebuild this basketball program or not after 3 straight years in the crapper. Now, with two major players and two bench players gone from the team, it appears as if the Hawks are back to square one in the rebuilding phase, something the already fed-up, apathetic fans don't want to hear. With attendance at a painfully empty all-time low and statewide interest nowhere near it was in the Lute Olson/George Raveling/Tom Davis hey-day, fans are getting so frustrated they are even lamenting taking the much vilified Steve Alford and his slicked head of egocentricism for granted. Is this fair for poor old Lickliter, or are his impersonal tactics and strict adherence to the vaunted system the reasons why we haven't been able to win yet and the players don't want to stay? The first thing I want to say is impossible to express without a bevy of cliches...Rome, or Duke/North Carolina for that matter, wasn't built in a day. Quite frankly, Lickliter needs time to garner the type of players he wants, for the school to finish building the renovations (practice facilities, making Carver more accessible and modern) that they are just starting, and for his players to stay on board! He had amazing success at Butler, a mid-major school in a weak conference several notches below the Big Ten, so there are still question marks with recruiting and the like even though he had such success, especially against powerhouse teams in the tournament. I'm not a big fan of his whiny bench body language or plethora of references to "The Butler Way" or the "system," but I believe a lot of that is just him trying to re-affirm to himself and to the Hawkeye fans that he CAN win with this style of play, emphasizing the three point shot, disciplined passing in the half-court, and stingy defense, especially coming from the guards.

The big loss the Iowa Hawkeyes have faced in the past couple of weeks is Jake Kelly. Not only did he have the venerable distinction of being my favorite player on the squad and the most entertaining to watch by far, he simply our most skilled offensive guy and the only player on the team with a slick batch of one on one scoring moves, effective against any team with his long arms, slithery body, and smooth touch. After Jeff Peterson hurt his hamstring against Wisconsin, Jake came in at the point guard position and came into his own, looking amazing and supremely confident with the ball in his hands at all times. Jake drove, dished, and swished three after three, keeping Iowa in every game they played towards the end of the season and leading the Hawks to exciting upset wins against Michigan and Penn State. He averaged more than 20 points a game and racked up the assists, and was forced to guard the opposing team's best player every night. I will definitely remember Jake for shutting down Manny Harris in our win over UM. Kelly is transferring back home to Indiana State, as he has been confronted with brutal tragedy since his mother died in a freak accident plane crash over the summer. This is a horror few guys will ever face; no one should lose a parent at 19. Jake has my full support and I hope being back home will re-energize his spirits and ease his troubled mind. I know the boys in Terre Haute got themselves a new basketball fan for next year, and it has nothing to do with Larry Bird. Peterson is also transferring, probably to Missouri Valley cellar-dweller Missouri State, located in Jeff's hometown. Jeff had the point guard spot locked up until his injury, and though he is more a natural scorer and still had occasional turnover lapses, he showed signs of major improvement in his overall offensive game and decision making. Jeff couldn't have been dissatisfied with his role, as Jake's departure meant the point guard spot was all his again, but I think his relationship with Lickliter was severed Jeff's freshman year when he was benched the entire 2nd half of the season. His confidence seemed destroyed and hurt, and I think he struggled to find respect for Todd after this. Seems like he never got over it. The other two transfers are David Palmer, a tantalizing big man who showed flashes of star potential but never developed the consistent game to fit Lickliter's wishes, and wee little Jermain Davis, an energetic defensive guard who played with wanton abandon but who lacked the skill or size to probably be a Division 1 player. Davis and Palmer were unlikely to see much time off the pine anyway, but losing Kelly and Peterson not only leaves us without our best player but our only two point guards. Iowa also loses scrubmeister JR Angle to graduation, and Cyrus Tate, Iowa's most physical and cosnsistent post man, will retire his banging body from the black and gold for eternity.

As far as recruiting for next year, we should see a small bounty of riches if Lickliter can succeed in wooing some players to Iowa City, seeing that 4 scholarships are now available. Word on the internet street is that the reason some of the players grew discontented was because ole Lick told a few of the bench scrubs that they should leave so he could put their scholarships up for better use. Pretty harsh folks, and a pretty good reason to be upset if those are your teammates that he is talking to. Of course, it is all speculation and I'll just put on my naive blinders and choose to believe they all left for personal reasons. Still, that's three years in a row that our best player has departed. Just saying. The only two recruits who signed their letter of intents so far are Sioux City Heelan big man Brennan Cougill and Dubuque's Eric May, both statewide stars who have led their repspective squads to state titles and are some of the brightest stars in all of Iowa. Devon Archie, a frenetic athlete from a JUCO in Indiana, has verbally committed and will sign during the spring signing period later in April. The same appears true for Cully Payne, a true point who de-committed from Alabame after Anthony Grant became the new coach. He fills a vital need for the Hawks, who don't have a true point without him. Iowa is also trying to get at least two JUCO plyers, Malcom Armstead and Torye Pelham. Armstead is another point guard, a spot we cannot have too much of, while Pelham is an athletic big man who can score and bang around the rim. Our lack of size and athletes around the paint area is about as sore a need as the point guard position, but we'll see if we can land any of these guys. Marcus Jordan, 23's son, was also offered a scholarship, but citing the fact that he didn't want to play against his brother at Illinois (yeah right, like his brother will actually be playing anything but garbage time the next few years) and the fact that they recruited him first, Jordan selected Central Florida, which is understandable considering he probably wants to escape the gargantuan shadow of his father and make a name for himself. As far as the guys we are getting, Cougill is expected to fill a large role for us, both figuratively and literally. He is a large golden bear of an Iowan, with good scoring skills around the basket as well as a wide body for rebounding, good size at 6 foot 10, and sharp passing. He is not going to be a wunderkind right away, or maybe ever in his career, but is not meant to disparage him. He will provide such valuable size down low, where the Hawks are thirsting for anyone over 6 foot 7, and bring a stabilizing rebounding force who knows what it's like to win big ball games. May probably doesn't have the size or strength to be a 1st-year Big Ten wonder, but he is a great scorer at the high school level, even better than Matt Gatens, and a very solid athlete and hardworking teammate. I expect him to be a solid bench contributor providing depth for the rest of his career. I don't know much about Archie, but I've heard he's a raw athlete who attacks the rim and the boards with reckless abandon. Sounds kind of like a Kurt Looby type, but I'm not going to be pretend like I was overly thrilled that the only video I could find of him on the internet was getting dunked on by now former Hawkeye Jake Kelly. Stevie Wonder can see that Iowa needs more athleticism, however, and I think it's a good pickup. Payne is supposedly a really smooth, unselfish passer who is also a dead eye shooter. He lacks blow-by speed or athletcism, but he seems to posses all the skills that a Lickliter point guard should have, so frankly I'm excited about the guy. God knows we need a point guard more than anything else, at any cost. Goofy white guys were a staple of the Butler Way, why can't Iowa continue the tradition?? I'll take it.

And for the players we have returning, they are few and far between, led by Jesus Christ himself, Matt Gatens. Gatens was dubbed the savior of Iowa basketball before he even made it to his senior year of high school, an all-around American stud who hustles, makes shots, plays unselfishly, and just seems like an overall divine figure. He has Big Ten strength and fearlessness already, which I love to see, and assumed a leadership role on this youthful squad. He doesn't have gamebreaking athletic ability or great one-on-one skills, but the guy is a total player and should be one of the better Iowa-bred Hawkeyes ever when his career is over. You can bet the pressure will be scintillating next season. Anthony Tucker, fresh off a series of alcohol problems, illness, and academic ineligibility, should actually be ready this season. If you don't feel for the guy, you don't have a heart. He had maybe the toughest freshman year a kid could have, and through it all he has been a dedicated Hawkeye affirming time and time again that he is staying and intends to turn things around. Before his problems, he was one of the brightest stars on the entire team. His shot is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and he just knows the game on the offensive end. He's not merely a spot-up shooter, as he can drive and crash the boards too. Can't wait to have him back and watch the Tucker redemption show. I'm really excited for Jarryd Cole, who will be a junior next season. That's shocking to me. He's also the only guy remaining from that 1st Lickliter class, or the guys that were basically Alford recruits. Cole is undersized for what he's asked to do, but he plays with amazing energy and passion, fighting for every rebound and banging with bigger opponents on defense. Cole is very athletic and finishes with ease around the rim, but still needs polishing on his jittery post moves and practice on his outside jumper, of which there is none in his game. This is a guy who works harder than anyone, however, as he showed us with his rehab and his improved free throws, so I believe in the guy. Devan Bawinkel is a great role player who is asked to do nothing but shoot three pointers, which he excells at. He can be streaky, like anyone who relies strictly on the outside shot, and he will probably be asked to play way too many minutes, but leave the man open and thou shalt pay. Aaron Fuller is an important returning cog as well. Fuller has great talent and versatility, oozing with the potential to be a star playing different positions. He has long arms, attacks the glass, is smooth going to the basket, and can hit set three pointers. He also made the best hustle play all season, an outstanding block on a fastbreak that sparked our overtime win against Wisconsin. He makes a lot of boneheaded, unforced errors and looked like a lost freshman out there, but those are things that will heal with time. I think Fuller will be very good next year. Andrew Brommer returns after a rather ugly freshman year...he was considered the weak link of last year's class, but definitely proved that he wasn't quite ready for D1 ball. With the lack of depth, a redshirt wasn't possible though. He has good size and plays with more energy and quickness than Seth Gorney ever could, but the poor guy can barely make a layup in traffic and shot an embarassing free throw percentage. Hopefully he gets better, becaues I'm not convinced yet. Lickliter's young dumpling of a son is also a walk-on point guard for the Hawks, and though he looks like a 12-year old water boy I'm sure he's a good guy and a contributing practice player who the other players get along with. Or not, seeing as all the message board freaks seem to contend that Lickliter is on par with Satan in the eyes of the ballers.

In closing, I realize that in this modern age of college basketball, it is tough to win at Iowa. We had winning tradition and a sterling program for 2 or 3 decades, always good for the 2nd round with maybe a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 run thrown in (Final Four for Lute Olson!!), but with the contagious optimism of the Steve Alford era, when we though we were getting to that "next level", we instead received an arrogant greaseheaded prick who was only looking out for himself and his own future success. He had some pretty good teams, especially the beloved '06 team that had the infamous 1st round loss, but interest in the program died and fans felt a seperation from Iowa basketball for the 1st time since before Lute. Alford just wasn't an Iowa guy, and his salivation over the Indiana job when it opened up made it all the more apparent. Now the poor fool is stuck in New Mexico making NITs every year, and our program was left to rot with lack of fan support, no good recruiting connections or players left, crappy facilities way behind the times, and a program in shambles with a dated tradition that young fans can't even remember. Iowa is a tough place to recruit in the 1st place with the weather, cornfields, and steady supply of obese white people, but it's a fabulous college town if you can get past the stereotypes and the surrounding terrain of green grass and corn stalks. Lickliter is a man firmly dedicated to winning basketball games his way and developing a special system or tradition of doing things, and I like the idea of that unique, well-defined style being our mantra for years to come, but it takes serious time and recruiting flair to develop that, and Lickliter hasn't proven that he can do that in the Big Ten yet. I'm rooting for him, because I would sure love to have an established basketball progam, since at that point players won't give a crap about the boring state and will only want to play for a Big Ten winner. A lot is left to prove for Lickliter, and while things are fairly bleak I'll be rooting for him all the way.

NBA Playoffs Today...Who ya Got??

The 7th-seeded Chicago Bulls are currently in an entertaining dogfight with the shorthanded Boston Celtics, missing the fiery glue of their team in high-octane Kevin Garnett. Without KG, I would think that few (if any) expect them to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA finals, but losing to the Bulls is definitely not in the blueprint. I don't think Paul Pierce lets Beantown lose to the young Bulls, who just aren't quite at that elite level yet, but do you see anyone who can stop Derrick Rose? Thoughts??
The Cavs will take care of business in 4 or 5 games against the Pistons, no questions asked. Detroit is a shell of the team they used to be, with all their stars like Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace aging at a rapid clip. I like young guards Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey, but we are talking about Lebron James here, guys. Now that he finally has a legitimate wingman in Mo Williams and a rock-solid defense behind him, the Cavs will be in the NBA Finals out of a weak Eastern Conference.
In the playoffs, single players can take over games by themselves enitrely. Whether by the beauty of their own skill, the hand-check rule, or some generous calls by corrupt refs (D-Wade circa 2006 against Mavs), one superstar caliber player can get to the rim and score at anytime in the NBA. This is why I have Wade, playing at a divine level right now, and his green cast of characters getting past the Atlanta Hawks to play Cleveland in the 2nd round. Atlanta is a fun batch of athletic phenoms, but a team stocked with 6 foot 7 swingmen isn't going to win a title anytime soon.
Finally, Magic vs. 76ers is more intriguing than some "experts" are likely to think. Orlando has played poorly down the stretch, and I still contend that even though Dwight Howard is a freak of nature and monster among men, he's not an amazing basketball player. His post moves are lackluster at best, and his free throw shooting abysmal. Yes, he has mack truck-shoulders and otherworldly hops, allowing him to finish with reckless abandon around the rim and snatch rebounds like pinata candy, but if he runs into an equally capable center, than he's in trouble. Philadelphia is an athletic, up-tempo team without a real half-court offense or much shooting spark if they are forced to slow the game down. Luckily, both of these teams play fast-paced, so it should be fun to watch, and though I think this series could go to 6 or 7 , the Magic have more talent.

In the much deeper West, the general consensus is for the Lakers to roll through the playoffs into the Finals again, especially with the return of potent big man Andrew Bynum, who provides a physical complement to Charmin-soft Pau Gasol. They have the most talent (by far), the game's most feared closer in Kobe Bryant, two great post scoring options in Gasol and Bynum, and one of the NBA's most versatile players in Lamar Odom, who can come off the bench and provide unparalled depth. They don't have a great point guard in Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar, but when you have Kobe, is it that big of a deal? They have a tough 8 seed in the Utah Jazz, who are nearly unbeatable at home, but the Jazz haven't been totally healthy or together all season, plus I have a deep-seeded hatred for Dr. Flopenstein, Andrei Kirilenko, so Lakers all the way.
My Houston Rockets take on the Portland Trail Blazers in perhaps the biggest toss-up of the 1st round. This really could go either way. Portland is young, but exceptionally talented, with an excellent go-to scorer in Brandon Roy and two-headed post monster in LaMarcus Aldridge and big-time bust Greg Oden, who I'm not going to get into on this blog post. Houston has played eons better since T-Mac went down, relying on Yao Ming, stingy defense, and a balanced cast of scorers to win 53 games. They don't really have a reliable perimeter scorer down the stretch, but Portland has nobody with playoff experience, so who has the advantage? I'll go with Houston just to be different, and be loyal to my fanhood.
The Spurs play the Mavericks in a re-match of one of the best playoff series in my lifetime, with the famous Ginobli foul on Dirk in Game 7. Ginobli is absent for the rest of the postseason, which is the sole reason that I'm picking Dallas. I'm trying to let my San Antonio hate rest internally for this one, and just look at the series objectively, and I really believe that Dallas stands a chance. They have played fantastic to end the season, while the Spurs look old, banged up, and merely solid instead of spectacular. Obviously, you can never discount San Antonio in the playoffs, as they still have Duncan and Parker, but I'm thinking (or is it hoping?) that this year might be the end of an era. Dallas in 7.
Finally, we have the Denver Nuggets versus the New Orleans Hornets. Denver has been a new team since nabbing Chauncey Billups, who has brought this selfish cast of characters and one-on-one scorers together as dangerous team. New Orleans had an unfortunate series of injuries and odd defections that kept them from repeating last year's success, including the whole Tyson Chandler fiasco (he's still not playing). Chris Paul is amazing, and can make this team compete by himself, but they can't beat the Nuggets without major contributions from West and an inspired return from Chandler, who looks like he has no desire to play. The Nuggets are the weakest of the elite seeds, but they still beat the New Orlenans Chris Pauls...