Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Welcome to the Franimal House (Wish I made that up)

So, Iowa hired a new basketball coach on Sunday, in case you're living under a rock or Scott Dochterman's voyeuristic video camera stalker trip didn't pique your interests. And, despite the hot mid-major resume and professorial appearance, he couldn't be any more different from severed incumbent Todd Lickliter. Fran McCaffery, fresh off a "fran-tastic" three year run at Siena (upstate New York) where he guided the Saints to three straight NCAA tournaments, including first-round upsets over fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in 2008 and the Evan Turner-led Ohio State Buckeyes in 2009 (the game when Bill Raftery popularized "double onions!"), is our new head man. After his explosively perfect press conference on Monday, the bespectacled, stately gent know as "White Magic" for his street-wise playing days in urban Philadelphia has already won over the black-and-gold faithful in ways pretty boy Steve Alford and "systematic" Lick never could.

Fran is the only D1 coach to have guided three different teams from traditional one-bid leagues to the NCAA tournament, spearheading vast turnarounds at Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro, and of course Siena. The 49-year-old doesn't run a "system," per se, which should be refreshing to fans sick and tired of hearing Lickliter's favorite justification for success. During the presser, Fran said his teams will play up-tempo and switch up defenses based on match-ups, terms foreign and frightening to Lickliter. There will be obvious eyebrow raises concerned with the current roster's ability to run-and-gun (Cougill on the fastbreak is a scary thought), but Coach has reiterated that he will adapt to the strengths of his players. His teams at Siena shot an inordinately low amount of threes, directly contrasting with the previous regime, and were known for hardly ever fouling. Recruiting is a question mark, if only because McCaffery, a Digger Phelps assistant at Notre Dame during the '90s, hasn't been in the Midwest in quite some time. It will be interesting to see if he still decides to primarily recruit the East Coast, or strengthens pipelines in Chicago and the Twin Cities. His wife, Marge, a former All-American player herself at Notre Dame and Minnesota native, has a feisty reputation for dogging officials (she was kicked out of an '06 game) and baking apple pies for potential recruits. He has four young kids, and made sure they were on display throughout Monday's festivities.

Essentially, he's the anti-Lick.

The theme ran rampant during the press conference and continued into a meet-and-greet with Iowa students and the general public later in the evening: change is here. Fran emphasized the benefits of raising a family in Iowa City, community interaction, and getting fans back in the seats. He spoke of having relationships with players, inviting them to his home and making them feel like family. He wants recruits to feel safe, parents to trust their children to his hands. He talked about moving the student section behind the opponents' bench, telling anecdotes from his first visit to Carver in the '80s when his Lehigh team was crushed in front of a raucous sell-out crowd by George Raveling's primetime Hawkeyes. The interaction with the media was a night-and-day difference — Fran was smooth, poised, with a quick East Coast-drenched swagger in his voice. He told humorous tales about recruiting former Hawkeye greats Jess Settles and Kenyon Murray, delineating a knowledge of Hawkeye history that Lick could never grasp. He didn't inundate the media with tales of his successes at Siena: he knows this is Iowa, and made it clear this was his first job choice, a job he pursued instead of openings at Seton Hall and St. John's.

Fran clearly outlined a blueprint for improvement and keeping current players/recruiting class, discussed possibly nabbing a former Hawk player as an assistant on his staff, and even laughed politely when Barta made a joke about Mrs. McCaffery needing seat-belts on gameday. Talk rampaged of bringing the fans back with fast-break ball played "the right way," getting the arena "rockin' again" and making it impossible to buy tickets. Talk of practice facilities and renovations generated excitement, not excuses. It's undeniable — Fran said all the right things, and it was obvious he set out to portray himself as everything Lickliter wasn't. He was comfortable, the opposite of aloof, friendly, engaging, and told the fans everything they wanted to hear. Expect improvement year one, per Fran. How much? Nobody really knows, but I would pencil the Hawks in for 13-15 wins. Am I lost in the allure of a Fran-high? Maybe. But I am already more excited for basketball than I ever was under the Lickliter era, and my hardwood pulse is gradually thumping along again. That's an important aspect that cannot be overstated.

Step one is out of the way. Now comes the hard part. Can he recruit in the Big Ten? How will the current players adapt? How soon will the Hawks be back in the tournament? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. But here's one thing I'll guarantee — the fans have warmed up to Fran like no coach in the past decade, and the arena will be vastly more full next year. If Fran starts the non-conference slate with a good, winning record, watch out. The fans will come back. Now about that pep band...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Crisis of Hawkeye Basketball: A Ship in Disrepair

A storm has rumbled through Iowa City and swept up the apathy of an entire basketball-starved student body in the seemingly vast time span between my last blog post in December and the beautiful spring day materializing outside my window.

Bowl season has long come and gone, with gaping doe-eyes focused on the recent onset of spring football, a statewide attraction every year under Kirk Ferentz, and the not-so-distant date in May when that beautiful sun won't just be a painful classroom diversion but a sweet summer companion, too. Since December, I've been fired from a job, made some friends, watched some basketball, drank a bit too much, re-committed to a relationship, made above-average grades, and lived what most would call the stereotypical college existence. Though I miss the comfort and the weather of a beautiful Texas home (not a plantation, for you damn Yankees), I truly can't complain about a single thing. Well, almost. The University of Iowa has been everything I could have dreamt of and more, but there's just one pesky problem keeping me awake at night.

I toss and turn underneath my oppressive sheets, and wake up consumed by a numb stupor. I scour rumor-mongering message boards filled with keyboard-chattering twelve-year-olds and grown men stealing time on Mom's computer while she's at work, salivating over every name and every thread despite the fact that I consistently learn nothing from these "well-informed" batches of posters. I spend too much time on Twitter. I listen to crappy sportswriters with multitudes of anonymous tips. I get excited when I read about the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Scott Dochterman stalking Gary Barta at the airport, have nightmares of a chain-smoking Pat Harty wearing Blues Brothers' shades, and, like every blue-blooded young man, long for an elusive serving of "Big Ups." I think I am going crazy.

Why do I put myself through this seemingly inane struggle? Because I am a basketball fan. Much more than a fan, actually. I am a deviant, obsessed, thirsting for the game during my every waking moment. I bleed orange and sweat hardwood. It's unhealthy, but at the same time cathartic and comforting. I attended every single home contest (minus the holidays) for the hapless 10-22 Iowa Hawkeyes "basketball team" this past year, the worst record in school history by a long-shot. Maybe that wasn't the best idea for a guy who has battled depression in the last year. We are a national laughingstock, marked with an empty arena and a football team looming over the entire athletic department that marked up more wins than the black and gold hoopsters this past season. Including the Hawks, only two teams in the entire Division 1 landscape share the dubious distinction of having the football team post more wins than the basketball team. The program is stuck in the 1980s, with problems ranging from student section placement to a terrible pep band and a complete disconnect between the coach and the fanbase, which began with Steve Alford and culminated with this current mess. Ouch.

So athletic director Gary Barta did what he had to do. He fired Coach Todd Lickliter after a dismal and brief three-year tenure where he chalked up, you guessed it, the worst stretch in Iowa basketball history with a humbling 38-58 record. Player departures ran rampant, and more threatened if Lick was kept around. There was no sign of hope on the horizon. Perhaps his most egregious offense in fans' eyes was playing his diminutive son, John, a player horrifically incapable of saving face in Division 1 basketball and a move that was lampooned by state media outlets. The former National Coach of the Year at Butler, Lickliter guided the scrappy Bulldogs to a pair of Sweet Sixteens as head man for his alma mater, a tiny and basketball-obsessed private school in the heart of Indiana. He popularized the cliche and obnoxiously overstated "Butler Way," exemplified by selflessness and the strict adherence to a slow-down system chock full of shot-clock sapping three-point shooting, reduced turnovers, and defensive tenacity. Why was this system such a failure at Iowa? Where does the program go from here? Do the problems run deeper than merely a bad coach? What can we expect next year, and when will a new coach be hired? There are so many questions, and, since I haven't posted in more than three months, I should probably be reminded to pace myself. I'm afraid of going over the deep-end on my word count, seeing as I haven't even ventured near the meat of this blog post, so I better get started here.

These are my ten key questions regarding the present and future state of the "car-crash-can't-turn-away" Iowa basketball team, a sorrowful lesson in ineptitude.

1) The Lickliter firing may not have been the right thing to do, but it was the only thing Barta could do, right? How important is this next coaching hire?

First of all, yes, Barta had no choice. With hands tied behind his back and the bloodstains of a boneheaded hire coating his hands, he was forced to fire the only major coach he's ever hired. The fans had turned away in droves, revenue was dwindling with a dearth of booster support, and, if the rumors hold true, another pair of marquee transfers were bound to happen if Lick was given one more year. I think even the most ardent Lick supporters would contend that we couldn't afford any more transfers. It was Lickliter's head, or another year of vacant seats and potentially even Barta's job on the line without guaranteed improvement in 2010-11. But to say Lickliter was respected in NCAA coaching circles would be a vast understatement. Just look at Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo's recent lambasting of the firing and general critique of the "win-now" culture in NCAA coaching.

Granted, Izzo has no understanding of what's going on within the Iowa program and likely wouldn't say those things had Lickliter dominated the head-to-head matchup, but still, it's a microcosm of how Lick is viewed by virtually every coach in college basketball — with admiration and respect. Three years is an awfully short amount of time to turn a program around as badly damaged as Iowa's, but if Steve Alford dug the Hawks a hole, Lickliter happily leapt inside, content to be buried alive. It's difficult to explain to outsiders how bad the program had become, and how much apathy had grown.

It's impossible to build a system like Lick's predicated on experience and discipline when there's such a high player turnover rate, and it's difficult to be feasible when the fans aren't showing up anymore. Lickliter was aloof, awkward with the media, and distant from his players. He was an old-school coach and teacher, with no desire to be coddling or friendly. Just think back to his "feelings hurt" remark about Cougill or the treatment of Tucker after his second public intoxication charge. His style of basketball is not entertaining when the team isn't winning or scoring many points, and his personality whiny and disengaging. Fans were tired of the excuses about the schedule and facilities, too, though the latter had some merit. I'll get to that later. And when you've been playing basketball for 100+ years, it's a pretty big deal when you lose 20+ games for the first time.

Lick was making $1.2 million a year and his buyout won't be cheap, paying him 800K for the next few years, but it had to be done. It's not a good situation for anyone, and Lickliter seemed like a kind man with good intentions who was in way over his head. He tried to run a mid-major system at a Big Ten school, and the recruiting suffered. Iowa is such a different school and culture than Butler, where you have to recruit a special kind of talent (blue-collar, high ACTS, etc.). Winning in the Horizon League is just such a different initiative than winning in the Big Ten and competing week after week. It just is. I truly believe his heart never left Butler either. Sean Keeler of The Des Moines Register recalled a funny anecdote when Lick called him to complain about a column Keeler had written the previous week. The article? It was about Butler. And the tragic irony of the whole situation? Lickliter is rumored to be a prime candidate for the head coaching job at Toledo University. Remember when I said there were two Division 1 programs whose football teams won more games than the basketball team? Well, Toledo was the other one.

As for this being an important hire, I think Barta's job depends on it. Since taking over as AD in 2006, Barta has signed Kirk Ferentz to an extension, a move Helen Keller would consider a no-brainer. He's also overseen the Kinnick renovations and spearheaded the long overdue Carver renovations and construction of a practice facility. Nothing really ambiguous. His only major move was hiring Lickliter, now considered a pretty substantial fail. White-hot rumors of bargain bin mid-major candidates turning down interview requests are sure to have the restless fan base in a tussle (not helping his case), but Barta did an excellent job of keeping the Lick hire a secret until the day it was announced, so I don't think we'll know anything until we hear the final gun. The next coach needs to be exciting, engaging with the media, and a good recruiter. It has to be somebody the general fan has heard of, and it has to be someone excited to be here, not looking to jump to bigger lakes at the slightest opportunity. It's going to take more than a solid Xs and Os mind, or a middling Horizon League stiff whose made a couple of NITs with Wright State. This next coach will make or break Gary Barta, mark my words.

2) Barta needs to understand a new coach won't solve Iowa's basketball problem. What is the national perception of the program right now? What else needs to be done?

I'm starting off with a bang here. As I stated earlier, the insidious problems influencing every blackened inch of the program are much deeper and more difficult to pinpoint than just Lickliter being a poor coach. If Alford is named Coach of the Year this season for his work at New Mexico, a realistic possibility, Iowa will have fired or forced out two of the last four National COYS. Hmm. First of all, the facilities have been some of the worst in the conference for the better part of a decade now. Basketball needs to be made a priority in the athletic department, plain and simple. We all know football is the cash cow, but when the ballers are forced to share a practice court (the CHA floor, nonetheless) with the volleyball team and work around the schedule of Lisa Bluder's female hoopsters, then that's a serious problem for a Big Ten school. The construction of a separate practice facility along with new weight rooms, coaches offices, and other arena-specific touch ups will all be crucial in attracting more high-end talent, pleasing our coach, and fielding a successful basketball team in the 21st century. We can't keep riding off the coattails of the 1980s "Golden Age." It's been 30 years since our last Final Four appearance, and administrators need to wake up and acknowledge that. The practice facility is a good start.

Also, the gameday atmosphere is absolutely abysmal. The pre-game energy is as electric as my toothbrush and crowd noise resembles a funeral. Come to think of it, a funeral is a pretty good metaphor for this past season's success. Student turnout is bare unless tickets are dispensed for free, which might have to be a temporary solution until we right the ship, despite the inevitable financial losses. Senior citizens dot the crowd like it's bingo night, and the majority of Carver's wrinkled denizens sit on their hands and clap politely after each minor success. To call the arena dead would be insulting to those who are no longer with us. The student section needs to be moved from behind the basket and plopped courtside, behind the opponent's bench. More students would show up with the better seats, and arena noise would be amplified astronomically. We need a raucous atmosphere.

There's also a massive chasm between program and fans. An entire graduating class of UI students is about to don the cap and gown without having seen the Hawks compete in one NCAA tournament game. There is no tradition or culture with the current batch of students, no interest in the moribund basketball team. It's all football, and wrestling for the niche knuckleheads who love that stuff. We need an entirely new marketing strategy, to sell the program back to the students. The general fans will come back when the winning starts anew or if they take kindly to the new coach, but the students need to be convinced. They've turned their backs on the program. I wish it didn't have to be that way, that we weren't such a "football" or "tailgating" school and recognized the proud tradition of Hawkeye basketball, but with such a divide, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a gradual process. Finally, the lovably dorky pep band needs to update their song list from the 1970s, stock up on band members, and generate some more excitement. The arena needs to crank up the volume on their music as well. Small steps back to respectability.

And the national perception of the program? Not good, but it depends on who you talk to. Bruce Pearl gushed about how great the job is and credited Iowa City's unique charm, constantly referencing the fans, Dr. Tom, and of course, the tradition. But the Hawks gave Pearl his coaching start and he's obligated to say those things. Most outsiders view the fans as fickle, the administration as quick-triggered, the local media enhancing a pressure-packed fishbowl environment that makes it difficult to win. Whether that's true or not isn't important; it's what many people think around the country. As you've most likely discovered, the Hawks are the only game in town, and all of the focus of the tiny state is beamed upon Iowa City. They see how Dr. Tom Davis was run out of town, how Steve Alford bolted for greener pastures and a school that appreciates him, how Lickliter faced the guillotine after only three years. It's not an attractive position right now. Recruiting to Iowa will never be easy, with the harsh winters and corn-fueled stereotypes. It's going to take someone eager to man the black-and-gold helm, and it's going to take time, before the national world recognizes Iowa as a legitimate basketball power again. It all starts with recruiting...

3) Should we want Anthony Tucker back?

Randy Larson, Tucker's lawyer, Prime Time League operator, and an Iowa City fixture, said Tucker would come back to the program if the new coach would have him. This is a tough one for me. Tucker is obviously a supremely-talented player with a divine stroke and decent first-step. He's blessed with a variety of offensive skills and instantly gives you 12-15 points a game with the long-range shooting. But, ignoring his off-court transgressions for just a moment, are his limitations as a player and locker room presence even worth bringing him back? Tucker is a terrible defender who seems preternaturally opposed to moving his feet. His shot selection is bad, and stalled the offense on more than one occasion last season. And rumors (I know, I shouldn't operate on rumors) float around cyberspace that Tucker was a primary catalyst for the divisive nature of the team, or a cleaving force for the Team Lickliter-Team Not Lickliter conflict seemingly inflicting the team last season. That could be totally false, for all I know, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. It's not as if Tucker were a sterling leader for the "younger" (Tucker was only a sophomore) players on the team, twice getting nabbed for embarrassing public intoxication charges and failing to qualify academically as a freshman. I've supported Tucker again and again because he is such a talented player, and God knows the Hawks need talent more than anything at this point. But is it worth selling one's soul and compromising values for the sake of having one good player back on the team? Tucker has been lazy and ungrateful for his second chance, generally a cancerous influence on the team. I've flip-flopped on this issue innumerable times, and you know what, it's just public intoxication. I'll release my inner college student and say "Bring 'em back!" After all, it could be good PR for a new coach with a knack for player relations.

4) Will anyone transfer?

Hell, I have no idea, and neither does anybody except the players. My inclination tells me no, but it's a legitimate fear for the whipped puppy emotional state of Hawkeye Nation to bear after witnessing nine transfers in Lick's tenure, including two leading scorers. The floodgates will always fling wide open with a new coach assuming the head mantle, so nothing should be too disturbing if someone decides to leave, but it's important to know who will be on the team going forward. Though Matt Gatens' and Aaron Fuller's names both emerged as the players who discussed leaving with Barta, I think it's safe to assume that at least Gatens will stay with the new coach. Though it's been tested the past two years, his blood has deep black-and-gold roots and he will be a Hawkeye for life. For him to even consider transferring from the school he committed to in the 8th grade is a testament to how bad things must have gotten behind the scenes with Lickliter. The one player whose name is consistently brought up is freshman point guard Cully Payne, because he defended Lickliter (he's one of his recruits) and publicly said after the season-ending loss to Michigan that he would consider leaving if Lick was canned. Seeing as he's the only true point guard on the roster right now, I think it would be foolish of him to go somewhere else, but his loyalty to Lick is the key factor. Remember, Payne switched his committment multiple times in high school from DePaul to Alabama and then finally to Iowa. A lot will depend on the new coaching hire, and the type of system he runs. Lickliter essentially attempted to run Alford's players off the team in 2007-08, most notably with star shooting guard Tony Freeman. Will that happen with the new coach? For Hawkeye fans chomping at the bit, they just have to wait and see.

5) How about the recruits?

Iowa has a fairly highly-regarded recruiting class set to join the Hawkeye ranks in 2010-11, with four three-star prospects and another potential scholarship offer if Anthony Tucker isn't interested in coming back for the next coach. Will each one stay true to their commitment despite the coaching change? This is pure speculation with no real basis until the next coach is announced, but each high school senior appears to bring a style of basketball that would fit in most any system or coach's wishlist. Cody Larson is a 6 ft. 8 power forward from South Dakota with the versatility, strength, and inside-outside game to draw comparisons to Butler's star pivot man, Matt Howard, who succeeds with savvy moves and raw effort instead of pure athleticism. He's considered a fairly sought-after commodity and has already stated he intends to stay with Iowa.

Zach McCabe is a slashing guarding from Dubuque, Iowa, and he played on the same high school team as current Hawk Eric May. McCabe, who was offered after Marshalltown car-dunker Chanse Creekmur de-committed last year, should bring a similar game to May's with more of an emphasis on perimeter shooting than explosive dunking. Chicago-area guard Ben Brust, a friend of Cully Payne's and AAU teammate, should stick around as long as Payne does. He would add much-needed scoring and ball-handling depth in the backcourt. Finally, Roy (or Devyn) Marble, Jr., son of the famous Hawkeye baller, rounds out this top-35 ranked class. The young Marble is a chicken-legged late bloomer with a sweet stroke, nice hops, and the baby-face of a 12-year-old. Older Hawkeye fans are predictably ecstatic with the pick-up, as inevitable visions of daddy's heroics flash across their minds, and the tweet-happy youngster appears poised and excited to start his own legacy. Though they won't bring instant gratification, this class could form a nice building block for the future if everyone stays committed. Like those restless, impatient message board posters, all these guys can do is sit and wait for the next coach to be announced.

6) What happens to Lil' John? And how will the Hawkeyes replace the stellar all-around play of Devan Bawinkel?

As you can tell with the quality of the ideas here, my stamina is obviously declining. Isn't this the question everyone hoped The BStiles would ask at Barta's press conference almost two weeks ago? Obviously, John Lickliter will follow his dear dad to whatever hokey mid-major show he decides to conduct next, or maybe he'll just try to make the team at Wartburg, which could be an insurmountable challenge. Poor John's confidence must have taken a hefty blow this past season with the ridicule not only from campus peers and message board dwellers but even the Des Moines media, which ran a painfully hilarious spoof bit mocking the Hawks' ineptitude and John's ability to play D1 basketball, which was admittedly lacking. The size of a frumpy hobbit, Lil' Lick (Lotta Bite) was forced to put in minutes after Tucker's midseason departure. Nobody can blame the poor guy for trying, and there were times early on when the tiny terror actually looked fairly competent, such as his mini-offensive explosion against Purdue, but as the season wore on and he was forced to guard people like Kalin Lucas and Evan Turner (yikes), viewers felt like they had to turn away before witnessing something terrible and graphic. It was something that neither John or Dad probably wanted to happen, but it did, and in playing his son, Coach Lick provided endless fodder for critics and fans already fed-up with his coaching tactics, player relations, and style in general. But there's no denying Lickliter truly lost the confidence and faith of Hawkeye Nation when Lil' John first suited up and took the court.

And Bawinkel? He's one of the nicer guys you'll meet, and all his teammates loved him. I felt I should get that out of the way before I blast him. He took an unorthodox path to Iowa, which probably should have been an immediate red flag, as Wink marauded as John Beilein's three-point marksman at West Virginia before Bob Huggins took over and ran him out of town. Hawkeye spectators discovered pretty quickly Bawinkel was a one-trick pony whose one trick didn't always work to perfection — much to the chagrin of many, Wink would do absolutely nothing but stand in the corner and wait for a pass, and if he wasn't open for a set three point shot, he would just pass it back to the point guard. This happened literally every game, and whether Lickliter forced into his mind that the only skill he possessed was propelling long-bombs or it was honestly the only thing he could do, shooting threes was the only thing Wink ever did in his two-year Iowa career. He almost single-handedly won the Northwestern game at Carver this past year, exploiting NW's 1-3-1 zone and launching 15 points worth of threes from his favorite spots. But the man famous for his lack of free throws and two-pointers will probably do the Hawks a favor by graduating and allowing Iowa to field five players on defense instead of usual four whenever Wink took the floor.

7) Can wide receiver Marvin McNutt pull double-duty this next season?

A popular running joke on campus this past season was that the football team could seriously take it to the basketball team on the court. Nobody laughed. Stocked with former hoopsters like defensive end Adrian Clayborn, tight end Tony Moeaki, and wideout Marvin McNutt, the Orange Bowl champs could be seen playing at the Field House on occasional weekends, throwing alley-oops and skying for rebounds 40 inches in the air, circus tricks and magical feats when paired next to the flat-footed ground dwellers occupying the men's hoops team. There were legitimate questions of whether anyone on the team besides Cole and Fuller could dunk until Bawinkel left the nation aghast and dropped a baby slam on the Big Ten Network's Mike Hall during a cute game of H.O.R.S.E. The point is, when the majority of the straight-faced student body proposes that the football team could beat the basketball team in a regular game and the coaches should scout intramural games for more talent, things are not where they need to be with the program.

8) Was there anything positive to build on from last season?

Not much, but moral victories (if they exist) took precedence and at least the Hawks finished above Indiana and Penn State in the final conference standings. Any time a coach is fired, you are essentially starting from scratch with uncertainty anyway. Iowa battled with uber-talented Texas early in the season until the second half, and had victories all-but-sealed against both Ohio State and Michigan at Carver until late-game jitters proved costly and finished in a pair of losses. The Hawks swept the Hoosiers, who may be the only team with less talent and more mess than Iowa, and scrapped out a tough victory over Penn State and the Fightin' Taylor Battles as well. The home win over Northwestern was a satisfying feast of revenge for the soul-crushing football loss, as the Bawinkel-sparked victory effectively shattered the 'Cats' NCAA hopes. And Iowa competed in road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. But the way the season concluded left a familiar, sour taste that Hawk fans have come to know the past three years: no improvement was made. This was painfully evident in blistering blowouts at the hands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, historically bad defeats not seen in roughly a century. Cully Payne showed flashes of the scoring guard he can be with a 25-point outburst against Michigan in a 59-52 Big Ten tournament defeat (another in the first round), but under Lickliter, it was common for such a performance to be followed up with a 4-point, 6-turnover showing the next game. There was no consistency, and maybe youth played a role, maybe not, but it's difficult to take anything tangible from the minor, scattered victories last season.

9) Will fan support be any better next year?

No. Actually, it depends on the new coach, but with the mid-major quality names getting thrown around, anything short of a major-college head man leaving a comfortable post for a tough rebuilding job would likely generate mild excitement until the winning picks up steam and some quality recruiting classes start suiting up for the black-and-gold. So unless Barta has something grand up his sleeve, I don't think we'll see a huge improvement. But there is a lot of offseason between now and November, so it's hard to say right now.

10) Finally, what should our expectations be for next season? Am the only Hawkeye basketball fan left on campus?

It will be interested to gauge student interest next season. I think season ticket renewals could be at an all-time low. I'm tired of seeing the same 20 people at every Hawkeye game, lovable social outcasts searching for school spirit but with an inability to muster up the yells or the masses to generate real noise. The Hawks' Nest tries, but there's only so much they can do when the perception is so strongly anti-Lick and the quality is so poor. The student section needs to get better organization, a new name (no Alford!), and a more defined seating area. Without Lick, I am interested to see if more people will give basketball a chance. My guess is students will come out in decent numbers at first, but if the losing begins to mount again, you'll see the same apathy. That's just the way students are. And, our expectations?

Expect a hearty upset or two, but 12-14 wins should be the ceiling. It's just going to take some time, and fans have to realize the size of the hole the program is in. Whoever Barta decides to hire will need time to get his own recruits into the fold, but an important sign will be to see how he adapts to the core he is given right now. That's something Lickliter was terrible at, and Hawkeye basketball can't afford another 2-3 year of waiting for "the system" to develop.

Go Hawks!

Coaching Hire? If we are going for an unproven assistant, I want Steve Forbes from Tennessee. The Lone Tree, Iowa, native, ranked 8th nationally for assistant coaches on FoxSports.com, has said multiple times the Iowa job is his dream. The program need someone who wants to be a Hawkeye (not a Bulldog!) and would bring that enthusiasm. The noted recruiting guru may not be a big name, but he would bring in guys right away, he knows the state/program/culture, and would generate immediate excitement with the prospects he would garner. I promise. Brian Gregory from Dayton would also be a good choice because of his recruiting chops and ability to bring a relatively dead program up to a national level, once steering Dayton to a national ranking of 14th in the country. If we are waiting for a coach still in the tournament (I'm NOT mentioning Bruce Pearl), I want Baylor's Scott Drew. He has a prickish reputation and there's chatter concerned with sleazy recruiting tactics, but what he did with Baylor when they were about to cut their basketball program after all that scandal is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And he can recruit like a champ. Iowa could offer him a big raise from the 400K he's currently making, too. But my favorite choice? B.J. Armstrong, baby! He is a beloved former Hawk from the Detroit/Flint area, and he won some championships with MJ's Bulls. That cache alone would make him an excellent recruiter. Despite the fact that he doesn't have any coaching experience, the current super-NBA agent could bring in some top-flight assistants to take care of the Xs and Os. Sadly, it's been almost two weeks since Lick was fired, and I'm afraid B.J. would have been hired already if Barta truly wanted him.

Five quick March Madness thoughts before I run out of breath:

1) The Big East is MAD overrated. Only one team remains in the Elite Eight, West Virginia, and some of the conference's heavyweights fell victim to some massive upsets early. Syracuse couldn't overcome the loss of big man Arinze Onuaku and lost to scrappy Butler, which is a forgivable sin, but Georgetown collapsed against a hot-shooting Ohio squad and St. Mary's edged out a discombobulated Villanova team that never found their mojo. Marquette fell to much-maligned Pac-10 tournament champ Washington and Louisville to California, while Old Dominion polished off Notre Dame by a bucket. The ballyhooed Big East was portrayed all season long as the deepest, toughest, and the scrappiest, but conferences are judged in the NCAA tournament, and the Big East tripped over their plodding feet. Once again, the lesson is to ignore the ESPN talking-heads.
2) Mid-majors winning is a healthy, excellent thing for the tournament. I realize money and viewers are big aspects of the March Madness product, but teams like Northern Iowa, Cornell, St. Mary's, and Butler all give the tournament much-needed parity. Isn't that why we watch, with the knowledge that anyone can win at any given time? That's why people fill out brackets, watch fervently on that first Thursday and Friday for upsets, and cry out when their championship team loses on the first weekend? It's the Cinderella stories that make the tournament. It would be substantially more depressing if Kansas and North Carolina met in the championship game each season. Every fan base has hope at the beginning of the season. And the tournament is what gives each team hope, unfounded or not.
3) My bracket is now, sadly, defunct. My loud, bodacious uncle looks likely to take the Fries family pool, a transgression all participants vow to prevent each season. I had Kansas overtaking West Virginia in the final game, with Syracuse joining them in the Final Four. Baylor, my fourth team, still has a shot. Elite Eight teams like Georgetown, Ohio State, and Texas A&M are all out. And with UNI bowing to Michigan State last night, the team that held my heart is no longer battling for the crown. Long live Ali Stroke-a-manesh!
4) Elite Eight picks? I have Michigan State dispatching out-of-control Tennessee by controlling the glass and pounding the ball inside with a controlled, efficient half-court offense. Without Kalin Lucas, their ride will eventually run out, but not yet. Kansas State is too athletic for Butler, and Frank Martin might eat someone's face off if they lose, so I don't want to see that. Baylor is too athletic for Duke, and experienced West Virginia will control the game defensively and beat young Kentucky.
5) Finally, let's all laugh at Steve Alford.