Thursday, January 05, 2006

Kicking Off Big Ten Season

Today, as most of you know, the Big Ten season kicks off for Wisconsin. As luck would have it, Wisconsin plays host to Iowa this evening in what’s sure to be an exciting early-season showdown of two teams with a lot to be excited about, but lots of concerns still lurking in the back of their heads. And as most of you hopefully know, Iowa also just happens to have one of the top college basketball bloggers out there, Ryan Kobliska of Hawkeye Hoops fame, following the team’s every move. A master of stats, entertaining game-related prose, and general hoops analysis, Ryan is the rare college basketball mind that can do it all.

Given the situation, I was honored that Ryan was ready and willing to exchange three questions about the game and our respective teams. The goal is to give some insight into the teams that our respective friends and readers may not know about. Well, that, and to have fun, and take a couple of small jabs at the other’s team.

So without further adieu, here are the official Hawkeye Hoops answers to my questions:

Question 1: I would have been scared of Iowa a month ago before they began their annual decline from excellent team to mediocre team. Now that they're back into NIT/NCAA bubble team mode, how can you possibly believe that they'll defeat a disciplined Wisconsin team? Nothing can possibly be different about this team, can it?

Answer: I’m optimistic for several reasons. First, I think Iowa only "underperforms" in conference because we tend to overestimate the importance of their non-conference victories. In Alford’s first year, the then-#1 UConn team they beat finished 25-10 and ranked 20th by the AP. Last year’s wins against Texas and Louisville were against a couple young teams at the start of the season. Iowa’s relative success against higher-quality teams like Texas and NC State this year makes me think the Hawks are a good team, too.

Aside from that, the defense is clearly improved, as Iowa leads the country in points allowed per possession. That should keep them in just about any Big Ten game.

Question 2: Back when I was a slightly younger man, one of my more painful memories was a Southwest Missouri State team coached an up-and-comer by the name of Steve Alford taking out Wisconsin in the NCAA by only allowing the Badgers to score 32 points in the entire game. His signing at Iowa struck fear in my heart, but by my rough count, Alford's currently 3-9 against Wisconsin during his tenure at Iowa. Where'd the scary Alford go, and after six years of him being gone, why should I believe that he'll ever be back?

Answer: The only thing scary about Alford to most people around here is that he might stick around for the full length of his contract. Zing!

Looking back, though, he’s had some bad luck over the past four years, losing good players to injuries, transfers, and off the court problems. Now that he’s finally had a group of guys together for about a calendar year, I think his coaching talent is starting to show up in the numbers. I’m personally very impressed that he’s got guys like Erek Hansen, Greg Brunner, and Mike Henderson leading the country in defensive statistics. Now that the offense is showing some minor signs of life, it’s very possible that this Alford squad could make a decent run in conference play.

Question 3: Okay, one straight up, simple question--Jeff Horner's obviously back from a long layoff, and he's also obviously one of Iowa's most important cogs this year. It appears from his first game back that he's not going to need to much time to get back up to speed. However, are there any lingering physical problems for Horner or potential team chemistry issues that my brief perusal of a box score could not reveal?

Answer: Horner seems to back near full strength. He was borderline ready to play two weeks ago against Drake, but the team held him out another week to be safe, so I’m not too worried about his condition. I’m really glad to have him back, because I think Iowa’s offense looks a lot better with him at the point, and offense has been Iowa’s major limiting factor thus far.

The fact that he led the team with 36 minutes against St. Louis makes it appear that the coaching staff has full confidence in his health. If he keeps hitting threes like he did in that game, Iowa’s offense will finally start to allow the team to win a few games.

Many thanks to Ryan, and hop over to Hawkeye Hoops to see my answers to his set of more artfully and deeper-probing questions. And enjoy the game tonight!

And finally, for the record, I did make it to my first division three game of the year (UW-Eau Claire at UW-Whitewater) last night, but given this exchange with Ryan that's been in the works for ahwile, I suspected that there would be no time for a game recap (which stinks, because division three games are always ripe for recapping). You're not missing much, though, since I didn't watch the game that closely (yes, though it may shock and upset you to hear this, sometimes I'm that guy who spends more time talking to the people he's with at the game than watching the game itself), and I've already pulled all the comedy that I can out of making fun of the fact that the Whitewater mascot's costume seems to prominently incorporate sweatpants into its ensemble. It was fun, though, and I just may have to get back again before the season's over.


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