Though we haven't spent much editorial space on the Hawkeyes' basketball team (largely because their games have been scheduled for Friday nights, Sunday mornings, and the curious "as soon as you fall asleep"), we're still watching, thinking, fact-gathering. And though the team is undoubtedly improved--even with a 1-3 conference mark, they're 11-6, and they didn't get their 11th win until February 2nd last season--that 1-3 record isn't quite where fans would like to see the Hawkeyes.
The animus has reached such a fever pitch, in fact, that the basketball forum on our favorite Hawkeye message board (no, not that one; not that one either) has become a functionally unreadable cacophony of "FUCK THE SYSTEM" and "LICKLITER WOULD RATHER PLAY HIS SYSTEM THAN WIN" and "SPEED IT UP YOU COCKMASTER." Setting aside the nonsense, like the notion that there's a coach anywhere that doesn't want to win, there are three glaring faults with the Iowa basketball team (the first feeding the last two), and while Lickliter isn't absolved of blame, they're all matters of personnel.
1) This team is still incredibly young. Here are the players who have been in the Iowa program for at least three years:
F Cyrus Tate (SR)
F J.R. Angle (SR)
Basically one legitimate, clear-cut starter, and then DanJRous. There's your long-standing, institutional knowledge.
And the list of players in their second year:
G Jeff Peterson (SO)
G Jake Kelly (SO)
F Jarryd Cole (SO)
F David Palmer (JR)
This list is even more depressing, because it goes (in order): a 2-star prospect who should have redshirted last season and who wouldn't start on most teams this year; another kid who maybe should have redshirted (but played well) and may have regressed from last year (though we can kinda understand why); an undersized forward whose PT has been cut in half in the aftermath of a major knee injury, and that guy from 24.
That's it. The rest are first-year players, and it's looking increasingly like the foundation of the program will be built on the first year guys instead of the sophomore class. It's one thing to have a young team; it's even worse when the weaknesses are largely contained to the more experienced players. Indictment of Lickliter? Maybe, but what is any coach going to do with, let's say, Cole or Peterson? They're not BXI-level players yet.
2) Cyrus Tate and Anthony Tucker are out. With Tate in the game, Iowa at least has a shot at establishing a semblance of an inside game, whether it be through scoring, rebounding, or defending the opponents' #1 big man. But when Tate went down yelping during the Minnesota game, all hell broke loose, and what was a suffocating dominance of the Gophers turned into, well, justifiable cause to suffocate yourself.
Obviously, It really didn't help when Jake Kelly, holding the ball with about 4 seconds to play and a chance to tie the game with a 3, instead hoisted a half-court shot that mysteriously failed. But Minnesota got back into the game by dominating the boards and jumping passing lanes while Iowa fruitlessly tossed the basketball back and forth around the perimeter, utterly devoid of an inside threat on offense.
Tate may or may not be back for the Hawks' next game against Purdue; God help us if he's not and his minutes go to Cole (who's basically Hot Rod Thompson with two more inches and one fewer knee) and Dr. Disaster, Andrew Brommer. Brommer may well one day be a serviceable big man in the league, maybe even by a year from now, but Good Jesus, the last Hawkeye I can remember getting major minutes while being so terrifyingly unsuited to be on the court was, like, Alex Thompson. So the question is, can Tate go from wearing a walking boot on Sunday to playing one week later? And speaking of questions, why in the hell is Iowa playing another Sunday morning game?! Is this enough to get Barta fired?
The Frozen Caveman Shooter is still on the bench, now recovering from mononucleosis, a particularly insidious disease for a basketball player. High-level guard play is usually based on shooting ability, usually based on ball-handling, and usually based on knowledge of the offense. It is ALWAYS, however, based on conditioning, which suffers in a bad, bad way with a case of mono. At this point, it's probably gravy if Tucker sees more than 5 minutes a game before March rolls around.
That's a shame, because as anyone who watched him play before the retardations set in knows, he has a gorgeous release on his jumper (that sounded Kincheny) and it was no accident that he was leading the team in scoring. There's a lot to be said for confidence in a shooter, and there isn't an ounce of panic in Tucker's game. Sure, Bawinkel's fine in replacement, but he's clearly not as good, especially with the ball in his hands. Tucker is a much more natural player overall, and like Tate, Iowa needs him back.
3) The team is sorely lacking at the point. One of the hallmarks of a good perimeter-oriented team is the ability to effectively distribute the ball, usually via the point guard. While we don't doubt Matt Gatens' basketball acumen, he's definitely not the kind of ball-handler (lol) you want bringing the ball up against a press, or trying to shake a good defender 1-on-1. He's not that athletic.
So while Gatens is probably your highest basketball-IQ guy, the point responsibilities go to Jeff Peterson, who as we discussed before, is not very good yet. Jermain Davis has also seen some time bringing the ball up the court, but he's definitely not a natural 1-spot and is at his most effective on the wing.
Peterson, to be sure, has shown some improvement; his shooting totals are way, way up across the board, and his steals have vastly improved as well. Of course, that's with 15 fewer BXI games than last year, but hush, folks, details. The one area where Peterson hasn't improved is turnovers; those remain at 3.1 per game, same as last year, and likely to rise now that there's no more superdirectionals or "Bryant" on the schedule. And having a point guard who can't effectively and smartly distribute the ball or at least set it in motion to eventually hit the open man on the wing is basically a guarantee of not making the tournament.
The one seriously glaring problem with this point guard situation is, um, Lickliter gave away a returning senior starter at that very position. Yes, Tony Freeman drove Lick insane, but it's not like World B. Freeman was the only thing keeping that team from sustained success. They were just plain bad, and without depth at the point (seriously, you couldn't tell Palmer or Lieutenant Angle that they "didn't fit into your vision for the team" instead?), this team might be just as bad when the dust settles on the conference standings in March.
Look, we're not saying "Iowa + Freeman = 17-0 in 08-09!!!", but this is a team that could desperately use his athleticism (especially now that he's not coming off a squeaky wheel) and his ability to hit contested shots. We understand that the Iowa offense is predicated on ball movement and getting guys open shots, and really, to that specific end, it hasn't been ineffective (check out that PPS). The problem is what happens when there's 5 seconds left on the shot clock, the man with the ball is covered, and there's no readily apparent 3-pass progression to get the ball to a wide-open shooter (or even if the guys are in place, defenders are laying back and praying for a pass through their lane). Freeman had a rather uncanny ability to get a good shot off under pressure, moreso than what most of the guys on this current iteration of Iowa Basketball have.
At the very least, keeping Freeman would have given Lickliter an opportunity to show potential recruits that he allows point guards to excel and put up stats in his system. Considering Lickliter's alternative course of action and the landscape of incoming commits, we're a little less than optimistic that this offense is fewer than 2-3 years away from really clicking. Hope Lickliter's got a Plan B, and soon.