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Iowa Basketball: Turning a corner or heading toward a wipeout?

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Is Lickliter taking the air out of the ball?
Is Lickliter taking the air out of the ball?

Iowa basketball resumes tonight and I know what you're thinking. Well, actually I don't. But here's what I am thinking about.

So today I watched an interesting discussion at The Hlog. Scott Dochterman, Mike Hlas and John Campbell of KCRG-TV ask if Iowa basketball has turned a corner or not. It is an interesting and an important question for so many reasons. Not the least of which is this, if fans feel this team is beginning to turn a corner then perhaps we could see a a few more faces inside of Carver-Hawkeye next year. On the other hand, if there is a sense that this team is still very much lost in the weeds and many more losses and frustrations lie in wait, then one could reasonably expect ticket sales to be even worse next year than this year's historic lows, and pressure will begin to mount for Gary Barta to make a move. That would certainly be the case if we see continued player movement as players--even small minute players like Cougill or Brommer--look to separate themselves from the program...and then we could be looking at the head coach being fired or forced into an early resignation, and yet another rebuilding project with Iowa basketball.

So after almost three season under a new regime, where are we exactly with this program? Dochterman and Hlog suggest that Lickliter is not far off when he claims that he has found his "core" with which Iowa basketball will climb back to prominence. The core is suggested to be Matt Gatens, Aaron Fuller, Eric May and Cully Payne. What is not discussed among these three is Lickliter himself. Is his system, and is he, able to grow the core and weave in the incoming promise of next year's fresman class and bring Iowa back to winning basketball?

Let's break it down because there is a lot there to analyze: the core and the incoming freshmen, also known as the talent, the coach, also known as the leader, and the system, also known as, uh, the system.

There is no question that the best coaching and even the greatest system in the world can carry an untalented team only so far. Big Ten basketball might not be as competitive or top-flight as ACC or Big East basketball has been in recent years and this year, but it is still a very competitive conference nationally and it still attracts upper level basketball talent. Iowa is not the only program experiencing some tension right now, a couple of other Big Ten teams with rich histories in basketball are down now as well, most notably Indiana. But the Hoosiers' athletic department and fan base seem very convinced of their plan to return to the upper echelons and the man who will take them there. Michigan and Minnesota have great expectations for their programs too but appear to be struggling to find their footing, yet they both seem satisfied with their coach and the direction of their programs. Not to mention that they both appear to still be drawing strong crowds to home games. Overall basketball in the Big Ten is still strong and relevant, Michigan State just played for the National Championship, Purdue is poised to make a deep run this year and Ohio State might surprise in the Big Dance...and oh by the way, Ohio State might have the best player in the nation in Evan Turner. So while Big Ten basketball might not be as strong at the bottom as it has been in other decades, it is still plenty potent as a conference (you may recall the Big Ten won the Big ten/ACC Challenge this year) and that is because there are still some very good coaches and players in the conference.


A major question that everyone would like to get a handle on relates to quality of Iowa's current and future players. Are Iowa's players, and in particular are the core, good enough to help Iowa get over the hump and win consistently in the Big Ten in the next two or three years? Does Iowa have enough talent and the right talent coming in to build up the roster to upper tier Big Ten standards? There is no way to know if the incoming freshmen will meet the expectation that recruiting experts have projected for them, this we all know. But we have seen plenty of this core group now. We just might have enough material to project them forward.

Matt Gatens - so far Gatens appears to have proven that he has a Big Ten body and Big Ten skill set. He is poised and mature and has been so since day one. What Gatens may not have proven thus far is that he can be consistent, to be the calm amid the storm that is Iowa basketball inconsistency. Morevoer, there are questions about Gaten's ability to stand apart as a leader of this team. Will he ever be that player? Does he have to be?

Aaron Fuller - he has battled injuries and ignorance in his short basketball career. In Fuller's freshman year Lickliter would often highlight Fuller's difficulty grasping key elements of his system in postgame comments. Fuller played big minutes in some games and was very productive while he appeared lost or simply languished on the bench due to foul trouble or Lickliter's ambivalence in other games. This year, after some early injuries, he has been a more consistent presence though and especially so during Big Ten play. Fuller appears to be finding his niche on the team and in the league and might be "breaking out." Can he be Iowa's next "star" player? Is he already? Is he deserving of even more focus by Lickliter?

Eric May - many believed May would be a role player on this team before the start of the season and that his number one goal was to just get a few minutes a game and find a position. Thanks to Tucker's suspension May has settled in to the starting lineup and stood out on a number of occasions. It is a bit unclear if he is a shooting guard or small forward, and it might not matter in this line-up. He is very athletic, perhaps the strongest player on the team, and already at this stage of his young career appears to be able to guard nearly every player on the opposition. He has probably already exceeded expectations but where can and should his skills go from here?

Cully Payne - right now he is the only starting freshman point guard in the Big Ten, although is that due to his ability or circumstance? No doubt Payne is a true point guard but he is small by Big Ten standards. Nevertheless he's shown more often than not he can play at this level and in this conference, yet he has also shown that his physical limitation can be a real problem for Iowa, especially on the defensive end. He plays a lot of minutes, too many minutes most likely, which could explain some of his late game breakdowns. Teams tax him by forcing him to expend a lot of energy just dribbling (the man does like to dribble) the ball upcourt knowing he is Iowa's only legitimate option at point guard. He has been valiant, but is he a long-term answer at the position?

The Incoming Freshmen - has rated Iowa's incoming freshmen all with 3-stars. Forwards Zach McCabe and Cody Larson and guards Ben Brust and Roy Marble, Jr. are rated by some scouting services to be a Top 25 incoming freshman class. Projecting them at Iowa is silly at this point. They have not even completed their senior years in high school and the leap to college is profound. But, is there legitimate reason to be optimistic about this group? Do they fulfill needs (on paper) that Iowa has in terms of both talent and position?


Todd Lickliter has won National Coach of the Year honors for his work at Butler. That success got him the Iowa job. He is a Midwest guy. He is a seemingly soft-spoken man who cut his teeth in basketball-crazy Indiana high school and college basketball. But prior to his arrival at Iowa in 2007, Lickliter spent every minute of his playing and coaching career outside of a BCS conference. Some might be surprised to hear that Lickliter has been coaching basketball for 32 years. He spent 12 years coaching high school basketball in Indiana, one year overseas coaching a club team in Saudi Arabia, two years at Eastern Michigan as an assistant coach, and 11 years at Butler (6 years as head coach), and now he's in his third year at Iowa. Lickliter has been successful at every stop but Iowa has proved to be, by far, his greatest challenge. Is he in over his head at a large state school like Iowa, which has a student enrollment that is nearly seven times greater than Butler? Is he uncomfortable outside of the basketball confines of Indiana? Is he better suited at the mid-major level? These are all legitimate questions that have yet to be answered for some, and clearly answered for others. Other questions about Lickliter have centered on his ability to serve as the Pied Piper of Iowa basketball. Does Lickliter have the charisma and zeal needed to lead an attitude change and reenergize a fan base about a product that has been in decline since, Scott Dochterman suggests, as far back as Raef Lafrentz's rejection of a scholarship offer from Dr. Tom Davis in favor of playing at Kansas.


When Iowa hired Todd Lickliter he made it clear they were hiring more than a coach, they were hiring a cultural overseer who would introduce a philosophy and system of organizing and playing basketball that was proven beyond his personal efforts. He worked in a method that had been built in a program that had to face many of the same challenges that Iowa faces. Lickliter would be bearing the gift of a whole new way of structuring the basketball program--a structure, Gary Barta told us, that would be a natural fit for Iowa and last for years. However, some now wonder if Lickliter's system is beneath a program of the stature and history of Iowa. Also, some wonder if this system is really a system at all? Perhaps what Lickliter had a Butler was merely a very appropriate plan that is utterly unique to Butler, one that doesn't travel well, if at all. Outside of the Butler history and Indiana small callege milieu is it a viable "way" at all?


What to do, what to do?

Todd Lickliter is in his third year and has a contract that ends in 2014. There is a provision in that contract which states that at the end of this year Lickliter and Barta must discuss an extension. Is Todd Lickliter deserving of an extension? Did he inherit a program so downtrodden that its basketball problems were deeper than anyone could have imagined and are only now evident? Is Iowa beginning, ever so slightly, to make the strides under Lickliter and his system to emerge from the years of dysfunction and underachievement? Or should Lickliter be a transitional figure, much like George Raveling might have been for Dr. Tom Davis? Is Iowa stuck? Does Barta need to merely let this play out over the next two or three years, regardless of fan input, despite early returns in his investment in Lickliter that suggest things might not be totally on track?