Instead of the standard question-and-answer format for Dispatches from Blogfrica, I traded emails with Peter Bean, the impresario of Burnt Orange Nation, ahead of tonight's Iowa-Texas game. I think it's a little more conversational in nature. Enjoy.
PB, BON So, the last time we saw you guys during the 2009-10 season, the Todd Lickliter Experience was mercifully winding down, and Hawkeye basketball immediately began what has been a steady improvement under Fran McCaffery. A tough first year, but back-to-back NIT appearances in 2012-13 (making the finals in the 2013), followed by an NCAA Tournament bid last year. I’m sure the disastrous Lickliter experience left Iowa fans feeling a little anxious about hiring a hot mid-major coach, but four years in, I would imagine Hawkeye hoop heads are pleased with the direction McCaffery has been taking the program, no?
Ross, BHGP It has been a few years since our teams have tangled, but I actually remember that game against Texas vividly -- or at least as vividly as I recall anything from the brief-but-not-brief-enough Lickliter Experience at Iowa (which is mostly shrouded in tears and a numbing fog). Iowa actually played Texas tight for the first half and the game was actually tied at halftime -- then the wheels came off in the second half and Texas outscored Iowa by 25 points. Sadly, that loss, as bad as it was, might still struggle to crack the top 10 of Iowa’s worst losses that year.
As far as the McCaffery hire went, I think there was some trepidation about dipping back into the mid-major well, but at the same time I think there was also a pretty clear understanding that Iowa wasn’t exactly hiring from a position of strength at that time -- the talent base is always an impediment at Iowa and Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter had left the Iowa program in pretty bad shape. High-major coaches weren’t knocking down the door to coach at Iowa, so the choices were mainly mid-major coaches or high-major assistants.
I think it helped that Fran was, in almost every way imaginable, the opposite of Lickliter. McCaffery is tall, energetic, and physical; Lickliter is short, sedentary, and intellectual. McCaffery had a reputation as a program-builder (he’d taken three different mid-major programs to the NCAA Tournament), while Lickliter had inherited a good program and made it better at Butler. On the court, McCaffery’s teams played at a fast pace and scored a lot of points, while Lickliter’s teams slowed the pace to a crawl and struggled to crack 50 points many nights. That last point mattered a lot to Iowa fans -- the rampant losing was what ultimately destroyed Lickliter’s tenure, but his style was anathema to a generation of Iowa fans raised on high-scoring, fast-paced basketball teams coached by Lute Olson and Tom Davis. When you have a bad break-up, it’s typical to go out and find a new partner that’s the opposite of your previous partner… and that’s pretty much exactly what Iowa did, to great success.
Iowa fans in general are very happy with McCaffery’s hire, I’d say. Part of that is the fact that the wounds of Lickliter’s tenure are still recent enough to be easily remembered, so it’s easy to remember how far Iowa’s come in five years. Even wins over lesser foes, like Iowa’s first two wins this season, aren’t entirely taken for granted because fans remember when those wins WEREN’T automatic -- the year Iowa last played Texas they opened the season with back-to-back losses to UTSA and Duquesne. There was definitely frustration about the way last season ended, after it started with so much promise and if Fran isn’t able to get Iowa into the NCAA Tournament -- and win a few games there -- in the next few years, I think the honeymoon will definitely wear off and the frustration will mount. But for now I think Iowa fans are just fine with the way things are going under McCaffery.
Speaking of coaches, where do Texas fans stand on Rick Barnes at the moment? A year ago there seemed to be a perception that he was on the way out and then Texas got distracted by the need to fill the holes left by the departures of Mack Brown and DeLoss Dodds and that bought him some additional time -- is that fair? Of course, since then he’s added another NCAA Tournament trip to his resume and signed a big-time recruit in Myles Turner (more on him in a bit) -- have things turned around a bit for him or is there still a feeling that he’s on borrowed time unless he does something major, like win the Big 12 or take Texas to the Final Four? His situation also seems a little analogous to the situation Kirk Ferentz is in at Iowa -- after 15 years, familiarity starts to breed contempt, especially when you aren’t delivering the results you were earlier in your tenure and when your tics and patterns start to feel annoying rather than charming.
PB, BON You’re right that Barnes pushed right up against the edge of Texas’ fans tolerance following a disastrous 2012-13 season that suggested the Longhorns’ head coach had lost his once solid grip on the program. It’s hard to avoid some slips, though, and what matters more than never slipping is possessing the ability to critically self-evaluate and make necessary changes. That’s precisely what Barnes did, more or less totally overhauling the roster and refocusing his recruiting efforts.
It meant he entered last season with a roster with no seniors and just a single junior, but the youngest team in the country -- projected by almost everyone to finish at or below .500 and in the bottom half of the Big 12 -- knocked off UNC in Chapel Hill, took down a ranked opponent in four consecutive games at one point, and finished third in a Big 12 conference that sent 7 of its members to the NCAA Tournament (with an 8th, West Virginia, just on the wrong side of the bubble). Texas’ return to the NCAA Tournament was its 15th bid in Barnes’ 16 seasons in Austin, and as a 7-seed we won our opening round game before falling in the Round of 32 to No. 2 seed Michigan. A couple weeks later, the nation’s No. 2 recruit, Myles Turner, threw on a burnt orange bucket hat and committed to Texas.
Texas AD Steve Patterson extended Barnes’ contract through 2019 during the offseason. Barnes isn’t going anywhere, and that’s a good thing.
Let’s pivot now to the court, though. I’m not sure McCaffery is recognized for his defense nationally in the same way as guys like Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino are with their zone and press defenses, respectively, but in my mind he’s no less unique or remarkable. Tell Texas fans a little bit about McCaffery as a defensive coach. And have you solved the McCaffery Riddle yet? How, exactly, does one coach a defense to simultaneously: (i) play some of the most aggressive man-to-man D in the country and (ii) commit fewer fouls than just about any other team in the country?
Ross, BHGP It’s interesting to see McCaffery characterized as a defensive coach, because I think his offensive approach tends to be more notable for Iowa fans. Iowa’s defense has alternated between really good and fairly poor since he took over -- they ranked 62nd in AdjD his first year in charge (2011), but that cratered to 197 in AdjD the following year. Two of the most memorable games from that season are Iowa’s outrageously high-scoring losses to Indiana (103-89) and Oregon (108-97), when it seemed like the defense could do nothing but gawk as opponents rained shot after shot after shot over Iowa defenders, or got easy buckets in transition. The defense was legitimately good two years ago (22nd in AdjD), but took a step back last season (120 in AdjD). They’re off to a good start this season (42 in AdjD), but there are some pretty giant caveats about level of competition and small sample size there.
But as far as your question -- how does Iowa play such aggressive man-to-man defense while committing very few fouls -- it’s an interesting puzzle. The truth is Iowa does play a fair bit of zone defense as well -- McCaffery mixes defenses frequently and he doesn’t seem to be a hard-liner about a particularly philosophy like Boeheim. But I think he’s also trained Iowa players to avoid conceding fouls -- especially ticky-tack fouls -- as much as possible. Iowa’s a team that wants to get out in transition as much as possible and run, run, and run some more. He’s spent the last few years trying to assemble enough depth to enable Iowa to send waves of players at opponents and wear them down. Constant fouling slows the game down and makes it much harder to get out in transition.
Speaking of tempo, what kind of tempo does Texas favor? Are they going to be happy to get up and down the court and run with Iowa or are they going to try and slow the game down and make it more of a half-court contest? Texas’ tempo stats over the last five years seem to range from pretty fast to just below average, so it’s hard to get a read on what sort of preference Barnes has there (if any).
PB, BON This is a fun Texas team for a number of reasons, among them being that this group is really deep and versatile.
You want to slow this game down to a grind and bang in the paint? We’re ready -- you won’t find many frontcourts with a better Top 4 than Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner, Connor Lammert, and Prince Ibeh.
You want to crank the tempo up and make this game a track meet? We’re game -- we go a legitimate 11 deep, our roster is full of terrific open court players, and our point guard is nigh unstoppable in transition.
The fast pace the Hawkeyes will push is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to this match up on Thursday night. It reminds me of the match up this super-young team got last December when they went to Chapel Hill for a Roy Williams sprint-fest. We wound up winning an 80-possession game by a final score of 86-83, and wound up schooling the Tar Heels at their own game. I’m not saying Texas is destined to do the same to Iowa, just that I like this Longhorns team in an up tempo match up, and so does Rick Barnes. During non-conference games against overmatched opponents when the coaches’ yelling is audible from the stands, you’ll hear Barnes calling out over and over and over again in that unmistakable Hickory, North Carolina accent: "Go! Go! Go!"
Another reason I like this match up as a good barometer for Texas is the opportunity to be tested by a player like Aaron White. What kind of player is he heading into his senior year? How has he evolved since his arrival on campus, and what are the challenges he’s going to present to Texas on Thursday night?
Ross, BHGP For the better part of three years, Iowa fans kept telling themselves, "If only Aaron White could develop a consistent jump shot…" Well, he’s a fourth-year senior now and I think we’ve finally come to embrace him for what he is, rather than hoping for him to be (or become) something that he’s not. And he’s not a jump shooter. He’ll hit the odd 18-footer, sure, and even a three-pointer or two here and there, but fundamentally he’s a garbage man: crash the boards, clean up missed shots, get lots of dunks, tip-ins, and easy buckets. His TS% last year was 66.0 and that’s because most of his shot attempts were near the rim.
Part of the disconnect with White seems to be come from his physical appearance: he’s a physical post player in the body of a stretch four. White’s definitely learned to make the most of his physical attributes, though: he’s more graceful than you’d expect from a player who looks like he’s all pipe-cleaner arms and legs, he has good body control, and he’s an expert at snaking into good position for a rebound, put-back, or finishing off an alley-oop. He also runs the break very well and he’s one of the key components of Iowa’s transition game.
White’s impact on a game isn’t always easy to see, though; he often seems to rack up a lot of stats without doing so in a really obvious fashion that draws a lot of attention to himself (well, other than his frequent dunks, which draw excited exclamations of "Dunk L’Orange!" from the BHGP faithful). He’s the kind of guy that will finish up with a stat line like 18 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, and 4 assists and you’ll wonder when he did all of that. This year, White’s been moved back to his preferred role at the four (a surplus of PF-types last year moved him out to a wingman role for much of last season, which led to some struggles) and he’s been heavily involved in the offense. One of the most intriguing developments this year has been his passing proficiency -- he’s averaging 5.5 assists per game and seems to be looking for the open man often. That assist rate probably isn’t sustainable (especially for a guy who averaged fewer than 2.0 assists per game prior to this season) and could easily be the result of a small sample size and two games against overmatched opponents, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
But speaking of post players, if we’re talking about the 2014 Texas Longhorns, I think I’m obligated to ask you about super-frosh Myles Turner. So: Myles Turner, huh? Whose game does his skillset most remind you of? What should Iowa fans be particularly wary of from Turner on Thursday night?
PB, BON You know, the Myles Turner comp question has been a pretty fun one for Longhorns fans to spend some time discussing, with Lamarcus Aldridge being the name that comes up most often. It’s easy to see Turner and Aldridge’s having peaks that look pretty similar in terms of both style and substance.
But as I touched on in my Alcorn State game notes, what has really endeared Myles Turner to me are the things that make him unique. We’re talking about a kid who announced his college decision in a bow tie and bucket hat, after all. A kid who at age 18, in November of his first season in college, is running the floor in transition to post up on the blocks. (Seriously.) A kid who hit so massive a growth spurt, so late, that he sometimes looks like an oversized guard rather than a 6-11 forward.
Myles Turner has some of the competitive fire of Kevin Garnett. Some of the versatility and range of Lamarcus Aldridge. Some of the charisma of Kevin Durant. But you know what I love about the kid more than any of that? He’s truly, admirably authentic.
Anyway. Iowa fans probably don’t give a sh*t about any of that and just want to know how much pain he might inflict. Short, on-point answer: like White for the Hawkeyes, Turner can produce a lot of value in ways you might not appreciate if you’re not paying attention. He’s capable of scoring 25 points, but is more likely to chip in 10-15. He’s gonna work on the boards, and he has uncanny instincts on the defensive end (amazing timing). He sometimes does things freshmen do, but he also does some things a lot of college players never learn to do. The only reason he isn’t going to be play 30+ minutes a game for us is the quality of his teammates in the frontcourt.
Alright, we’ve about run to the end of our time here, but before we wrap: we’ve touched on a couple of the names everyone is supposed to know; now tell us a name or two that we may not know but who might have a big impact on Thursday night’s game.
Ross, BHGP Good idea. Outside of White, Iowa’s most important player is probably Jarrod Uthoff, a lanky SF with a museum-quality jump shot. That name might ring a few bells; Uthoff was at the center of a firestorm about college transfer rules a few years ago. He’s originally from Iowa (Cedar Rapids, just up the road from Iowa City), but committed to Wisconsin out of high school; after a redshirt season there, he decided Bo-ball wasn’t for him and chose to go elsewhere. Bo Ryan responded by putting a series of increasingly absurd restrictions on Uthoff’s transfer (I believe at one point Uthoff was barred from transferring to any school Wisconsin might even consider playing), which got a great deal of national media attention -- and a great deal of criticism for Ryan. Anyway, when the dust settled, Uthoff ended up transferring back home to Iowa.
He was forced to sit out the 2012-13 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but made his debut last year, averaging 7.6 ppg and 4.6 rpg. It was a solid debut season, but it was clear that Uthoff could do so much more. One of the things that frustrated Iowa fans the most was that he didn’t shoot enough -- he averaged only around 5 shots per game and seemed gunshy at times. That was especially frustrating because he shot 50% from the floor, including 43% from deep and, as noted, has a museum-quality jump shot. It’s an absolutely pure and gorgeous motion (and virtually impossible to defend because he’s 6-9 with an enormous wingspan) and it was almost criminal that he didn’t display it more often. McCaffery agreed with Iowa fans on this point and has encouraged Uthoff to take more shots this season. Through two games, he’s taken a team-high 16 shot attempts (making 9 of them), so he’s off to a good start. Iowa will likely need a big game from Uthoff on Thursday night.
One other name to keep an eye on is Anthony Clemmons. Clemmons is nominally Iowa’s backup point guard, but he’s been starting the first few games of this season due to some injuries in Iowa’s backcourt -- and he’s been excellent. He’s averaging 11.5 ppg on 64% shooting, including an absurd 83% (5/6) from deep. Obviously he’ll cool off and those numbers will come down over the course of the season, but I’m certainly hoping his red-hot shooting hangs around for one more game. Iowa’s going to need someone to step up in the backcourt, and with first choice options like Mike Gesell (5.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, 40% FG) and Josh Oglesby (5.0 ppg, 23% FG, 25% 3FG) struggling in the early going, Clemmons seems like the best bet at the moment to give Iowa some punch on the perimeter.
What about Texas, though? We’re all going to be focused on Turner, but clearly this year’s Horns teams isn’t just Turner and the Turnerettes. It looks like Isaiah Taylor is off to a scorching start and I know Texas has some absolute hosses in the front court. Who’s going to be causing Iowa fits on Thursday night?
PB, BON We’re officially out of time, so I’ll keep this brief: Taylor is our best and most important player, and keeping him out of the lane is the key to beating us. Jonathan Holmes is our lone senior who broke out with a big year last season at small forward but is transitioning to the wing this year. We’re tough to beat when he plays 25 minutes and is scoring, but he can play himself out of games at times with foul trouble. And then there’s big Cam Ridley, a former five-star McD’s recruit who’s off to a bit of a slow start to the season, but was a big part of our surprise season a year ago.
Alright, let’s get this thing posted. Your prediction?
Ross, BHGP Texas is certainly going to present a huge challenge for Iowa and I’m very worried about Texas’ size inside neutralizing Iowa’s front court, which would put a lot of pressure on Iowa’s back court to produce, which could be… dicey. But it’s too early in the season -- and I like this Iowa team too much -- for me to give in to pessimism just yet, so I’m going to go with a narrow Iowa win, 85-81, thanks to big performances from Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff, a head-turning performance from Iowa center Adam Woodbury, and some slump-busting sharp-shooting from Josh Oglesby.
PB, BON I could see this going either way, and I’m interested to see how Texas plays against a team with comparable size. My feeling is that this one’s going to turn on whoever can make a few three pointers and limit turnovers. I think this Texas team is at its best playing at an up tempo pace, though, so I’m gonna call it for the good guys, 89-86.
PB, BON Thanks for the great chat, and enjoy the game tonight. Hook ‘em!
Ross, BHGP Ditto. Here’s to a great game.
You can check out the BON crew at Burnt Orange Nation. You can also follow PB on Twitter at @PBatBON and Burnt Orange Nation at @BON_SBNation. The Iowa-Texas game is part of the 2K Classic in Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY on Thursday, November 20, and is scheduled to start at 6:00 pm CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.