The Iowa Hawkeyes come to town

On Thursday night, the Iowa Hawkeyes will become the first Big 10 team to ever play a game at McAlister Field House.  I’m sure people will be telling their grandchildren some day about the time big bad Todd Lickliter came to town with his band of marauding hoopsters, intent on destruction.  Then again, maybe not.

Let’s delve into some of the history (or lack thereof) between the two schools…

I first want to mention Whitey Piro.  Who is Whitey Piro?  Well, he was once the head basketball coach at The Citadel.  In 1947, Piro’s Bulldogs were 5-11.  That doesn’t seem like much of a record, but keep in mind the four coaches who followed Piro all had worse overall records.  Never has a .313 winning percentage looked so good.  Piro, who was born in Germany, went to high school in New York and graduated from Syracuse in 1941.  At Syracuse he was a star wide receiver and also played one year on the basketball team as a reserve.  He did not score a point that season, which arguably made him an ideal candidate to later coach hoops at The Citadel.

Piro played one year in the NFL, for the Philadelphia Eagles, before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II.  He would eventually have a long career as an assistant coach at Iowa (and was later a pro scout).  His son is Iowa’s executive director of development for intercollegiate athletics.

Piro is still alive and resides in Iowa City.  He is 90 years old.

After that, connections between the two schools dry up a bit.  Ed Conroy, of course, is a native of Davenport, Iowa, as is his assistant Andy Fox.  Assistant Doug Novak was once the head coach at a JC in Council Bluffs.

This will only be the fifth time The Citadel has ever played a Big 10 school in basketball.  Two years ago the Bulldogs played both Iowa and Michigan State (which will be the case this season as well).  In 1974 The Citadel played Indiana in Bloomington, and in 1970 the Bulldogs faced Northwestern in a Christmas tournament in Greenville.  The Citadel lost all of those games.

The last time The Citadel defeated a school currently in a BCS conference was 1989, when the Bulldogs upset South Carolina 88-87 in Columbia.  (At the time, the Gamecocks were members of the Metro Conference.)  Since then The Citadel’s record against current BCS schools is 0-45.  Prior to that 1989 game the Bulldogs had last defeated a major conference opponent in 1979, when they beat Clemson 58-56 in Charleston.  Thus, The Citadel has lost 70 of its last 71 games against schools currently in BCS conferences.

The Big 10 is not the only major conference The Citadel is 0-for-history against; the same is true of the Pac-10.  However, there have been very few games between The Citadel and teams from those two leagues.  That is also the case with the schools making up the Big XII.  The Bulldogs do have a win against a current Big XII school, though, having defeated Texas A&M (then of the Southwest Conference) 62-61 in 1971.

Okay, enough of that.  Let’s talk about this game.  First, a little background on Iowa’s recent hoops history.  It’s not what Iowa fans would like it to be.

Iowa had made three NCAA tournament appearances before 1979.  In 1955, Iowa reached the Final Four (in a 16-team tournament) before losing to Tom Gola and La Salle.  In 1956, the Hawkeyes made it to the title game (playing the regionals in Iowa City; the national semis were in Evanston, Illinois) before running into Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and San Francisco.  The coach for those two teams was Bucky O’Connor.  Ralph Miller was the coach of the 1970 Iowa team that won the Big 10, the next time the Hawkeyes made an NCAA tournament appearance.

Iowa hoops in the “modern” era (when the tourney began to take on bigger-than-life dimensions) started with Lute Olson and a series of appearances beginning in 1979.  After stubbing its toe a bit that year (Iowa lost in the first round to Toledo in a game, interestingly enough, played in Bloomington), the Hawkeyes made their third (and to date, last) appearance in the Final Four in 1980.  As a five seed, Iowa had to play a first-round game against Virginia Commonwealth (the tourney had 48 teams back then) and then faced fourth-seeded N.C. State, which had received a bye, in Greensboro.  The Hawkeyes won that game, and then crushed the nascent Big East conference by winning back-to-back games in Philadelphia against top-seeded Syracuse and third-seeded Georgetown.  In the national semifinals, Iowa lost to eventual national champion Louisville, and then also lost to fellow Big 10’er Purdue in the consolation game (the next-to-last time the consolation game was played).

After that season, you better believe expectations were raised in Iowa City.  Olson continued to put teams into the field, but without the success he had in 1980.  Iowa lost in the first round in 1981 and the second round in 1982.  In 1983, as a seven seed, Olson’s charges rolled Norm Stewart and Missouri in round two before getting upended by Rollie Massimino and Villanova 55-54 in the Sweet 16.

Olson moved on, and was replaced by George Raveling, who was still one coaching move away from his inevitable job at Nike.  Raveling went to the tournament twice but was one-and-done both times.  His successor, Tom Davis, brought Iowa to the brink of another Final Four in 1987, but the Hawkeyes blew an 18-point lead to UNLV in the West regional final.  The next year, Davis guided Iowa to the Sweet 16, but the Hawkeyes were thumped by old coach Olson and his new team, Arizona.  That established a pattern for Davis, whose teams always won their first round matchup, but seldom their second.  Davis took Iowa to eight NCAA tournaments in twelve seasons.

He was succeeded by Steve Alford, who was the hot name in coaching (besides being an Indiana high school and IU legend).  Alford, though, had a bit of a disappointing run in Iowa City, only making the NCAAs three times in eight seasons.  He also only had three winning seasons in conference play over his tenure as coach.  Alford won one NCAA tournament game as head coach at Iowa, which is one fewer than he had while coaching (Southwest) Missouri State.  Alford jumped at the New Mexico job two years ago in a classic “jump or be pushed” situation.

Now the coach at Iowa is Todd Lickliter, in his second year with the Hawkeyes after a great run at Butler that included two Sweet 16 appearances in six seasons.  He’s a good coach, but he has work to do.  Iowa was 13-19 in his first season (6-12 Big 10).  Iowa lost its share of close games (seven by six points or less), but also played a lot of fairly close games, which can happen when you average just over 60 possessions per game.  Iowa scored 56 points per game, low by even Big 10 standards.  The Hawkeyes scored under 50 points seven times, including once in a game Iowa actually won (a 43-36 victory over Michigan State that drew guffaws from around the country).  Iowa was not a good rebounding team and struggled to force turnovers, while committing a bunch themselves (bottom 15 nationally in turnover rate on offense).  The Hawkeyes had mediocre offensive shooting stats across the board and were not good from the foul line (64.9%).

This season Iowa is 2-0 with home wins over Charleston Southern (by 20 points) and UT-San Antonio (by 6).  One player almost certain to give The Citadel problems is Cyrus Tate, a 6’8″, 255 lb. senior who in two games is averaging 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.  He has also blocked five shots in two games.  He’s the type of post player The Citadel could not compete successfully against last season, and so far this season.  Tate is one of seven Hawkeyes who have played significant minutes so far this year.  Another guy to watch is 6’5″ freshman guard Matt Gatens, who was the high school player of the year in Iowa last season.

Iowa is continuing the deliberate pace it employed last season, averaging 61 possessions in the two games it has played to date.

One more thing — according to Iowa’s game notes, the game against The Citadel will probably be the only Iowa game this season that will not be televised.  All but one of the rest of the Hawkeyes’ games are guaranteed to be on TV.  (Conversely, The Citadel will only be on television three times this season.)

Iowa is picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 10, along with Northwestern and Indiana.  Due to Iowa’s rebuilding, youth (five of its top seven rotation players are freshmen or sophomores), and style of play, if you were going to pick a Big 10 team that could be beaten in McAlister, this might be the one.  However, I don’t see it happening, at least not tomorrow night.

The best chance The Citadel has is to make more than its fair share of three-pointers while somehow holding its own in the paint.  If Demetrius Nelson and company could neutralize Tate and his friends, and The Citadel could shoot well (while not repeating the somewhat out of character 21-turnover performance against VCU), maybe the Bulldogs have a shot.  The Citadel has yet to prove it can successfully defend inside (or outside, really) against a team at the Division I level, though.

Still, there is a reason they play the games…

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