It almost seems that the only thing longer than Steve Alford's legendary shooting range at Indiana is the amount of time it has taken him to produce at Iowa.
Alford has failed to lift Iowa to national prominence, which he promised to do upon replacing Tom Davis as coach in March 1999.
"We're not where we want to be," Alford said. "We want to be fighting for championships and making NCAA runs. But [the players] have endured a lot and I think they're really motivated."
A program that made nine NCAA tournament appearances in 13 seasons under Davis has done it only once in five seasons under Alford. Therein lies the frustration for Iowa fans, who are constantly being told to wait until next season. This year, however, there is hope, considering that the top two scorers from last season -- swingman Pierre Pierce and point guard Jeff Horner -- are back, along with rugged forward Greg Brunner. Adam Haluska also is eligible after transferring from Iowa State.
Now the question is, will the roster stay intact throughout the season? Defections have been an ongoing problem under Alford, with as many as eight players having left under his watch. The most recent, and perhaps the strangest, came last February when senior center Sean Sonderleiter quit without explanation. Sonderleiter was expected to play significant minutes because starting center Jared Reiner already was out for the season with a foot injury.
The fact that Iowa, without its two top centers, still finished in fourth place in the Big Ten is cause for optimism. But fans are still cautious, and in some cases pessimistic, after having their expectations crushed so many times before.
FRONTCOURTThe frontcourt positions have been decimated by graduation and by the loss of forward Nick DeWitz, who transferred to Oregon State midway through last season. Besides losing Sonderleiter and Reiner, Glen Worley graduated after playing a significant role at both forward positions during the past four seasons.
Brunner is a tenacious rebounder who plays hard on both ends of the floor. He now has to improve his mid-range jumper to become a consistent scorer.
"I think Brunner has made incredible strides over the last two years and is ready to take his game to a whole other level and make an immediate impact," Alford said.
Erek Hansen, a 6-foot-11 center, excels at blocking shots, but little else. There is hope that 6-9 juco transfer Doug Thomas will make an immediate impact and bring the kind of athleticism that has been missing recently.
Of the newcomers, four are 6-7 or taller, including 7-foot freshman center Seth Gorney from Ohio.
"As he learns the pace you have to play and toughness level you have to play, I think he'll be something special," Alford said of Gorney. "But you've got to give that some time."
BACKCOURTHorner lacks Pierce's flair and athleticism, but there is little else in his game that is lacking. He is on the verge of becoming one of the top point guards in school history. Horner led the team in minutes played (37.4 per game), ranked second in scoring (13.0 ppg) and grabbed more than five rebounds per game. He corrected the only thing that was missing from his game as a freshman by shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range last season.
Pierce is dangerous on the baseline, where he uses his slashing ability to get to the basket. Haluska, a former state sprint champion in high school, has the size (6-5) to post up smaller defenders, but he also shoots well from the perimeter.
Sophomore Mike Henderson should provide depth at both guard positions. He did that last season until being ruled academically ineligible at mid-semester.
FINAL ANALYSISAlford has left himself with little margin for error. Under normal circumstances a fourth- or fifth-place finish in the Big Ten would be enough to satisfy the Hawkeye masses. However, that probably won't be enough to keep everybody happy this season. Alford has to do something special to keep the pressure from building.
Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby has been a huge Alford supporter, but even Bowlsby said it is time for the Hawkeyes to make a run in the NCAA tournament. This team has a chance to be good behind a strong junior class, but special might be asking too much.