My column from Tuesday night’s UNI-Iowa game:
IOWA CITY — Last season, that wasn’t basketball at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
That was a skimpy serving of leftovers courtesy of the previous coaching regime, short-handed mush.
This season, Todd Lickliter has something strongly resembling a ballclub. This wasn’t at all a rout, but Iowa’s 65-46 victory over Northern Iowa here last night was decisive all the same. It was predicated on defense and smarts. But it sure helps to have more talent than a winter ago.
“They’re different in the sense they’ve got more guys who can handle it and more guys who understand and can pass it,” said UNI Coach Ben Jacobson. “And they’ve got other guys who make 3-point shots.
“I think their unselfishness is really key to all that. It’s one thing to have a group of guys who can handle it and know how to play, but when all of them are unselfish, then you’ve got something you can really build on.
“It appears to me they’ve got it.”
The Hawkeyes’ three starting guards — Matt Gatens, Jake Kelly and Jeff Peterson — teamed for 51 points, 11 assists, and just two of their team’s measly five turnovers.
That’s good stuff from a freshman and two sophomores, and it’s not like the opposition was a slouch.
A telling moment came when freshman Gatens, who made 4 of 5 threes to up his season total to 20 of 33, was open behind the arc with his team holding a double-digit lead. Some in the announced crowd of 9,435 (yeah, right) groaned when Gatens spurned the shot. But more applauded when they realized he used his brain.
“He makes 4 of 5 threes,” Lickliter said, “he makes a big one (with 7:11 left), he’s got another wide open. It’s late in the game, early in the shot clock, and he passes it up.”
It was a good play, one of many the 8-2 Hawkeyes made after halftime when they outscored the Panthers 42-24.
Iowa played without its leading scorer, freshman Anthony Tucker, suspended for a drinking misadventure. If you hadn’t known a cog was missing, you would never have sensed it.
“I don’t think they concern themselves with areas that they can’t control,” Lickliter said. “They play the game with purpose, and it leads to this kind of thing.”
None of this is mysterious. The Hawkeyes are green, but not the deep shade they were a year ago in Year One of the Lickliter era. There are more bodies in uniforms, more talent in those bodies.
“I do think we’ve got a little more skill this year as far as shooters and ball handling,” Kelly said. “Last year we had some players, too, but this year it’s clicking more, I think we’ve got a better understanding of Lickliter’s system.”
Basketball never changes. You need a point guard who knows how to direct a club, or you go nowhere.
A season ago, Peterson was a freshman who looked lost playing for a coach who inherited him late in the 2007 recruiting process. He had more turnovers than assists playing in a system alien to him. The rumor mill had him fleeing town. But this Hawkeye guard didn’t run away.
“I don’t want to make excuses,” Peterson said. “If I could do it again, I wish we wouldn’t have had the season like last year. But at the same time, I’m thankful because it was a huge learning lesson for me and my whole team.”
Peterson spent his off-season working with weights and working on his game.
“What you do in that time is you invest,” Lickliter said. “Jeff invested.
“It takes a little while. And you’re asking someone to run a team. The other positions are difficult. But to run a team, you really need to know what the system is, what the coach wants, and become very familiar.”
“I’m real comfortable,” Peterson said. “I love playing with the guys around me.”
“Great guy, great point guard,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get things done for us.”
Though the number of witnesses remains small, things have gotten better here. There are miles to go, but the 13-19 team of last season seems to be long gone.