Post-Mortem on Iowa’s Basketball Season

DeShawn Sims of Michigan, Jarryd Cole of Iowa (AP photo)

DeShawn Sims of Michigan, Jarryd Cole of Iowa (AP photo)

INDIANAPOLIS — All five first-team All-Big Ten men’s basketball players this year are sophomores.

Only four of the 28 league players who averaged 10 or more points this season are seniors.

Just one of the league’s top 10 players in assists per game is a senior.

Michigan State, which was 15-3 in winning the conference, presumably returns its top two scorers next season.

None of the players Michigan started in its 73-45 mauling of Iowa Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament was a senior. Three were freshmen.

So, how do the Hawkeyes climb out of their 10th-place crevice? How do they rise above where they’ve been in the first two years of the Todd Lickliter era, which is 11-25 in the Big Ten, let alone make their way to the NCAA tournament?

The immediate answer given by the outside world: Bring in better players. But if bulky 6-foot-8 Brennan Cougill of Sioux City, 6-4 Eric May of Dubuque, and perhaps a recruit to be named later don’t provide instant improvement, whither the Hawkeyes of 2009-10?

This was a better team than last season, for sure, but that isn’t saying a great deal. With proven good underclassmen spread liberally across the conference, how do Iowa’s fortunes significantly rise anytime soon?

The one-sided nature of Thursday’s debacle leaves a bad taste and alters perspective. But when the No.7 seed in a league tourney overwhelms you that easily, the season ends with soul-searching and shoring up to consider.

“We’ve made progress,” Lickliter said after his team played like it was ready to proceed directly to spring break. “And you’re never satisfied until you’ve reached your goals. And there’s a lot of contributing factors to getting a program to a championship level. And we’re working diligently within the program to make those things happen.

“I told the guys today, afterward, that they had fought hard almost all year. And that’s a big step.

“I think they’ve laid a foundation, and if you’re not winning, then you sure better be getting ready to win. So much of that is approach. So much of that is competitive spirit, as wanting to be coached. Personnel. Things of that nature.”

The personnel part of the equation is the elephant in the room. First, Iowa really needs to keep the key parts with eligibility remaining. There can be no Tony Freeman-type departure this year. We heard him say it this week, but it wouldn’t hurt to have Jake Kelly repeat he’s staying put every week for the next six months.

Then, someone’s got to come in and help Jarryd Cole right away in the low post. But who? Iowa’s coaches clearly have no faith in senior-to-be David Palmer, who went from never playing to scoring 40 points in a two-game midseason stretch, to not even getting on the court Thursday in a 28-point loss.

Cougill? That’s asking a lot of a freshman. A late junior college signee? Maybe Lickliter can hold open tryouts this autumn for big men on campus.

If 6-8 junior DeShawn Sims can trash the Hawkeyes the way he did in easily totaling 27 points Thursday, what’s to stop the Wolverine from a similar encore or two next season?

Iowa is one of just two Big Ten teams that won’t be in postseason play next week. It’s one of two teams that not only didn’t win three conference road games, it won none. That isn’t a small step to clear, it’s a genuine hurdle.

“These guys,” Lickliter said, “have established a real good approach, a competitive approach. Are we where we need to be? No. We need to improve on that. But we’ve got an off-season to work on it and a recruit or two coming in, and some growth.”

That doesn’t give one goose bumps, does it? Don’t expect a stampede on ’09-10 season-tickets when Iowa’s box office opens this morning.

Patience remains a virtue the Hawkeyes’ athletics department hopes its fans continue to cultivate. But if you hear a buzz this summer in Iowa, it will either be for Iowa football, or from locusts.

All Lickliter can do is tell the truth as he sees it, and hope his program’s fans can see what he’s seeing. Hawkeye fans, meanwhile, hope his beliefs are based in reality.

“If you look at the guys who returned,” Lickliter said, “Jake Kelly, Jarryd Cole when he was healthy, Jeff Peterson, Cyrus Tate — those guys that returned that were contributing, you know, to me they were better within our system. They were better players.

“And so we think that it will continue to evolve that way, and not because we want it to or hope it does, but because they make it happen.

“So all we can do is control the things that we can control: the way we approach the game, the way we teach it, the personnel we recruit.”

Ah yes, again with the personnel.

Again, all five all-league players are sophomores. Have a nice off-season, Hawkeye fans.

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