clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Picture Them Rollin': The Now No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes

Picture Fran rolling in his 500 Benz, moving on up in the AP Top Ten.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Want to participate in a fun exercise? Take a look at where the Iowa basketball program was under Todd Lickliter just a couple of years ago. His record was abysmal, standing at 38-58 overall during his three year tenure (15-39 in the Big Ten!) while never finishing better than 91st in KenPom's team rankings -- coming in at 141st, 91st, 178th.

And don't even get me started on their offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency during that time.

Of course, like most terrible regimes, it was effected by the talent that resided in Iowa City just as much as Lickliter's scheme/personality/recruiting style. The rosters were always in a constant flux. There was a mass exodus with the transfers of Tony Freeman, Jake Kelly, Aaron Fuller, Jeff Peterson, Jermain Davis and David Palmer. Then there was a list of players that just left the program for one reason or another; among them Anthony Tucker and Iowa's former Mr. Basketball, Brennan Cougill.

It was so bad in Iowa City that Lickliter's son was getting actual Big Ten minutes. That's right, for those that don't remember, his walk-on, "5-11" son was sharing the court with the likes of Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore and weirdly became this sad fan favorite:

Things were ugly out there. The product was poor. And the support was worse.

Interest amongst students was at an all-time low. I still remember -- quite vividly-- standing outside the Old Capital passing out free tickets for prime Big Ten match-ups and students handing them right back to me; scoffing at the thought of traveling to Carver in the cold to watch live, Division-I basketball.

Poor college students passing up anything "free" doesn't happen often. But I couldn't blame them. Even as a member of the Hawks Nest Leadership Board (and a founding member for that matter), I even skipped out on some of those games just because I had better things to do... like play Madden in my dorm room.

I can't emphasize enough how awful this period of Iowa men's basketball was.

There was a point when we had to entice students with free pizza to get them in the arena before tip-off and burrito coupons for those that stayed to the end. Even then we would only get a couple of rows filled up and that was considered good.

Do you know how hard it is to build a new culture of better fans when you only have 25 people and half of them are just wanting a free dinner out of it?

That's what makes what Fran McCaffery has done -- particularly this season -- so damn exciting. He resurrected a dying program by pulling the ultimate Field of Dreams.

"If you build it, they will come."

As clearly as I remember the bad stuff -- including the total inaccessibility with Lickliter and his staff -- I remember meeting McCaffery before his first ever press conference; giving each one of us the opportunity to ask him a question about the future of the program we cared so much about. I remember the handful of times that he asked for members of our leadership board to come into his office and bounce ideas off him on how to get the students back and on his side. On how he would like to create one of the best home court experiences, not only in the Big Ten, but the country.

Listening to him speak about his up-tempo, balls to the walls offense was just as intriguing as his thoughts on adding "Fat Heads" to the student section and chanting along to Kanye West's Power.

Aaaahhhh, HEY-AYYYY, Aaaaaahhhh.

He just "got it". He knew that he needed to amp up the product. He knew he needed that home cooking. He knew that he had to get "Carver rocking again".

And he's done it. He's taken this team from those terrible depths of despair to the top of the AP mountain.

That's right, Iowa is in the AP Top-5 for the first time since 1988-89, back when the late Roy Marble was scoring at will. They are primed for their first regular season Big Ten title for the first time since 1979. They are 7-0 in conference play for the first time since 1969-70. Iowa now has five wins over AP Top 25 opponents, which is the most in Division I; including sweeps over Michigan State and Purdue.

If it's not the best, it's one of the most well rounded resumes in college basketball.

And all of that says nothing of the roster he has perfectly engineered to fit his style of play; featuring a spectacular nine man rotation that continues to give opponents fits in very unique ways.

Just ask Matt Painter:

"A lot of teams have good teams that don't want to get to their bench, but these guys don't have much of a drop off," said Purdue head coach Matt Painter. "Against teams like us they tend to improve. We have a tough time with Uhl and a tough time with Baer, he's solid."

I don't know where the Hawkeyes will go once tournament play begins. But I do believe that with the remaining schedule --  featuring the likes of Penn State (twice), Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois  -- Iowa shouldn't finish the season with anything worse than a 14-4 conference record and a regular season Big Ten title in tow.

And if you would've approached me the minute the 2010 season ended and said "Picture this" before telling me that the Iowa Hawkeyes would be in contention for anything beyond a low NCAA Tournament seed in 2016, I would've guessed somebody dropped you on your head during the Pancheros burrito lift.

But here we are, and what a beautiful, real life picture it is.

Play. The. Polka.