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Almost Glory: the 1987 Iowa Hawkeyes

A #1 ranking, an electric offense, and a coach called “Doctor”. The 1986-87 Iowa Hawkeyes.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Iowa vs Temple Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks in to Almost Glory, I’ve researched enough past heartbreak to last a lifetime. That’s bound to happen with a series like this. Even still, I couldn’t bring myself to profile the ’06 Iowa team, an ascending #3 seed gut punched by Northwestern State. Hawkeye fans, rest easy. We’re not going there.

Besides, the ’87 team was fire.

Head Coach: Tom Davis

Record: 30-5 (14-4 in the Big Ten)

Highest National Ranking: #1

Key Players/Stats:

  • G Roy Marble, Sophomore, 14.9 PPG, 5.1 REB
  • G BJ Armstrong, Sophomore, 12.4 PPG, 4.2 AST, 1.42 STL
  • G/SF Kevin Gamble, Senior, 11.9 PPG, 4.5 REB

Late 80s Big Ten basketball was lit. 1987-1989 saw a Steve Alford-led Indiana title, Michigan’s improbable ’89 run, the “Flying Illini” of Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill, and Purdue grabbing two straight conference titles.

And then there were the Iowa Hawkeyes. New coach, Tom Davis, came in and immediately shook things up. ’86 found Kevin Gamble and B.J. Armstrong buried at the end of the bench. It’s nuts that two of Iowa’s finest NBA players once only spent 15 minutes combined on the court. Then again, George Raveling, Davis’ predecessor, was not a great head coach.

“Dr. Tom”, nicknamed thanks to a doctorate earned as an assistant at Maryland, knew what was what. Gamble moved from Power Forward to Guard, while B.J. swung the ball around a fast-paced offense. Anchoring the team was sophomore Roy Marble, a swingman who received favorable comparisons to Michael Jordan (before it was both cool and passé to make a comp to His Airness).

The nasty full-court press required ten members playing 10 minutes a game or more throughout the season. In a twenty five-year retrospective published in The Daily Iowan in 2012, Marble recalled:

"Our practices were tougher than games. . . .[They] were cut short once the season started because of the chance of being injured. We went at each other a lot harder than we had to in the games."

They opened the year 18-0, finishing that unprecedented run with victories over #8 Illinois on the road (in a game they were down by 22 points), at #6 Purdue, and home against #3 and eventual National Champion Indiana. They whooped the Hoosiers 101-88, the first time a Bobby Knight coached team had given up 100 points in Big Ten play.

In the tournament, as a #2 seed out West, when teams played all their games in the actual region, they weathered a second round scare from UTEP, before a back and forth tussle with the Oklahoma Sooners, that ended with a Kevin Gamble three in the closing seconds. He was somehow miraculously unguarded.

And then came the regional final with UNLV. A few years before Jerry Tarkanian assembled one of the greatest college basketball teams ever, he had the Rebels running with hot shooting and inside-out play anchored by Armen Gilliam. They shot 400 more three’s than their opponents that year.

The first half was all Iowa, as they used their superior size and equal speed to score at will. They led by 16 at the break, and were dominating by 17 points with a shade over 16 minutes left to play. The lead was fools’ good, though, as Iowa played careless with the basketball the whole game and ceased attacking the glass in the second half. It was a matter of time before UNLV started hitting outside shots.

Once they did, a scene familiar to college fans played out: blistering UNLV shooting that led to skittish Iowa offense, while the Kingdome’s partisan crowd roared to its feet. The young Hawkeyes got rattled. Six minutes later, a 21-2 run had eviscerated Iowa’s advantage. UNLV even banged on the offensive glass. The 12.6 rebound margin Iowa enjoyed all season evaporated along with their title hopes.

And yet, they almost pulled it off. Iowa cut the game to 1 on a Gamble three, then forced a 10-second violation in the back court with a beautifully executed trap defense. An ill-conceived set play ended when a terrible lob pass from Gamble caromed off the side of back board and out of bounds with 14 seconds to play. They even had a shot to tie with time expiring but Gamble’s three never stood a chance.

Tom Davis is Iowa’s winningest all-time coach but he never made it past the Sweet Sixteen again. B.J. Armstrong won 3 NBA titles with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Kevin Gamble gave solid contributions to the twilight years of Bird’s Celtics.

Roy Marble helped contribute to a book about the season, Two Decades and Counting: The Wins, The Streak, The Hawkeyes Thru the Eyes of Roy Marble. His son Devyn completed four highly successful seasons at Iowa in 2014. Roy Marble passed away last September, a victim of cancer, at the age of 48. He left college at the all-time winningest scorer in school history.