Patience in Iowa

Coach: Success has come easily to Steve Alford, and the Hawkeyes' early-season upset of Connecticut seemed to fit the pattern, but reality has set in.

November 30, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Earlier this month, Steve Alford's team used an upset of preseason No. 1 Connecticut to race into the consciousness of the college basketball-watching public.

Now, three weeks into his first season at the helm of Iowa's men's basketball team, the 34-year-old coach must wait for such a performance to become the norm.

At this point, it appears to be a fluke. Even Alford expects the program's rise to be a lengthy process, and its next step will come tonight as the Hawkeyes (2-2) face No. 24 Maryland.

"This is a very difficult game for us this early in the season and this early in our program," he said.

The former Indiana All-American was brought in from Southwest Missouri State to elevate a program that was solid under Tom Davis, with a Sweet 16 appearance last season, but also stagnant in some areas; it let such prep standouts as Raef LaFrentz and Nick Collison leave Iowa.

Swift returns came as Alford locked up the best players in Iowa on signing day. Fans packed Carver-Hawkeye Arena for an October scrimmage, and tickets to regular-season games vanished.

Then Stevie's Wonders beat UConn, 70-68 -- in quasi-Husky territory at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps Iowa might achieve Top 10 status sooner than later.

But the Hawkeyes were brought back to earth the next night. The opponent, Stanford, was deeper and -- more importantly -- bigger than Iowa, which had every weakness exposed in a loss.

Next was a sluggish effort against Eastern Illinois.

"We're not a Top 25 team," the coach said last week when his team was ranked No. 23. A loss to Creighton last Saturday took care of that.

"[The Connecticut win] is all nice and it's good for your team, but we know we're not there by any means. I'm not going to take away from anything we've done -- they've done a great job. But being realistic, we've told [the players] that's it's fool's gold."

A major challenge is the schedule. Tonight will mark the fourth road trip in five games for the Hawkeyes, who will play only 13 of their 27 regular-season games at home.

Alford didn't realize that playing the Terps as part of the Atlantic Coast Conference-Big Ten Challenge would include travel.

"I went into the ACC-Big Ten Challenge with the idea that we'd have a home game. For whatever reason, we didn't get one," he said. "Rest assured, in the rest of my tenure at Iowa, we will never play more road games than at home."

Improved recruiting is also part of Alford's plan to take Iowa into the Top 10, and to keep it there by staying at the school for longer than the seven years he has coached so far.

Already, top 50 prospects Glen Worley and Jared Reiner are headed to Iowa, two of five signees in a class tentatively rated one of the 10 best nationally.

"To do that, you have to have a coaching staff that wants to be here for the long term," he said.

If the Hawkeyes can move from a middle-of-the road Big Ten program to a national powerhouse, it would be the third such transformation that Alford has performed since ending a four-year NBA career in 1991.

The first occurred at Division III Manchester College in Indiana, where he turned a four-win team into a 31-victory national-tournament finalist during a three-year period.

Then, he moved to Southwest Missouri State in 1995, taking a program dulled with the departure of Charlie Spoonhour and dropping it into the spotlight that comes with a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament.

As a well-known family man who gave back to the community, and won, he could have stayed in Springfield forever.

"We would have had no qualms about that," Southwest Missouri State athletic director Bill Rowe said. "We're certainly pleased with the coach we have now, but we would have welcomed [Alford] to stay here."

But as Alford became known as one of the nation's top young coaches, Rowe knew it was only time before his prized hire would become his former coach.

The bigger stage (and paycheck) of the Big Ten Conference loomed, and Iowa City offered the cozy, family-friendly atmosphere Alford craved. So he made what he saw as a natural, though painful, progression, inheriting a team coming off a Sweet 16 of its own.

"This is what I've worked toward," Alford said -- "to get into a league that believes in working toward championships and doing it the right way."

Alford made his name in the same league in which he's now coaching, playing for Indiana and Bob Knight, leading his team to a national championship in 1987.

Though many see him as the next coach in Bloomington, Alford is taking it one mission at a time.

"That's Indiana's deal; that's a program we have to beat every year," he said. "This is not a situation where I want to be anywhere else. We can build this right here."

As a matter of fact, the tough defense his team plays is one of the few traits Alford borrows from Knight, who reportedly gave his former player a chilly reception at a preseason conference media event.

While Knight has a reputation for using, um, harsh methods to motivate his players, Alford is known as a coach whose language rarely if ever departs from the innocence that matches his boyish face.

"His positive attitude makes us want to come to practice," said Dean Oliver, a junior point guard who is the only returning starter.

Enthusiasm may be there. But so are the question marks.

For one, a team used to widely distributing playing time now finds itself in the opposite situation. The overload may worsen if Kyle Galloway is out tonight with an eye injury suffered against Creighton.

While Oliver is averaging 18 points and Jacob Jaacks 17 points and seven rebounds, that may not be enough on a night-to-night basis.

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