IOWA CITY - Misperception or reality?
That is the question facing the 2009-10 edition of the University of Iowa men's basketball team. Head coach Todd Lickliter goes into the season eyes wide open - coming off a 15-17 season last winter and a rash of transfers leaving the program - that the Hawkeyes will likely be picked for the cellar in the Big Ten Conference.
"If the predictors were always correct, as good as they are, we probably really wouldn't enjoy competition. Let's face it, it's that excitement to think that what is predicted may not come true or may," Lickliter said Monday during the team's media day. "If you're the person that's chosen to win or the team that's chosen to win, you've got to make that happen. If not, you have this incentive to go out and change what the perception is.
T-R PHOTO BY MARK PAWLAK
University of Iowa men’s basketball head coach Todd Lickliter answers questions at a press conference during Monday’s media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Lickliter is at the onset of his third season with the Hawkeyes, coming off the program’s first back-to-back losing seasons since 1973-75.
"I think that we'll be predicted by the experts at the bottom of the Big Ten this year. We look at that as just a great challenge because we've got great confidence in our team and in ourselves. You know some of my favorite stories are ones where the non-favorites are the ones that came out on top. The movie Seabiscuit comes to mind. What a talented, talented horse, but just he wasn't chose to win like he did and that made it special."
To make this year's Hawkeyes the Seabiscuit of the rough and tumble Big Ten, Lickliter returns four starters (Matt Gatens, Devan Bawinkel, Jarryd Cole and Aaron Fuller). On the flip side of the coin, four key contributors transfered out of the program (Jake Kelly, Jeff Peterson, Jermain Davis and David Palmer).
Last winter ended with the first back-to-back losing seasons in Iowa City since 1973-74 and 1974-75, but Iowa had 10 losses by eight points or less, including six by four points or fewer.
Gatens, a sophomore guard, started all 32 games last year and is the team's top returning scorer at 10.8 points per game. The versatile Iowa City native was named to the all-Big Ten Freshman team as well as earning Freshman All-America honors by collegehoops.net. He shot 90 percent from the foul line to set an Iowa single-season record.
"Anytime you lose more games than you win, it's motivation to get better," Gatens said. "I feel like we've done that this offseason."
"All the people in this locker room, we believe in what we can do," he added.
Cole is the team's top returning post player after averaging 3.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 68 percent from the field. The junior was coming off an ACL injury suffered as a freshman and did not get back to full strength until late last season.
"Jarryd is a guy that in my book might be strong enough, but he's not satisfied," Lickliter said. "He's got incredible strength and he just keeps expanding his game and working on his skills. The nice thing is that sets a terrific example for the underclassmen. We expect him to really have a great year."
The return of sophomore guard Anthony Tucker, lost for the second semester last year because of grades, also will help the Hawkeyes' chances. Tucker led the team in scoring in five games and the 3-point shooting specialist averaged 10.4 points per game.
Freshmen guards Cully Payne and Eric May along with forward Brennan Cougill (Iowa's Mr. Basketball) are the team's top incoming recruits.
Lickliter believes his team has the horses in place to compete this season.
"I think we've got the talent and we've got the philosophy," Lickliter said. "We've gained strength without question."
"Right now I like my team. I like our chances," Lickliter added. "It's a great opportunity for us."
Iowa has 13 of its first 18 games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, included in those five out of Iowa City are two neutral court games. The Hawkeyes start practice Friday for the Nov. 15 season opener against Texas-San Antonio at home.
"Everyone says 'You're going to be last in the Big Ten. You're not going to win many games,' and that's just another challenge to us," Payne said. "We're going to surprise people this year and I think it's going to be a fun time."