Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Season Obituaries: Iowa

The Hawkeyes were expected to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this season, and they were. The least interesting articles are the ones that explain the process by which something we expect to happen actually happens. In some areas, this is a tremendous shame. For example, researchers sometimes spend years researching something only to find out that they cannot disprove the null hypothesis, or that their results are not statistically significant. That might be valuable information, but journals prefer articles (presumably because readers prefer reading articles) where something is discovered, rather than the absence of something. It also discourages work that tests long-held truths; the majority of these articles might simply verify the truths (and thus will be uninteresting), but a few would result in those accepted truths being questioned. Of course, some of those articles will themselves be wrong, but that's not the point; how many false things do we now believe are true go unquestioned for lack of professional incentive?

OK, I'm stalling, but my point isn't that this Iowa team was uninteresting because it played to expectations. On the contrary, this Iowa team was the most interesting Hawkeye squad in the past few years. One reason for this is that they are no longer playing at a sub-Wisconsin pace. Whatever your stance on slow basketball games, they are only fun to watch when teams are good and every possession takes on more importance. Good fast games are fun. Bad fast games are fun just because they are so skattered. Good slow games are fun because every turn down the court matters more. Bad, slow games are painful, and Iowa under Lickliter was painful, not just bad.

That's not just an aesthetic judgment. Top prospects might go to play for a slow coach (the stories of Bo Ryan's lack of recruiting ability are vastly oversold), and they might go play for a bad team, but they won't play for a slow, bad team. Turning around the air-out-of-the-ball culture at Carver-Hawkeye was goal number one for Fran McCaffery, and he was unquestionably successful; Iowa wasn't exactly VMI, but they weren't just "bad Wisconsin" either.

That change will pay off down the road, and there are already some signs that Iowa's recruiting for future years is beginning to improve. But there were benefits in 2011 also. For one thing, fans started showing up to games, and there were no repeats of the 2010 embarassment when Illinois fans took over Carver-Hawkeye for an evening. McCaffery also managed something in his first season that still hasn't happened under three rebuilding seasons in Bloomington--a major win over a ranked conference opponent (I know Indiana beat Illinois last season; I'm not counting Illinois as a top-25 team, even if they happened to be ranked #25 at the time). A win over Purdue is worth fifty promises of future progress; it is a definite, unquestionable mark of progress at a program that has seemingly been in decline since their tournament loss to a 14 seed. That the win came on senior day for a group that has enjoyed preciously little success makes the win a bit nicer still.

That win wasn't the end of the rebuilding project; Iowa is still expected to be in the bottom half, and probably the bottom quarter, of the Big Ten next season. It probably wasn't even the beginning of the end. But it may have been the end of the beginning, and for as little as that sounds like it is worth, there are programs around the country--and programs in the conference--that have been searching in vain for the end of the beginning for years now. Small accomplishments are still accomplishments, and no accomplishment should be taken for granted.