Hoop dreams burn bright

BY SCOTT MILLER | MAY 14, 2009 7:29 AM

When Jarryd Cole talks about the future of the Iowa basketball program, he sounds a bit like a motivational speaker.

The sophomore Hawkeye forward seems not only like a man obsessed with getting the team — his team — out of the Big Ten basement, but also like a person so convinced of the program’s coming transformation that he needs to get everyone around him to believe.

He needs everyone to believe that losing four players to transfers in the off-season doesn’t matter. He needs everyone to believe that having only seven players currently on the roster is a positive, not a negative. He needs everyone to believe that two years of toiling in mediocrity will all be worth it when the team breaks through.

“Good things happen to those who wait, I do believe,” Cole said. “Our time’s coming, and it’s almost overdue, but it’s going to be here.

“I’m confident. I’m confident in my players. I’m confident in the coaches. Now we have people who want to believe, people who want to prove something, people who actually want to be in this system, who want to do what’s right. I think we’ll go a long way with that.”

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The current state of the program

Don’t let Cole’s confidence fool you: This off-season has been anything but ordinary for the Hawkeyes, who finished the year 15-17, 10th in the Big Ten. Two weeks after the Hawkeyes’ season-ending loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa lost its leading scorer (Jake Kelly; transfer), rebounder (Cyrus Tate; graduation), and assist and steal man (Jeff Peterson; transfer).

But perhaps most importantly, with the transfers of Kelly, Peterson, and reserves Jermain Davis and David Palmer, the team lost key depth on its bench. As a result, without enough people to play a typical five-on-five pickup game, the players have settled for playing three-on-three contests in the off-season.

“Yeah, it does seem a little weird [to be without the four who transferred],” said junior Devan Bawinkel, who is the team’s cocaptain with Cole. “It just seems weird to have only seven guys. At the same time, we’re happy with who we’ve got, and we’re going to build with what we’ve got.”

On May 22, head coach Todd Lickliter and his team will take “what they’ve got” across the Atlantic for a 10-day trip to Europe.

Despite the relatively few players who will make the journey across the pond, Lickliter, who is going into his third year at the head of the program, said he’s looking forward to everybody getting a lot of repetitions against some of the best teams from Italy and Greece.

“It should be really good competition,” he said. “The women’s [team] went a couple of years ago and played the Greece national team. It was excellent competition. [Head coach] Lisa [Bluder] said it was terrific preparation [for the season]. I think that’s what we’ll see also.”

The trip overseas will serve as a barometer for how far the Hawkeyes are from being successful. One area that will be especially tested is the team’s strength and conditioning — something that has become a top priority for Lickliter and his staff.

“We’ve made terrific progress in my opinion,” Lickliter said. “[New strength coach Rusty Burney] has been able to kind of streamline his workload and focus on men’s basketball more. … Strength gives you confidence. I’ve known from early on in my career how important it is, so I’m glad that we’re on the right track.”

Freshman Matt Gatens noted the Hawkeyes’ progress on this front, saying he has seen a different attitude in the weight room.

“It seems as though we work hard in the weight room, and we don’t really complain about it,” said Gatens, who is the team’s leading returning scorer. “In the past, we’ve seen guys [when] things get hard, they start to complain, and they just pretty much give up. With this group of guys, you don’t see that. “It’s a great quality for this team to have.”

When the Hawkeyes get back from their Europe excursion, they will have a batch of four hungry first-year players on campus. Recently inked point guard Cully Payne (Schaumburg, Ill.) headlines the incoming class, which also includes 6-4 guard Eric May (Dubuque), junior-college transfer Devon Archie (Vincennes, Ind.), and 6-9 forward Brennan Cougill (Sioux City).

“With our recruits coming in, we’re hoping that they’re going to buy into the same mentality and the same system and they’ll gel with us,” Cole said. “That’s how we’re planning on getting through the season.”

This past weekend, point guard Trumaine Johnson, who averaged nearly 12 points a game last year at San Diego State as a sophomore, visited Iowa City. If he were to commit to the Hawkeyes, Johnson would have to sit out a season before being eligible.

While it remains unclear whether Johnson will attend Iowa, it’s apparent that Lickliter and his staff have 10 of their allotted 13 scholarships locked in for next season. The head coach said he’s open to signing one or two more players “if we find the right guys.”

“We’ve signed four who I think fit exactly what we’re looking for,” Lickliter said. “The guys who are here — the combination [with the recruits]; the way that they fit together — I think is really good.”

Looking ahead

Lickliter wants it to be known that he’s not happy.

He’s not happy that his team finished the season with a 28-point loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. He’s not happy with two consecutive sub-.500 seasons, in which the Hawkeyes have finished near the bottom of the Big Ten. He’s not happy with four players leaving the program for various reasons after last year.

But at the same time, he’s not ready to concede anything just yet.

“I’m not pleased with where we were the last two years,” he said. “I want to move forward.”

And that’s the thing: While Lickliter — who has five years remaining on his contract with the university that pays him $1.2 million annually — is vocal about his displeasure with the past, he also wants it to be known he has never been more eager about the future.

“I’m the most excited I’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “Now, I’ve been excited. It’s exciting to be at Iowa and to be in the Big Ten. … But as far as the direction of the program, I like the personnel in the program — a lot.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction now.”

Lickliter often says, “You get bitter or you get better,” and right now, he’s convinced the program will get better.

“Oh, we’ll be successful,” he said. “And it’s not a blind faith. I’ve seen it. … It’s been done, and we’re going to do it.”

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