IOWA CITY, Ia. – When he talks to his 9-year-old son, Peter, about that 1986-87 Iowa basketball season, Jeff Moe’s version is that the Hawkeyes returned from winning the Great Alaska Shootout and mowed down opponent after opponent with ease.
The wins did keep coming, and the Hawkeyes climbed in the Associated Press poll from 10th to second early in the Big Ten season.
“Really?” said Moe, a sharpshooting junior guard on that team and now a businessman in Zionsville, Ind. “I tell my son we won by 30.”
Iowa’s team, deep and competitive, kept winning in large part because of the atmosphere coach Tom Davis and assistant coaches Bruce Pearl, Gary Close and Rudy Washington created in practice.
“The games weren’t as hard as practice,” Roy Marble said.
That is a feeling still held by more than Marble today, 25 years after the Hawkeyes won a school-record 30 games, including the first 18 of the season, and reached the top spot in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history.
“From the first team to the second team, there wasn’t a big dropoff in talent,” said Kevin Gamble, a senior guard who now lives in Lynnfield, Mass. “It was competitive. Day in and day out, you couldn’t take a day off from practice because no one stood head-and-shoulders above anyone else.”
Despite the competitive nature of the practices, this Iowa team got along off the court. The chemistry was there.
“I take my hat off to Coach Davis,” said Ed Horton, a sophomore center who is back in his home town of Springfield, Ill. “We jelled as a team, on and off the court. We had practices that created game-like situations. It was one of those things where everyone had each other’s back. It was so much fun playing with those guys.”
Brad Lohaus, a fifth-year senior forward who now lives in North Liberty, said practices were intense.
“Games were fun compared to practice,” Lohaus said.”Coach Davis was very fair, and we worked hard.”
After returning home from Alaska, the Hawkeyes beat Division II Missouri-St. Louis, 89-64, on Dec. 3. Davis celebrated his 48th birthday that day and the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him before the game.
Iowa won its own tournament, the Amana-Hawkeye Classic, mowing down Delaware and Loyola-Marymount. Three more home wins, against Brigham Young, Iowa State and Rider, and a road win at Drake, gave the team a 10-0 record heading into the Anteater Classic.
Iowa trailed Portland by 11 points in a first-round game before winning, 84-65, despite 20 points from freshman Greg Anthony, who would transfer to Nevada-Las Vegas after the season.
The Hawkeyes won their third tournament title of the season by edging host Cal-Irvine, 105-103. The Anteaters had the ball with a chance to tie or win, but didn’t get a shot off. Cal-Irvine led by as many as 11 points in the first half and had an 81-73 advantage in the second half. Guard Scott Brooks, who played for the Houston Rockets’ 1994 NBA championship team and is now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored 30 points in that game including six 3-pointers in 10 attempts.
“Amazing game,” Davis recalled. “We got tested.”
Iowa was now 12-0, but no one was playing the numbers game.
“The game was over and you got ready for the next one,” Davis said. “We didn’t dwell too much on what the record was. There were always things you didn’t do as well as you wanted to do them in the previous game. We’d try to correct those. We’d add wrinkles, like on our under basket out-of-bounds plays, or put in a new wrinkle against a zone. So you’d get your players focused on that, and not focused on the past or what they had accomplished.”
Al Lorenzen, who now lives and works in Greater Des Moines, said that Davis was constantly setting goals for his team that didn’t emphasize the winning streak but concentrated on the bottom line – getting better.
“We never talked wins and losses,’ said Lorenzen, a junior forward on that team. “He’d say, “Achieve this, and winning and losing will take care of itself. We went into games so focused on goals, that winning became a by-product. We were a confident group anyway. We felt like we could play with anyone in the country.”
In one game, the goal might be to hold a team under a certain field-goal percentage. The next game might center on rebound numbers, or steals.
“The numbers changed from game to game, but we had the same focus,” Lorenzen said. “It didn’t matter if we were 3-0 or 18-0. He’d (Davis) say, “Do this, and we’ll be successful. He never put it in a win or lose perspective.”
Iowa had finished 10-8 in the Big Ten the previous season, good for sixth. Iowa had not finished higher than fifth since the 1982-83 team was a Big Ten runner-up.
The 1986-87 team bought into Davis and his goal-oriented motivation,but the winning streak was impossible to ignore.
“The wins piled up so quickly early on,” Gamble said. “It got to 12, 13, 14, and we started rising in the rankings. I was thinking, “Hey, we’re pretty good team. We’re on the map. People started talking about us. We thought it was going to be a special season just because of the way we were playing.”
Iowa opened the Big Ten season at home, against Northwestern, and cruised to an 80-44 victory. But Davis was struggling with how to handle a personnel issue.
Gerry Wright was expected to be Iowa’s starting center. He had been Iowa’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer in 1985-86, and had replaced Greg Stokes as the school’s single-season field goal percentage leader at 59.2 percent.
A blend of athleticism and jumping ability that earned him the nickname “Sir Jamalot,” Wright’s skill set was made for the back of the full-court pressure defense Davis employed. He could cover a lot of ground, and he could block shots and start the fast break.
“I loved playing that back position,” Wright said.
A week before the Nov. 16 exhibition game with the Soviet National Team, Wright broke his left hand. His shooting hand.
“Got it slammed in a door,” Wright said. “That threw us into a little bit of a spin. Tom (Davis) has said it was a pivotal position, and a lot of the offense was flowing through me. There were some changes that needed to be made there. “
Horton replaced Wright in the starting lineup.
“Eddie made up with intelligence what he might have lacked quickness wise,” Davis said. “Eddie was smart. He had good vision. So he was good back there, too.”
Wright was healthy, and itching to play, when the Big Ten season arrived. But Davis, his team 12-0 and ranked third nationally heading into the Big Ten opener against Northwestern, was concerned with how he’d get Wright back in the lineup.
“Tom told me he was really reluctant to put me back in the lineup,” Wright said. “I told him I fully understood. I wouldn’t mess with chemistry while winning, either. I felt like I was ready to cut loose. But I didn’t want to upset the dynamics of the squad.”
Wright played 15 minutes in the lopsided victory over Northwestern, scoring five points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking a pair of shots. He was back in the rotation for good. He replaced Horton in the starting lineup against Illinois on Valentine’s Day, and stayed there for the rest of the season.
Iowa followed the Northwestern victory with double-digit triumphs against Wisconsin at home and at Minnesota.
Now 14-0 and rated second in the country, the table was set for three huge games against three Big Ten rivals that also spent the entire 1986-87 season in the Top 25 – at Illinois, at Purdue and Indiana at home.
Game story from Nov. 29, 1986 (Alaska-Anchorage)
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball