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Iowa’s run to No. 1: The 1986-87 team reunites 25 years later

[ 1 ] February 3, 2012 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The VHS tape sits in a box in his basement.

“I’ve never watched it,” Brad Lohaus said.

The tape is a cruel reminder of the final game of Lohaus’ Iowa basketball career, which ended on the doorstep of the 1987 Final Four: No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas 84, Iowa 81. The sting lingers, 25 years later.

“I’ve been asked thousands of times about that game,” Lohaus said. “I say, “Yea, thanks for ruining my day.”

Kevin Gamble gets called for the charge against UNLV's Freddie Banks during an NCAA Tournament game on March 22, 1987. Roy Marble is also pictured.

The 1986-87 team, one of the greatest in Hawkeye history, will be honored before Saturday’s 2 p.m. game with Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. First-year coach Tom Davis inherited a deep roster of talented athletes from George Raveling, and molded them into one of the nation’s elite teams.

They won a school-record 30 games, including an 18-0 start, and became the first team in school history to reach No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. The team also led the nation in rebounding, and Davis was named both Big Ten and AP national coach of the year.

It was a season that could best be described in two words: What if?

What if Davis had taken the Houston job the week before accepting Iowa’s offer? What if B.J. Armstrong had transferred to Central Michigan, as planned? What if Lohaus had skipped his final season? What if Kevin Gamble’s lob pass to Lohaus in the final seconds of the UNLV game had been a foot lower?

“You can’t help but say, “What if?’ ” Al Lorenzen said. “If the ball bounces a different direction on any number of plays against UNLV, that game changes and we’re in the Final Four. One game away. It’s still frustrating.”

===

Davis brought a system, rooted in pressure defense and up-tempo offense, with him from Stanford. He inherited a 20-12 sixth-place team that lost just one starter, Andre Banks. It was a team with players from 10 states. One that showed signs of unraveling but became a tight and cohesive group, a textbook definition of great chemistry.

“The coachability would be the one thing I remember most about that group,” Davis said.

The 1986-87 Hawkeyes: Where are they now

Lohaus wasn’t going to return for a fifth season.

“There was no way I was going to play,” Lohaus said. “I was done, worn into the ground. “

B.J. Armstrong battles a couple of Purdue players.

Ben Armstrong called Davis and told him his son, B.J., had decided to transfer to Central Michigan.

“He said his son got the idea the coaches didn’t feel he was good enough to play in the Big Ten,” Davis said. I asked him, ‘Geez, will you give me a chance?’ ”

The team had 10 days of practice to prepare for a nine-game, 17-day August tour of China and South Korea .

“It didn’t take too many practices to figure out that B.J. might have a career playing point guard for us,” Davis said.

It didn’t take long to figure out this team was perfect for the style Davis wanted to play, either.

“We could tell we had a pretty special and talented group,” said Gary Close, a Davis assistant.

Raveling had a playbook at least 2 inches thick. Davis didn’t.

“Coach Davis kept it simple,” Gamble said. “We only had a handful of plays. We got a lot of things out of our pressure defense, so we really didn’t have to run a lot of set stuff.”

Iowa’s run to No. 1: Remembering the ’86-’87 Hawkeyes (first in a series)

Iowa’s run to No. 1 Remember the ’86-’87 Hawkeyes (second in a series)

Before the season, Davis had one-on-one meetings with his players that rankled a few, pleased others and motivated everyone.

“One day I went back to our apartment and Jeff Moe said, ‘Coach called me a pretty boy, and a rich kid, ‘ ” recalled Les Jepsen. “Coach was not afraid to confront people, in a good way. A lot of people wanted to prove him wrong.’ ”

Bart Casey still remembers walking into his new coach’s office, and listening to him read his slim statistics from the previous season.

“He said something like, ‘Why do you deserve to be on this team?’ ” Casey said. “I remember walking out thinking, ‘This guy hates me.’ ”

Davis told Lohaus that as a senior, it was his job to lose.

“It was a fresh start, a new life, a tremendous opportunity,” Lohaus said.

Davis tinkered with his new toys. He moved Gerry Wright from forward to center. Lohaus went from center to forward. Gamble went from power forward to shooting guard.

“Everything just clicked,” Roy Marble said. “He put us all in positions that seemed to fit our strengths.”

Practices were intense and physical. A team two deep at every position.

“You couldn’t take a day off, because no one stood head-and-shoulders above anyone else,” Gamble said.

The players considered the practices tougher than games. Noses were bloodied, players carted off.

“There was so much competition,” Ed Horton said. ‘Sometimes the second team would outplay the first team. That’s why we were so good.”

But hard feelings didn’t linger off the court.

“My fondest memory is the comraderie,” Marble said. ‘You don’t win unless everyone has everyone’s back. You had very little chance to catch one Hawkeye by himself.”

===

Iowa started the season ranked 10th, and climbed to No. 1 by winning its first 18 games. The Great Alaska Shootout title was an early-season appetizer. The main course was a stunning nine days in January.

First the Hawkeyes rallied from 22 points down in the second half to win at No. 8 Illinois in overtime.Then came a road win at No. 5 Purdue. The capper was a 101-88 win at home against No. 3 Indiana, as Iowa become the first team to reach the century mark against a Bob Knight-coached team.

“On that night, we really solidified our place in history,” Michael Morgan said.

Ohio State knocked Iowa off two days later, 80-76. The Hawkeyes would go on to finish third in the Big Ten at 14-4, and went to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the West Regional.

Iowa handled Santa Clara in the first round, 99-76, and got a break when host Arizona was upset by Texas-El Paso. Two days later, as his wife, Shari, told Davis they had 5 minutes to catch the team bus, Davis realized there was one tape he hadn’t watched.

“Let me take just a few minutes to watch this,” Davis told her.

On the tape, Davis saw Texas-El Paso pressing at the end of a game.

“I said, “Man, if we ever get in this situation, they’re vunerable to our out-of-bounds full-court play,” Davis said. “And doggone if that isn’t exactly the way it happened.”

Iowa was in front, 82-79, with 9 seconds to play. Wright broke long, and Lohaus hit him with a perfect full-court pass for the dunk. On to the Sweet 16 and a game with Oklahoma.

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The play is called “4 Lob.” It was the defining play of a record-setting season. The play has many options, including a Gamble jumper or a shot-lob to Lohaus.

Davis called the play at the end of the Oklahoma game, when Gamble nailed a 3-pointer with :03 left in overtime to advance, 93-91.

“I had my feet set, and didn’t hesitate to shoot it,” Gamble said.”Right away you know you’ve done something special. When I watch it today, it still brings a smile to my face.”

Two days later, UNLV and Iowa played for a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans, La. Iowa took control of the game with an 18-2 run, led by as many as 19 points and settled for a 58-42 advantage at halftime.

“At halftime I’m thinking, Final Four, man,” said Morgan, who was from Haughton, La.

UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian had devised a defense just for Iowa, but scrapped it at halftime in favor of an aggressive man-to-man. Iowa got in foul trouble, and the Rebels caught fire from the perimeter. A 24-2 UNLV run in less than 8 minutes, including a half-dozen 3-pointers, gave it the lead.

“We spent the first half talking about what we were going to do in New Orleans,” Mark Jewell said. “And with 5 minutes left, we were figuring how in the hell we were going to get home for spring break.”

Iowa trailed, 82-81, when Davis called “4 Lob” again. This time, Gamble opted for the lob pass to Lohaus. It sailed just out of his reach, with :14 left.

“In the huddle, I should have told coach to put Moe in because he was the best at making that shot pass,” Gamble said.

Lohaus said Iowa practiced the play all the time.

“We only used it six to eight times during the year, because it was almost a sure basket,” Lohaus said. “It was always open.”

Iowa’s record season was over.

“The sad part about it is we went 30-5 but didn’t win a Big Ten title or go to the Final Four,” Moe said.

Indiana did win the title. Moe ,who lives in Zionsville, Ind., constantly crosses paths with some members of the Hoosiers’ 1986-87 title team.

“Our claim to fame is that we did hang 100 on Coach Knight,” Moe said. “We did a lot of neat things that season. But Indiana hung the banner. When those guys put that ring in your face, it doesn’t matter what happened in January and February.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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