Former Iowa basketball player Luke Recker thinks his alma mater has what it takes to cut down the nets at the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday at the United Center in Chicago.
“To be honest with you, I think this year’s team is a team that I could see that happen,” Recker said Monday afternoon.
Recker knows what it takes to have success at the Big Ten Tournament with Iowa having finished a combined 7-1 at the event during his two seasons on the team in 2001 and 2002.
He was an injured spectator on the Iowa bench in 2001 when the Reggie Evans-led Hawkeyes made their improbable march to the title by winning four games in four days at the United Center.
Recker came back healthy the next season as a 6-foot-6 senior shooting guard and almost led Iowa to a repeat title at the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes won three games, including victories over Wisconsin and Indiana by two points each, before losing to Ohio State 81-64 in the championship game.
Recker became the toast of the 2002 tournament, much like Evans was the year before, by scoring a tournament record 91 points in four games. Recker also made last second shots to defeat Wisconsin in the quarterfinals and Indiana in the semifinals.
His basket against Indiana caused quite a stir because Recker grew up in Indiana and played his freshman and sophomore seasons for Bob Knight and the Hoosiers before transferring out of the program, first to Arizona and then to Iowa.
“They were both very special to me, it was fun,” Recker said of his two experiences at the Big Ten Tournament as a Hawkeye. “Obviously, it was important my junior year even though I wasn’t physically playing on the court.
“It still meant just as much to me if not more because we were champions and those were the guys that I went to work with and battle with every day and were good friends of mine. That was awesome they won that Big Ten championship to bring back to Iowa City.”
Iowa was considered a long shot to win the Big Ten Tournament in both 2001 and 2002. The 2001 squad had finished tied for sixth place in the Big Ten and the 2002 squad had finished in eighth place with a 5-11 record in conference play.
“We knew our backs were against the wall,” Recker said of the 2002 team. “We had, I guess, underachieved I would say. We didn’t live up to expectations and we knew from the prior year that we had an opportunity to still make the ultimate goal and that was to get to the NCAA (Tournament.).
“And once you get to the NCAA (Tournament) anything can happen. It’s amazing the parity that’s in college basketball now. Every game is a battle and if you believe in yourself, every team has talent, including this Iowa team.”
Iowa defeated Creighton 69-56 in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky 92-79 in the second round. Iowa hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since the victory over Creighton 12 years ago.
Recker’s senior season didn’t last for long after his heroics at the Big Ten Tournament with Iowa losing to Louisana State 63-61 in the first round of the 2002 National Invitation Tournament.
The current Iowa team is seeded sixth in the Big Ten Tournament and will play No. 11 seed Northwestern in the first round on Thursday at the United Center. Iowa finished the regular season with records of 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the conference and has won six of its last eight games, including three of four without injured point guard Mike Gesell.
It is widely believed that Iowa has to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Michigan State will face the winner of the Iowa-Northwestern game in Friday’s quarterfinal round.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday that he expects Gesell to play against Northwestern on Thursday. Gesell started the first 27 games this season, but then missed the last four games because of a right foot injury.
Depth has been one of Iowa’s biggest strengths this season, with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes of playing time per game.
Recker, who plans to attend the Big Ten Tournament this week, is impressed with how the current Iowa team overcame some tough losses to finish strong down the stretch. Six of Iowa’s nine Big Ten losses came by margins of four points or less, including three by three points or less, one in overtime and one in double-overtime.
Michigan was the only Big Ten team to defeat Iowa by more than 13 points this season, winning 95-67 in the second conference game on Jan. 6 in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“First of all, they’ve been a lot of fun to watch and coach McCaffery has done a great job with them,” said Recker, who lives in Coralville with his wife and two young children. “They had some unfortunate losses where a few things didn’t fall our way. But they continued to battle and here they are.”
Duez Henderson was a junior forward on Iowa’s 2001 team that won the Big Ten Tournament title. He agrees with Recker that the current Iowa team is capable of making a similar run.
“I kind of do,” Henderson said. “There is always a chance. Now obviously, if they were 10th or 11th in the Big Ten that would probably just kind of be a homer’s wish. But I think so; it would have to take getting hot at the right time and probably some of the top-tier teams not playing as well as they have throughout the year.
“I don’t think there is anyone in the Big Ten that you can say Iowa just can’t play with. Outside of the Michigan game, they’ve played with everyone.”
Henderson credits former Iowa coach Steve Alford for creating the right environment in which to excel at the conference tournament. Alford struggled to win games consistently during the regular season while at Iowa for eight seasons from 1999-2007, but his teams had a knack for getting on a roll at the Big Ten Tournament.
Alford, who is the now the head coach at New Mexico, also led Iowa to the 2006 Big Ten Tournament title before resigning as head coach shortly after the 2006-07 campaign.
“He was very organized and we prepared like crazy,” said Henderson, who now lives in North Liberty and works as a basketball coach and individual instructor. “We had two assistants that were assigned to each of the following teams that we could play.
“You would have been amazed at how much stuff we traveled with from the season, old video tapes, old scouting reports, things like that. Things are a lot more digitalized now. But we had just cases and trunks of video equipment and things like that.”
In 2002, Iowa also had Recker get on a roll at the right time.
“It was unbelievable,” Henderson said of Recker’s performance at the 2002 Big Ten Tournament. “That’s kind of what Luke lived for, the big moment.”
Recker’s performance at the 2002 Big Ten Tournament was a case of a star player seizing the moment and putting the team on his back.
But a team also needs contributions from lesser-known players in order to keep advancing in a tournament setup. Iowa had three freshmen – guard Brody Boyd, center Jared Reiner and forward Glen Worley – that contributed to the title in 2001, especially the sharp-shooting Boyd.
The current Iowa team also has three freshmen that have played key roles this season. In addition to Gesell, 7-1 center Adam Woodbury has started every game and point guard Anthony Clemmons has started 13 games.
Recker tried to help his three freshmen teammates in 2001 when he was injured just by giving advice and a few tips along the way.
“It’s certainly different just mentally,” said Recker, who played professionally in Europe for six years and now works in the medical device/supply industry. “My junior year I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play, but you’re just a cheerleader.
“You’ve battled with those guys all year and you’re still a part of the team. You can help with scouting reports and you can help with some of the younger players.”
Boyd, who grew up in Dugger, Ind., replaced Recker at shooting guard in the 2001 Big Ten Tournament and scored 22 points during the 63-61 victory over his home-state Hoosiers in the championship game. Evans, a 6-8 forward and a current NBA veteran, was named the Most Outstanding Player at the 2001 Big Ten Tournament and senior point guard Dean Oliver also played a key role.
Evans and Oliver were expected to play key roles for Iowa in the 2001 Big Ten Tournament because they had done that all season, unlike Boyd, who only averaged 5.8 points per game as a freshman.
“He was huge,” Recker said of Boyd, who was listed at 5-11 while playing at Iowa. “That’s what is so fun about it. Anything can happen and you never know what’s going to happen. You get a guy like Brody Boyd to step up; it can be anybody on Iowa’s team this year that steps up. And that will be fun to watch and I’m excited about the prospects of this year’s team.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball