Q: How have things gone this week?
Steve Alford: You get a lot of practices during a bye week. Our kids had a chance to watch other teams play on Tuesday and Wednesday. I think we have gotten better, at least we hope. This is the practice time, the test day is on Saturday. We know that we are playing a more confident team form a year ago. They have the same number of losses we have. Their lopsided loss to Pitt was without Luber, which is a big piece of what they are about. They had a huge road win last night and there are not a lot of teams in the league with that. They were playing a team that thought they were going to get a 3-0 start. We know we have to play very well going into PSU.
Q: How is Penn State different this year?
Alford: Going into last night, you would say that board play was an issue because of Aaron not being in there, or that low-post threat. But you look at what Cornley has been doing and especially Claxton, those two have been loads inside. Not only are they post threats, but they are good rebounders. Luber is back healthy; they are starting to shoot the ball. They are smaller than they were a year ago. They change defenses more than they did a year ago. As I mentioned at the outset, they are more confident than the last time we have played them.
Q: What are the factors that make it so hard to win on the road?
Alford: The teams in this league are well coached, you have great players and you can throw all of us in there. It was proved last night; anyone can win on a given night in anyone's building. The buildings in this league are the largest in the nation. The fan support is outstanding. We have been breaking attendance record for the last 25-30 years in this league. The history and tradition of Big Ten basketball, that weighs on you. Those traditions mean an awful lot to the current players. You look at all the teams, they want to play well because of the people that have played in their uniforms prior to them.
Q: Is there more travel now and does that make it hard?
Alford: That is always an impact. I think that is one of the reasons why the coaches wanted to never play three road games in a row. Now, playing two, that makes a difference. It's different now, because of the TV packages, you don't have what I had in the 1980's. You had travel partners. If you played Michigan on Thursday, you play Michigan State on Saturday. The travel was less than what it is now. Now, you could play Michigan on a Wednesday, come home on Saturday and go somewhere else the following Wednesday. The travel is harder now. We are fortunate to have John Streif that organizes our travel and does a great job of easing the stress of players and coaches.
Q: What can you do psychologically to get ready for road games?
Alford: That is hard. You play at such different times. We play at 11am our time on Saturday, today we practiced at 11, tomorrow we are going at 10, so we try two days prior; we can't do that in season when we are in classes, because we have the set time for the academic load. On the break, we have been trying to mimic practices the same time or earlier than our game time. Today, we had breakfast earlier than usual, to get ready for the pregame meal on Saturday, which will be 8am. You have to guard and you have to execute offensively; it's still the same.
Q: How did the team respond after coming down from the big win against Illinois?
Alford: Monday and Thursday were really good practices. Today was very good. I thought Monday was good. Tuesday was just OK. It felt like a practice that we had five days before we played again type demeanor. Not that we didn't get things done, but it was not nearly as spirited as Monday and Today. Wednesday was a lift-shooting practice; it was a lighter load. We didn't tape up or go at one another; it was a dry run through. We did a lot of shooting and had some fun on the floor with some shooting games. We got a lift in and showed them some tape and got them out of here. We are trying to maximize reset and do a job of getting better and we did that.
Q: What has Erek been doing to stay out of foul trouble?
Alford: We are 16 games into it and he has been in foul trouble one game. It is a maturation process; it evolves in players in different areas of their games. He is maturing in understanding that he is important to us. HE does not get the attention that Adam, Jeff and Greg get, whether here in the state or otherwise. It's hard to give everyone the attention when there are so many. I think Erek is starting to understand how much he means to our team defensively and what we are like when he is on and off the floor. Doug is doing a good job of coming in and giving us something different, but the more we can have Erek out there, it helps us. He is getting more confident in his offense.
Q: What has it been like having the ESPN crew here this week?
Alford: We are going to miss them when they are gone. They are in the way so much; you have a camera or a boom mike following us or the guy that doesn't carry anything walking around. It has been a lot of fun. Obviously, it's important for our program. Getting the Big Ten attention is one thing, but being here at Iowa, it's not like we are in Columbus, Ohio or have the tradition of Michigan State right now. To have them here and get that attention through the show, that is big. That helps in a lot of ways. We have given them a lot of freedom. We want the public to see what Iowa basketball is about. It's a positive.
Q: Have there been any uncomfortable moments?
Alford: I don't think so, but that red light has been on a lot. It's hard telling. To be honest, we haven't changed things. This wasn't about bringing them in and lets stage what we are and who we are. I would think that if these guys come back in a month, they will see the same things. That is who we are; we do things together as a team. We had a bowling outing yesterday that Coach Neil and I were not able to attend. Normally we would be there, but this is the bye week and we have to recruit. That is the only difference, is that the coaches we would be there. Those are things that we do all of the time. I would hope that is what the ESPN guys are going to get as we film what we are doing. I am not a good bowler; it was good that I was gone.
Q: You seem to be winning with defense and shooting low percentages on offense. Is that living on the edge?
Alford: You are living on the edge in this league, regardless of what your staple is. Any night, things can happen. We never thought we would miss 19 straight shots at Wisconsin. I don't think Minnesota envisioned that at home against Wisconsin the other day. I don't think Northwestern felt they would go cold and give up 14 offensive rebounds and lose a home game to Penn State. That is what the league is about. We try to be consistent on who we are, do what we do. That has been the defensive end. When we have defended, we have been in every game. Where we struggled defensively, it was not Northern Iowa; we had a five point lead when Jeff gets hurt. If things come to foul shooting, we are good there. He gets hurt and we lose in overtime. Against Iowa State, we did not defend well and turned the ball over a lot. Texas, we guarded well for a while, but it was like Wisconsin; not consistent. Other than that, our defense has been consistent. Our offense hasn't as far as making shots. We are trying to learn what a good shot is or what we are trying to get out of a play. We are taking some pretty good shots and taking care of the basketball. But in games, you may go through a stretch where you don't make field goals. That means you have to guard and get to the line. I think they have learned that as long as we defend each night, we will be there with a chance to win with five minutes left. If you can do that in this league, you have to be pleased with that, especially on the road.
Q: Jeff Horner is one the verge of some major career milestones.
Alford: I have said it before, Jeff has done it with four different starting backcourt mates. That is hard. With the things that have happened, they have been out of our control. He has stayed the course. He and Bru in particular are not guys that look for excuses. They roll with the punches well and they keep moving on. When their careers are over, they will end up putting up numbers that are extremely impressive. When you look at all the people that have played the forward and guard spots here, they will be ranked right up there with the best of the best. They have done it with distractions, with backcourt changes during the year and frontcourt changes in the season. That is the biggest compliment I could give them. Regardless of the circumstance, they put the uniform on to represent the best they can and they give it all they got. Hopefully they will have a great year here and for the rest of their lives.
Q: What are the challenges that Penn State brings?
Alford: They are undersized, they don't have a true center. They almost have four guards out there. Three guards and two forwards. That is a different thing you have to compete against. They will get up and down the floor and mix defenses. We will see zone and we have not seen that in a while. Then playing on the road, playing a more confident team in their home opener. Playing in this league is hard enough, but the hardest times are home openers and senior night. Those are extra tough. We know we have to do a lot of good things. We have to watch our lineups, whether we can go small or can we go big and the style of our sub patterns will be key.
Q: J.R. is redshirting this year; how did that conversation come about?
Alford: It has been more of his family bringing it up. He is really trying to prove to us that he can work at a level to get better and work at a level to play the guard position. That is the year that he is in. He is going to have to show a lot of improvement at that guard position. Strength, footwork, understanding defending. The one thing he is seeing in our program now, is that not only are we getting people in here to understand defense, but the people that are coming next year understand guarding. Next year, we might not be as experienced, but athletically we may be even better, to where defense becomes more of a premium as you get more athletic. It's not like he will get more athletic, but he has to prove he can play the guard position. I don't think he was going to get a lot of minutes this year and minutes in the future will be determined what he does this year to prove to us if he can play the guard position. There is a difference between playing inside at high school as opposed to playing a guard in the Big Ten. He has to play defense. I can't stop the clock to sub him out on defense. It's not like how Iowa's girls used to play basketball, you have to go across that line (referring to six on six). Our program is intact. We can guard people, we have ways of scoring inside and out, we have good athleticism. I think the athleticism will be better next year, so we are getting to that point, and guys like JR are going to have to keep getting better or they get left behind.