April 9, 2007

Lickliter ready for the challenge at Iowa

You'll have to excuse new Iowa basketball coach Todd Lickliter for getting a little defensive when asked about his ability to recruit players who can win at the highest level of college basketball.

Lickliter believes he already has.

"I'm not worried about that," Lickliter told Rivals.com when asked about recruiting Big Ten-caliber players. "I just coached the No. 13-ranked team in the nation, and I recruited all those players."

Finishing well inside the top 25 was just one of the many highlights for what turned out to be one the best seasons in mid-major history for Lickliter and Butler. The small school from Indianapolis beat all three of the big schools in the Hoosier State Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue. The Bulldogs also pulled off upsets of Tennessee and Gonzaga to win the Preseason NIT.

Butler went on reach the Sweet Sixteen before running into two-time defending national champ Florida. The Bulldogs finished with a school-record 29 wins.

It was the fourth time the Bulldogs had won 20 or more games since Lickliter took over the program in 2002.

But it wasn't just the winning that made Lickliter such an attractive candidate. His players had an 82 percent graduation rate, highest among all of the teams in the Sweet Sixteen. It's even better than the university average of 69 percent.

Butler guard A.J. Graves, perhaps the best player in the mid-major ranks, was a first-team academic All-American.

Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta made it clear the Hawkeyes want to make a commitment to academics as well, loading his contract with bonuses tied to APR (academic progress rate) and graduation rates. That played a big role in luring Lickliter, who had been linked to several other job openings, away from Butler, where he played himself.

"We shared the same vision," Lickliter said. "The vision that you can be really good at two things. You can be great students and you can be great players. I think Iowa promotes that. They not only sold me on a high level of basketball success, but a team approach as well. It was bittersweet leaving Butler, but it had to be the right situation. Because Iowa is such a home run that made the decision a lot easier."

Lickliter said he doesn't have any timetable for getting Iowa back to the NCAA Tournament or the Sweet Sixteen. His only plan is to win as much and as soon as possible.

"I think we need to start winning today," Lickliter said. "We need to win today. We can't worry about the NCAA Tournament. That's the reward for a great regular season."

Winning right away might be the toughest part of Lickliter's new job.

The Hawkeyes failed to reach the NIT last season, going 17-14. Worse yet, they must replace first-team All-Big Ten forward Adam Haluska. Few players meant more to their teams last season. The departing senior averaged 20.5 points a game and played just about every role imaginable. Only one other starter, promising freshman Tyler Smith (14.9 ppg), averaged in double figures.

It doesn't look like the recruiting class will provide much instant help either. His predecessor, Steve Alford, now the head coach at New Mexico, signed three high school seniors that could all be described as sleepers. None of them is ranked in the Rivals150.

But none of that is deterring Lickliter, who built his career around underrated recruits with high basketball IQs.

"A new situation is always energizing," he said. "At Butler I was surrounded by great people and it's very similar here. I have found everyone here incredibly helpful and anyone that knows anything about Iowa knows I've been afforded a great opportunity to coach in one of the best conferences. They have a tradition of success here and we are going to continue to build on that."

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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