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Iowa's best team of last 25 years was 25 years ago

'87 Hawkeyes still remembered fondly, with reason

Ed Horton and Kevin Gamble outside a Springfield, Ill., strip mall that Gamble's company built
Ed Horton and Kevin Gamble outside a Springfield, Ill., strip mall that Gamble's company built
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It was 25 years ago, and I remember it better than any year that has since passed when it comes to Iowa men’s basketball.

Covering a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for a while will have that effect. It was a season that basically started in Seoul and ended in Seattle.

I was The Gazette’s beat writer for the Hawkeyes that season, and couldn’t have picked a much better year to have that assignment. It began in the summer of 1986 when I accompanied the team on a two-week trip to South Korea and China to play eight games. It ended in March of 1987 in Seattle at the NCAA’s West Regional final, a game Hawkeye fans over 35 still bitterly recall.

The Asia trip brought together a new coach who had what few new coaches inherit in college basketball: A roster-full of players. They had been on a 20-win, NCAA tourney team in George Raveling’s third and final year as Iowa’s coach. Raveling left for USC in the spring of 1986, and Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott hired Tom Davis from Stanford.

Davis found himself with a roster-full of untapped potential including three very talented sophomores-to-be.

Roy Marble had averaged 11.5 points as a freshman, but classmates B.J. Armstrong and Ed Horton didn’t do much in their freshmen year. Seniors-to-be Kevin Gamble and Brad Lohaus had yet to bear any resemblance to players who would have long NBA careers.

Before the season, no one would have dreamed seven players from that squad would play at least a little in the NBA.

Lohaus was a 7-footer who had been on the fence of coming back for a fifth season (he redshirted after his sophomore year) following an undistinguished junior year in which he started just six games.

Forward Al Lorenzen and guard Bill Jones had both averaged about 10 points a game the year before. Both would be asked to play fewer minutes per game, but play harder than they ever had before thanks to Davis' game-long full-court defensive pressure. Jeff Moe was the perfect player to have in the first season of college basketball's 3-point rule. Moe had an accurate long jumper, and no hesitation to use it.

I'm not sure how much confidence any of those players -- other than perhaps Marble -- really had in their games as they boarded a 14-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul that summer. Confidence wasn't a problem come winter.

All those parts -- the Hawkeyes had 12 players with meaningful roles that season -- also included center Gerry "Sir Jamalot" Wright, forward Michael Morgan, power forward Kent Hill and point guard Michael Reaves. They began to learn their roles on that Asia trip and Davis began learning what kind of talent he really had.

The Hawkeyes lost a few times on that trip, but Horton quickly became the man at power forward. Armstrong got his first real chance to play college point guard and soon proved adept at it, to say the least.

Lohaus got the green light to move from center to forward. With it came the go-ahead to extend the defense and pop jump shots, which he did quite well. Wright was a senior who was raw offensively, but he enjoyed the defensive dirty work of playing center even if he wasn't a conventional Big Ten center height-wise. Coincidentally, he had transferred to Iowa from USC to play for Raveling.

Gamble, a big guard seen as a throw-in from Springfield, Ill., when Raveling recruited Horton from there, showed he could score. He averaged 11.9 points, up from 2.6 the previous season. Like Lohaus and Armstrong, he had a long NBA career.

Gamble ran with Horton and Marble off the court, but wasn’t outgoing like those two. I thought he lacked confidence in the summer of ‘86. He was a far-different player several months later. The one season Gamble (and Lohaus) had with Davis and his staff was a career-changer and life-changer.

The only games I didn't cover that season were the first three, at the Great Alaska Shootout. I went to the then-Cedar Rapids Airport to get a few comments from Davis as the team got home with three wins, including an eye-opening 90-89 upset of North Carolina State.

Before you knew it, the Hawkeyes were 10-0 with six games of 90 or more points, were ranked third in the nation, and were on their way to Long Beach, Calif., to play in Cal-Irvine's Anteater Classic. In what became a habit, Iowa rallied from double-digit deficits to beat both Portland and Cal-Irvine. The latter was a 105-103 game in front of 4,380 fans who saw one of the best contests they would ever witness in person.

Then the Hawkeyes came home for the Big Ten season, and things really got interesting.

After home wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin, Iowa faced consecutive road games against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue. The first one was a 78-57 romp. The Illinois game had all the makings of another rout, at least when the No. 8 Illini led the No. 2 Hawkeyes 61-39 with 16 minutes left. The Assembly Hall crowd roared with glee.

Iowa won in overtime, 91-88.

"I was literally speechless in the locker room afterward," Davis said. "I just can't believe we came back from 22, especially on the road."

Iowa had been named No. 1 in Associated Press' rankings just a few hours before the Hawkeyes had the distinct displeasure of putting that target on the Mackey Arena court at fifth-ranked Purdue. The Big Ten was good that year. Really good.

The Hawkeyes trailed 48-40 with 17:48 left. So it was a typical game for them. They played most of the game without Marble, whose eye got hurt when it was hit by a teammate's pass with 9:10 left in the first half.

Iowa won, 70-67.

"Dr. Davis must think this league is easy," Purdue Coach Gene Keady said after the game.

Then Iowa came home to play Indiana. The Hoosiers were ranked third. Did I mention the Big Ten was good that year? Really good.

The game was tied at 59 with 15:25 left. But the Hawkeyes went on a 19-4 run and didn't let up on the way to a 101-88 victory. They were the first team to score 100 points on a Bob Knight-coached Indiana team, and Knight became the Hoosiers' coach in 1972.

Less than 48 hours later, Iowa put its 18-0 record on the line against unranked Ohio State. After beating all those Top Ten teams, the Hawkeyes got taken down by future Chicago Bull Dennis Hopson and the Buckeyes, 80-76. Hopson scored 36 points for the 14-point underdogs.

So the Hawkeyes were mortal. They lost three more Big Ten games, on the road against Michigan, at home against Purdue, and at Indiana. Their 14-4 league record wasn't good enough to win the conferences. Eventual NCAA champion Indiana tied Purdue for the title at 15-3.

Iowa's NCAA tourney trail began with a cakewalk over Santa Clara in Tucson, Ariz. That was followed by an 84-82 white-knuckler over Texas-El Paso and future NBA star Tim Hardaway.

On to Seattle and the Kingdome, where Gamble hit a 3-pointer with two seconds left in overtime to give Iowa a 93-91 win over Oklahoma. Iowa inbounded with :11 remaining. Armstrong took the ball to the right side of the basket, then passed out to a wide-open Gamble, who set his feet, and shot the Hawkeyes into the Elite Eight.

The Sooners built a 16-point lead in the first-half. Gamble was 11-of-13 from the field and scored 26 points.

The regional final was on a Sunday afternoon. The opponent was UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels. This game was a reverse image of so many of Iowa's memorable triumphs. The Hawkeyes led 62-44 two minutes into the second half and appeared on their way to New Orleans for the Final Four. I'd never been to New Orleans, and was thinking there were worse things in life than going there to cover a Final Four.

There was. Like not going.

UNLV made seven 3-pointers in a 34-8 blast as the Hawkeyes went from super-loose to hyper-tight. But they came back, naturally.

Gamble hit a 3-pointer with :35 left. Iowa's defense forced a 10-second call on the Rebels. Trailing 82-81, Gamble threw an alley-oop pass to Lohaus, but the pass hit the bottom right side of the backboard and caromed out of bounds.

After UNLV made two free throws, a double-teamed Gamble missed a 3-point try. Twenty-five years later, I vividly remember the dejection in Iowa's Kingdome dressing room. So close to the Final Four. And so many Iowa fans to this day think their team would have won it all had it gotten to the Superdome.

Thirty wins, just five losses. A No. 1 ranking for a little while. No Iowa team has approached a season like that ever since.

The relentless pressure, the fast-paced offense, the emphasis on rebounding and toughness, the depth. And the talent. Seven players on that Iowa team played in the NBA.

In midseason, NBC analyst Al McGuire said he gave Davis a piece of advice.

"You're winning too much in the first year," McGuire claimed he told Davis. It was something that kind of rang true as Davis' 13-year career played out and nothing equaled Year 1.

But as any coach, player, or fan knows, you take wins whenever you can get them. To string 30 of them in one season, and do so in such memorable style? That's why the 1986-87 Hawkeyes are remembered a quarter-century later.

Here's a link to a story the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith wrote in 1992 noting 10 players off that team played in the NBA or CBA. 

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