One-on-one with former Iowa guard B.J. Armstrong

The Hawkeyes may shoot up to No. 1 in the rankings with a win over Gonzaga. DI Sports Editor Austin Hanson spoke with B.J. Armstrong, a member of the last Iowa men’s basketball team to be the top-ranked team in the country, about this year’s team.


Emily Wangen

Grand Marshal B.J. Armstrong rides in a Corvette during the 2019 Homecoming Parade on Oct. 18 in Downtown Iowa City.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

The Daily Iowan: I wanted to start by asking you about your time at Iowa. What do you remember? What were some of your favorite moments as a Hawkeye?

B.J. Armstrong: I just have fond memories about the people I met in Iowa. When I came there as an 18-year-old kid from Detroit, I really didn’t know what to expect on my visit to Iowa. I’d never been to the state before. My fondest memories are just the people. I met wonderful people there. People that are still friends of mine to this day. Just being on campus and experiencing that culture and everything college had to offer. I just had a great time there. I had some great teammates, coaches, professors, and just the people overall. I always consider Iowa home for me. It’s my second home, and my wife’s always considered it that. It was a great experience for me and my family. I’m just very happy that I had an opportunity to come there and to go to school and be able to participate in sports and everything that Iowa had to offer.

DI: I wanted to talk to you about the 1987 team because I think that was the last time Iowa’s ever been No. 1 in the nation, and I wanted to ask you what you remember about that season.

Armstrong: We had terrific leadership, especially from our seniors which were Kevin Gamble and Brad Lohaus. We were a very deep team. We had great depth at every position. We were a close-knit group. I think it all started from our coaches. Coach [Tom] Davis and the staff, they kind of set the tone with us. Our leadership was impeccable that year. Kevin was fabulous. Brad Lohaus was fabulous. So, our seniors, to me, are kind of what set us apart, and the younger guys just fell in line. You know myself, and Roy Marble, Ed Horton, Bill Jones, Jeff Moe. We were experienced. We were battle-tested. Kevin, in my opinion, was the best player on the team that year. He and all the other seniors just really did a terrific job, I thought. That’s why we were able to play, and we had stability. When things got tough, our guys, they were always there for us. They were kind of the foundation of that group.

DI: There are some parallels that can be drawn between that team and the 2020-21 Hawkeyes. When you’ve watched Iowa this season, what have you seen from them so far?

Armstrong: They do two things really well. They defend and they really share the ball with one another. The ball is always moving. They really play an unselfish style of play. That’s a thing that’s really stood out to me when I’ve watched them this year is how well they move the ball. If a guy doesn’t have a shot, he moves it right on. They always seem to get the ball to the guy with the best shot. They pass up good shots for great shots. The unselfishness of this team on the defensive end and on the offensive end the way they play, those are the things that really stand out. Obviously, they have a great player in Luka. He is kind of an anchor for them. He’s able to score, draw double-teams, facilitate, and he passes the ball. I think that’s a great combination with what they have. Their unselfishness, to me, is really what stands out. I’ve had a chance to watch them numerous times this year, and they have a really good team this year. I think the expectations are warranted because of the way they play, the style they play. But defensively, they give maximum effort and they share the ball with each other. You’re watching a team play the right way because that’s what they do. It gives you a chance. I really like how they’ve played in the early part of the season. But, like every team, they’ll have to continue to improve, and I really like what I’ve seen thus far.

DI: As the season continues, what do you think the ceiling is for this Iowa team?

Armstrong: When you’re playing as a team, and you have a good team, you have to have an understanding of just taking it day-by-day. Right now you can’t look too far ahead because you have to enjoy the process, the ups and downs of what that’s going to bring. With the early success that they’ve had, I think the early challenge of the season is to be able to meet those expectations because now they’re not like sneaking up on anybody. All the teams are going to play and give their maximum effort versus this team because of their ranking because they have a player up for National Player of the Year, they have great individual talent, they have a great team, and they have a high ranking. I think, before we get to the end of the season, let’s first understand how to meet those challenges because this is new for this group. Before I look to the end of the season, let’s look at this challenge that they have coming up. They play Gonzaga coming up here, and that’s going to be a big challenge for them in a lot of ways. This season presents challenges within itself, and you’re going to have to stay in the moment and you can’t look too far ahead at what it’s going to be at the end of the season because when you’re playing, a loss here, something happens there, and it can really change your season. I think it’s important for this team to stay focused, enjoy this process, continue to build on what they know they have to do internally as a team. I like their talent. They have a very talented group. A lot of things have to fall your way. Being on good teams, you understand that. You just don’t look too far ahead.

DI: Obviously in the NBA and in college you played on a lot of good teams, other than staying focused on the task at hand, what would your advice be to this year’s Iowa team.

Armstrong: Just enjoy this moment. They’ve worked hard. They’ve worked to get to this position. Enjoy this process because you never can take for granted when you’re going to have a special group. They have an opportunity to really make some memories here. They have an opportunity to really do something special. They have leadership. They have a great team. They’ve got good guard play and excellent interior play, obviously. They have a lot of depth. They have a really, really good team. So, just enjoy it. Enjoy this moment and continue to build every single game. As you get further and further down the line, you’ll begin to see those goals that you were thinking about early in the season, they’ll all happen because you stayed in the moment. I think the best advice I could give them is just stay focused. You can’t win the game on paper. You can’t win a game because you’re supposed to win a game. You have to go out there and do it. They have a good team and they look like they’re very focused. They’re shooting the ball well. They shoot it with range. They have a good mix of interior and what they’re doing on the exterior with their players. I’m a huge fan of what the Hawkeyes are doing and how they’re playing early in the season.

DI: You’ve played against a lot of great players in your career and you’ve played with a lot of great players too. When you watch Luka Garza, how does he kind of stack up to some of those guys?

Armstrong: The collegiate game is a totally different game than the NBA game. You know, I never compare players. I think what he’s been able to do and to establish himself at the collegiate level, look, every year he’s improved. So, that’s great. That’s the first thing that I can see with him. Every year that I’ve watched him, he’s improved every single year. He’s added little things to his game. He can finish in the interior. He’s strong. He has good hands. He has a nice touch, and now he’s extended his game out to 3-point range, and he’s doing that very consistently. I think the thing that really makes him special is that he passes the ball. He’s a willing passer. He goes out there and he does all the dirty work. He offensive rebounds. He defensively rebounds. He gives maximum effort on every play. When you work hard like that, you create a culture and you create expectations, not only within your group, but what everyone knows when he comes on the floor. He’s all business. I think him at the collegiate level, with his size and his ability to play on the inside because he’s a load down there to handle on the box and in interior play, and then with his ability to step out and shoot at a high percentage like he’s doing from the 3-point line, that’s a tough matchup for any player, especially at the collegiate level because he really is a very capable scorer from everywhere on the floor. When he’s able to pass the ball when he is double-teamed, that just creates havoc for the opposing teams because of his ability to always make the right play at any given time.

DI: When a team has a player like Luka that demands so much attention, does that kind of open things up for everybody else on the team to have scoring opportunities? How does that impact an offense?

Armstrong: He commands a double team at the collegiate level, especially in the interior. Any time you play with a player that commands a double team, there’s going to be what we call advantage basketball, right? If there’s two people guarding him, that means it’s four versus three on the other side. Sometimes you need three guys to guard him. He’s a handful, make no doubt about it. Like I said, when you have a big guy that can not only score on the interior, what makes him really unique is that he can step out and shoot that 3-ball. What makes him the player that we’re all talking about right now is that he passes the ball when he is double-teamed. That, to me, is what makes him such a great teammate is that he’s a willing passer and is always willing to make the right play. Yeah he gets a lot of accolades for his scoring and what he’s doing as he should. The thing that just, you know watching the game, he passes the ball when he’s double-teamed, when he is triple-teamed, and that creates a balance that you need to be a great team because everyone’s going to have to respect everyone on the floor and those perimeter guys are really shooting it at a high clip.

DI: When you have to guard someone as talented as Luka Garza, how do you approach that as a player?

Armstrong: You have to have a team, especially at the collegiate level. He’s bigger and stronger than most of the guys he’ll face at the collegiate level. In the NBA, that’s a totally different situation. At the collegiate level, you have to focus on him as a team. You have to have bigs that can play against him at his size with what he brings because he’s so strong. You’ve got to have a total team effort. You’ve got to throw different looks at him. You’ve got to double him. Sometimes you’ve got to play him single coverage. Sometimes you may double him on the pass. Sometimes you may double him on the dribble. So, I think you’ve got to have a good mix on how you play a player like him because of his ability. He’s a very cerebral player, he’s patient, and he’s showing that he’s seen just about every defense that you can see. Give him credit, he’s been able to figure out how to move around the floor and counter whatever the defense is showing him thus far.

DI: How do you think his game translates to the NBA level?

Armstrong: When you look at the game now, the NBA is really playing what they call small ball now. Most of the bigs who are playing today aren’t playing the way that we kind of traditionally saw bigs or have seen bigs play in the past. But, you know there are some very unique guys that play that position now like [Nikola] Jokic, the kid from Denver. You have Joel Embiid, to name a few. But overall, the game is basically played and being dominated as we speak right now by playing small ball. But, Luka has shown the ability and skill set to step out there and play. So, I think it’s just a matter of kind of seeing how he’s going to fit in. Things go in trends, and right now, small ball is the trend theme that is going. Smaller teams have had a lot of success, in particular, the Golden State Warriors, and then you start seeing seven-foot power forwards like Anthony Davis slide over to the center position this year with the Los Angeles Lakers. This is a league where it goes in cycles. It goes in trends. All it takes is for one big to kind of come back and be very dominant at any given time and then the game moves back. But I think he fits in. Certainly you know what he can bring, and it just takes him getting to the right place, the right situation. Without question, he has the ability. It’s just a matter of how he’s going to fit into today’s game. That will be determined with how he performs on the floor. I don’t think anybody can make any projections on what they think a player is going to do.

DI: From your perspective, how do you think Iowa basketball has changed over the years?

Armstrong: The game continues to change, and the game continues to evolve to where you see now, the 3-point shot here has trickled all the way down to the collegiate level where you see a lot of teams shooting an abundance of 3s. I think the way the game, and through the business of how the game is televised, how it’s coached has all changed. I think the athletes are bigger and stronger because they’re able to train. They’re trained better, I think they eat better. Their preparation is better. So, I think like anything, the evolution of the game has been great to see, and to watch Iowa basketball be able to compete at this level and compete against the very best at the collegiate level has been incredible. So, I think, like everything in life, it continues to change, and it’s been great to watch. Certainly being a former Hawkeye myself, it’s been wonderful to see, to watch how they’ve improved under coach Fran [McCaffery]. Coach Fran has done an incredible job just building every single day. Every single year he consistently puts together really good teams. Now he has a really great team. This is a team that can do some special things.

DI: Iowa’s had a lot of great basketball players over the years, and you’re one of them. How do you feel like you stack up in Hawkeye history?

Armstrong: You know, I don’t know. I just always wanted to represent the University of Iowa in a way where I just do my best, that’s it. I don’t know where I stacked up. I’m just very thankful to have had an opportunity to play in the Big Ten, and I just say that with great humility. The university just meant everything to me, and I just wanted to give it my all and do my best every time I came out there with that Black and Gold on. I just wanted to do my best and represent the university in a way that made them proud. I don’t know what all that means. I always felt the university had great players before me, whether it was Steve Carfino or Ronnie Lester, Greg Stokes and Michael Payne and all of those guys. And there’s been great players that came after me. So, I just wanted to represent the university in a way that tried to meet that standard of excellence that the university has always strived for. So, I don’t know where that stacks up. When I see these guys today, they’re carrying on the tradition. I just felt responsible to carry on the tradition of Iowa. I don’t know individually where that fits or how it fits. I’ve never really thought about it. I just wanted people to say ‘Hey,’ when they talked about Iowa. You know, just give us the same respect that you’re giving the other places because we have a good team, we have a great university here and we work hard here. So, that was just kind of my idea. So, that’s kind of how I approached it then, and it’s great to see now.

DI: You played in a lot of high-stakes games, a lot of NBA Finals games, playoff games, things like that. Iowa’s got No. 1 Gonzaga on Saturday like you mentioned. How do you handle that as a player?

Armstrong: Gonzaga has had some great teams over the years. They’ve been No. 1 numerous times. They’ve had some really great teams over the years. So, I think for Iowa, this gives us an opportunity to measure where we’re at. This is a great opportunity when the lights are bright to see who we are and what we are right now early in the season. So, when you play in big-stakes games, you understand the fundamentals of the game because the better the talent, the less room for error that you have. So, this is going to be a great opportunity for them to measure who they are, and what they are, and what they’re going to be because if you’re going to go deep in the [NCAA] Tournament, these are the level of teams and the level of players you’re going to see. So, I think this will be a great test for them. The lights will be bright. There will be a lot of hype. There will be a lot of distractions. But play every possession. Just play the possession. Boxing out is boxing out. Making the right pass is making the right pass. You can’t always predict if you’re going to shoot the ball well or not. But, you can do all of the little things. You can defend. You can get loose balls. You can box out. You can rebound. You can talk on defense. So, I think fundamentals of the game will be critical to this game because the talent will, more or less, be the same. They’ll have great players. Obviously, we have great players. We’re a great team and they’re a great team. So, I think it’ll come down to the small things. This is a good way to kind of assess who you are and what you are. If you’re going to win [a national title], you’ve got to beat these teams. Those games always come down to one or two possessions. This will be a good game. This will be a great game, and I’m really looking forward to it.

DI: So my last question I wanted to ask you is kind of a tough one. You’ve lived a basketball life. You’ve played basketball for a long time. Is there one particular thing you reflect back on like, ‘That is my favorite thing I ever did,’?

Armstrong: My favorite thing that I’ve ever done was go to the University of Iowa. I never dreamed as a young kid that I would have an opportunity to be the first in my family to get a college degree, and be the first in my family to play sports at the collegiate level, let alone the professional level. I remember my grandmother always just wanted us to go to school and go to college. So for her to visit me and the University of Iowa and be able to walk to a class with me was probably the thrill of my life. My grandmother didn’t have a chance to finish high school, and for her to walk to class with me at the University of Iowa is the highlight for me of my life. We talk about going pro, and playing, and winning games, but she always just had this idea that she just wanted us to get our education. So, for me to do that, and I remember walking to class with her, it was just like a great moment. It was a great moment for the Armstrong family to be able to have that, and that happened right there in Iowa City. So, going to the University of Iowa just gave me something that was far beyond anything that I had imagined. I just remember that was a really special moment for me and for our family.