IOWA CITY - More and more each day, the Iowa basketball team is understanding that it's not how you start, but how you "finisher" that matters.

The Hawkeyes have found themselves hauling sandbags from one end of the court to the other, running the steps at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and participating in team-building relays at the conclusion of strength and conditioning sessions since the end of last season.

The mentally and physically challenging endurance tests used on a random basis by new strength and conditioning coordinator Rusty Burney - dubbed "Rusty's finishers" by the Hawkeyes - are having a visible and a not-so-visible impact as Iowa prepares to open practices for the 2009-10 season Friday.

"You never know what's coming, but you know Rusty's finishers are going to test you," Iowa freshman Brennan Cougill said Monday at the Hawkeyes' media day. "It's hard work now that will pay off later. I think we all realize that."

That hard work began last spring while Cougill was wrapping up his senior year at Sioux City Heelan.

Shortly after the end of a 15-17 season, Iowa players returned to the weight room. Four days each week, they worked on improving their own numbers.

"Just look around. Guys don't even look the same. Everybody bought in. Everybody made the commitment. It's a noticeable difference," said sophomore Matt Gatens, Iowa's returning scoring leader.

Forward Aaron Fuller has gained nearly 20 pounds and now weighs in at around 230 without a loss in quickness.

"Strength was an area that really hurt us last season and that isn't going to be the case any more," Fuller said. "We've made gains in strength and endurance that will only help."

Those gains came with a little pain.

"You'd be ready to wrap it up and then Rusty would roll out another finisher," guard Anthony Tucker said. "He pushed us a little more, a little further than we were used to, and we all believe it will benefit us beginning this season."

Coach Todd Lickliter is counting on that as well.

He said that Burney, a Pella, Iowa, native who worked at Tulsa, Arkansas and Colgate, has brought the right approach to strength training that has resulted in measurable gains in strength and endurance.

"Strength is never a negative," he said. "Our guys have gained strength, they have gained conditioning and they have gained confidence from that. They have invested and I think we'll reap the benefits from that investment."

In an experienced Big Ten that saw 11 underclassmen fill the 15 spots on the 2009 all-conference team, including sophomores in all five first-team positions, Iowa is not expected to climb beyond last season's 10th-place finish.

Most preseason polls have pegged the Hawkeyes to finish last, a position Iowa has not occupied since going 5-13 in Big Ten play during the 1993-94 season.

Lickliter isn't buying it.

"We look at that as just a great challenge," Lickliter said. "We've got great confidence in our team and we see this as an opportunity. Some of my favorite stories are ones where the non-favorites come out on top."

The third-year Iowa coach likes the fact that the Hawkeyes' returning players now have the experience, the understanding and the willingness to teach younger players the intricacies of the system Iowa runs.

"I think we've turned the corner and I like where we're going," Lickliter said. "So much of that is just the group that we've got right now. None of us are happy with where we finished and that's huge."

They said it

"Cully Payne is going to be a great point guard for us. He's getting better every day.'' - Iowa guard Matt Gatens, referring to the freshman from Schaumburg, Ill.

"I've learned a lot about the toughness that it takes to play at this level. No complaining, no whining, just go about your business.'' - freshman guard Cully Payne

"I ignore where people pick us. I don't see it as a positive or negative. We'll earn whatever finish we get with the work we put into it.'' - junior forward Jarryd Cole

"I think it is good for me to reflect a bit on my freshman year, but mostly I want to move forward and have the type of season I know I am capable of having - sophomore guard Anthony Tucker

"We want to recapture the great tradition here. I know we've got the right players here and coming and we're excited about it.'' - Iowa coach Todd Lickliter

Iowa at a glance

Coach: Todd Lickliter (28-36 entering third season at Iowa, 159-97 overall)

2008-09 record: 15-17 (5-13 Big Ten, 10th place)

Returning starters: G Devan Bawinkel, 6-5, sr., 4.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg; F Jarryd Cole, 6-7, jr. 3.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Aaron Fuller, 6-6, soph., 4.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg; G Matt Gatens, 6-5, soph., 10.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg

Returning letterwinners: F Andrew Brommer, 6-9, soph., 1.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg; G Anthony Tucker, 6-4, soph., 10.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg

Newcomers: F Devon Archie, 6-9, jr., Indianapolis; F Brennan Cougill, 6-9, fr., Sioux City, Iowa; G John Lickliter, 5-11, redshirt fr., Iowa City; G Eric May, 6-5, fr., Dubuque, Iowa; G Nick Neari, 6-2, fr., St. Charles, Ill.; G Cully Payne, 6-1, fr., Schaumburg, Ill.

2009-10 schedule

November - 8, Marian (exhibition), 12:30 p.m.; 15, Texas-San Antonio, 5 p.m.; 17, Duquesne, 8 p.m.; 20, Bowling Green, 8 p.m.; 23, vs. Texas at CBE Classic, 8:45 p.m.; 24, vs. Pittsburgh or Wichita State at CBE Classic, 6:45 or 9 p.m.; 28, North Carolina Central, 12:30 p.m.

December - 1, Virginia Tech, 8:30 p.m.; 5, Prairie View A&M, 3 p.m.; 8, at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m.; 11, at Iowa State, 7 p.m.; 19, Drake, 5:30 p.m.; 21, South Carolina State, 7:30 p.m.; 29, Purdue, 6 p.m.

January - 2, Minnesota, 3 p.m.; 5, at Illinois, 8 p.m.; 9, Michigan State, 4:30 p.m.; 12, Tennessee State, 8 p.m.; 16, Penn State, noon; 20, at Michigan State, 5:30 p.m.; 24, at Indiana, 4 p.m.; 27, Ohio State, 7:30 p.m.; 30, at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.

February - 3, Illinois, 7:30 p.m.; 7, at Ohio State, 11 a.m.; 10, Northwestern, 7:30 p.m.; 13, at Purdue, 3:30 p.m.; 16, Michigan, 8 p.m.; 25, at Northwestern, 6 p.m.; 28, Indiana, 5 p.m.

March - 2, 3 or 4, at Wisconsin, TBA; 7, at Minnesota, 5 p.m.; 11-14, at Big Ten Tournament at Indianapolis, TBA