The Iowa men’s basketball team will be without injured freshman point guard Mike Gesell when it faces Illinois on Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Gesell will be there in person to support his teammates, who need all the help they can get at this stage of the season.
As for his fellow UI students, it’s hard to predict how many of them will attend the game. You’d like to think the student section would be close to full for a game of this importance. But then how do you explain the previous home game against Purdue when the student section was more than half empty?
The students who attended Iowa’s 58-48 victory over the Boilermakers did what they could to create an ongoing distraction. There just weren’t enough of them to make a huge impact.
I remember looking up at all the empty seats and thinking how deflating it must be for the players and coaches. Now in fairness, it wasn’t just UI students who were responsible for all the empty seats.
The atmosphere was also nothing like the morgue-like conditions that festered throughout the Todd Lickliter coaching era at Iowa for three seasons from 2007-10. But it was disappointing to see so few Iowa students at this stage in the Fran McCaffery rebuilding process, especially for a Big Ten game and with Iowa on the verge of having its best overall home attendance average in a decade at more than 13,000 per game.
So I went looking for an explanation, a search that took me to University of Iowa junior T.J. McCann. The Cedar Rapids native was re-elected just two weeks ago to his second term as President of the Hawks Nest, which is the official student section for Hawkeye athletics.
McCann said there were several reasons for the sparse turnout by UI students for the Purdue game, which I estimated to be approximately a couple hundred. He mentioned four, including the fact that Iowa was coming off a disheartening 64-60 loss a lowly Nebraska, a game in which the Hawkeyes led by 19 points late in the first half.
McCann also pointed out that last Wednesday was a busy time for UI students with mid-term exams having just started, that the weather wasn’t the greatest and that Purdue, with its grind-it-out playing style and its sub .500 record, left much to be desired in terms of drawing power.
“I think it was just kind of a perfect storm of reasons not to go, honestly,” McCann said Sunday afternoon. “So I sort of didn’t expect many people to be there.”
McCann expects a larger turnout for the Illinois game, even with the threat of another winter storm looming. He thinks Iowa played well enough during Saturday’s 73-60 loss at top-ranked Indiana to inspire the students to come out. He also believes that Illinois is far more appealing than Purdue, partly because so many UI students are from Illinois.
And, according to McCann , it should help that mid-term exams are winding down and that spring break is approaching.
“We’re getting closer to spring break, so I know kids are going to want to do whatever they can to get out of that studying mood,” McCann said. “So I think we’ll see more students there. And quite honestly, I think Illinois is a much more attractive opponent to go watch than Purdue, especially with how many students are from Illinois here at the University of Iowa.”
McCann’s reasons do seem legitimate. But they also show that student support at Iowa is similar to the Iowa men’s basketball program in that both still have room for improvement.
“It’s not where it needs to be, but I’m very pleased with how attendance is trending, both with the general population and with students as well,” McCann said. “I’m a junior here, so I’ve seen it at its worst. I had season tickets in high school under Lickliter.
“It’s common knowledge that winning is the ultimate factor in everything. You can only do so many promotions. You can only market the games so much. Students want to see a winning product on the floor. And Fran has done a tremendous job of getting us to where we are now, sort of out of the dark ages of the Lickliter era.”
McCann is correct in saying that winning is the ultimate drawing card for any fan.
McCaffery has the program moving in the right direction with Iowa already having matched its 18 victories from last season and with the Hawkeyes likely already a lock to make the National Invitation Tournament for the second consecutive season.
The atmosphere inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena was top-notch when Iowa played Iowa State, Indiana and Michigan State earlier this season. It was similar to the glory days under former coach Tom Davis and to the brief periods of success under Davis’ successor, Steve Alford.
But on the other hand, Iowa hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and the odds of it happening this season appear slim based on Iowa’s records of 18-11 overall and 7-9 in the Big Ten.
The way I see it, though, is that the students are one of the most important pieces to finally getting over the hump. It would help to have a few more reliable shooters on the team, but also to have more students present on game day to create a hostile environment.
I’m not saying the Hawks Nest should hold its own against something as established as the Izzone, which is the name of Michigan State’s student section, because the Izzone took years of success to build under head coach Tom Izzo.
All I’m saying is that Iowa is real close to getting over the hump under McCaffery, but it was hard to tell when looking at so many empty seats in the student section during the Purdue game.
McCann deserves praise for his commitment to trying to build the Hawks Nest into a force. But he also needs more support on a consistent basis from his fellow students. It’s easy for students to watch Iowa play powerhouses like Indiana and Michigan State.
At some point, though, UI students have to take the commitment to the next level or accept just being an average student section.
That’s not a criticism, but rather an opinion based on what I observed against Purdue.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball