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As Iowa basketball surges, fans flock in droves

[ 0 ] March 23, 2013 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. Most of the energy had left Carver-Hawkeye Arena when Iowa basketball Fran McCaffery tried to put the Friday night in perspective.

“The electricity in this building was so phenomenal for me,” McCaffery said, signing a basketball for a fan as he spoke. “It makes me so happy that they respond to these kids the way they do. That’s all I want to see.”

A sellout crowd of 15,400 had come to cheer the Hawkeyes on to a 75-63 victory over Stony Brook in a second-round NIT game. Two nights earlier, another sellout crowd had witnessed a first-round victory over Indiana State. That was more than double the attendance of any other first-round NIT game.

In a perfect world, the building would have been empty Wednesday and Friday night. And Iowa’s athletic ticket office wouldn’t have been stretched to the limit with the challenge of meeting demands on a one-day turnaround.

“The answer is, let’s see if we can make the (NCAA) tournament,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said.

One of the last six teams left out of this year’s NCAA field, according to the selection committee, Iowa is trying to make the best of its close call. And the fans have responded, with the fifth and sixth sellouts of the season.

Iowa hasn’t had that many sellouts since the 2001-02 schedule was sold out on a season-ticket basis. But the trickle of attendance decline started in 2002-03, then eroded at an alarming rate when Iowa had four straight losing seasons for the first time in program history (2007-08 through 2010-11).

Rock bottom came in 2009-10, the year before McCaffery arrived. Average attendance was an arena-low 9,550. Actual attendance was 5,160. In one game against Tennessee State, just 2,521 fans came through the turnstiles.

“I remember a lot of nights where it was a quarter full,” Barta said. “So this is fantastic.”

Iowa didn’t receive a penny from ticket revenue from those two NIT games. All gate receipts go to the NIT. The tournament covers expenses, including team travel.

But Friday’s crowd wasn’t about dollars and cents. It was about a rebirth of Iowa basketball in McCaffery’s three seasons. Iowa won a total of 21 games in the two seasons that bridged the Todd Lickliter-McCaffery eras. The Hawkeyes won their 23rd game of the season Friday.

It was a raucous crowd, too.

“My ears were ringing,” Iowa’s Devyn Marble after a 28-point night.

Many in the crowd were not season ticket holders, taking advantage of the moderate ticket price of $15 to cheer on a team they had watched on TV all season.

“It could be partly that,” Barta said. “And this is a fun team to watch. I think people are just into it.”

The last time I attended a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a crowd as electric as Friday was a nationally televised CBS contest against Indiana on Jan. 28, 2001. Iowa, urged on by a sellout crowd, rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to beat the Hoosiers, 71-66.

Luke Recker, playing on one good knee against the school he started his college career at, scored 17 of his game-high 27 points during the second-half rally. On Friday, Recker was in the crowd cheering on McCaffery’s Hawkeyes.

“I thought it was the loudest I’d ever heard it (Wednesday),” Iowa sophomore Aaron White said. “And then it was even louder (Friday).”

Eric May’s freshman season was 2009-10, when the building was a third full on average. Friday night, he got a standing ovation when McCaffery took him out of the game in the final minute so his lone scholarship senior could receive a curtain call.

“I looked up at the clock and said, ‘I’ve got to get him out,’” McCaffery said.

May hugged his coach when he got to the bench.

“To have 15,400 on their feet cheering for what we’ve done is really special,” May said. “That’s all worth it right there, when you get moments like that. And I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Hawkeyes’ fate known around noon Sunday

Third-seeded Iowa, which reached the final eight of the NIT with Friday’s 75-63 win against Stony Brook, awaits the winner of Sunday’s 10 a.m. contest between No. 1 seed Virginia and fifth-seeded St. John’s. The game is on ESPN.

If Virginia wins, Iowa would travel to Charlottesville, Va., for a Wednesday game because the Cavaliers are the higher seeded team. Iowa would host a third consecutive game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday if St. John’s prevails.

The Hawkeyes are one victory from advancing to the April 2 NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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