IOWA CITY, Iowa — Some teams and their fan bases might lack for motivation when their NCAA Tournament dreams are shattered and they’re sent to the consolation NIT.
Iowa is not one of those programs, at least not this year. As of Tuesday afternoon, fans have snapped up more than 11,200 tickets for the Hawkeyes’ NIT opener Wednesday against South Dakota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (8 p.m. CT, ESPN2). It’s one positive the players and coaches appreciate entering the postseason.
“I think our fans know that this is a good team, and we’re an exciting team to come watch play,” Iowa sophomore Ahmad Wagner said. “We’re just grateful to have a fan base like that, that wants to see us play no matter what position we’re in, NCAA, NIT. They want to see us succeed, and it’s a blessing to have a fan base like that.”
It’s not unusual for Iowa fans to fill Carver-Hawkeye Arena for postseason games. In 2013, Iowa sold out both home NIT games against Indiana State and Stony Brook. In 2012, the Hawkeyes were the final at-large team to qualify for the NIT but were given a home game because their opponent (Dayton) had NCAA Tournament games on its home floor. Less than two days later, more than 13,000 fans showed up and provided perhaps Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s most raucous atmosphere in the last 10 years.
As one of the NIT’s top four seeds, Iowa can host up to three games as long as it wins. The crowd support is crucial, but winning is paramount for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
“I think that’s great, especially of the way our fans respond to this team and have responded in the past to having NIT games here,” McCaffery said. “But you can’t assume anything. We have a really good team coming in here (Wednesday). We’ve got to be ready to play them and hopefully continue to play well throughout the tournament.”
Continuing to compete is important for Iowa’s young team. The Hawkeyes start three freshmen, a sophomore and one senior. Of Iowa’s 11-man rotation, all but two are underclassmen. More game action and practices help the team gain experience.
“We obviously have a really young group here, and we had an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament,” Iowa freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said. “In some people’s eyes, we let them down. The true fans, they understand. Hey we might not have made it, but this is still another opportunity to play in the postseason and get our young guys some experience in a win-or-go-home situation.
“We’re happy that all the fans that are coming out to support us, and we just want to let them know that we’re going to be a team that’s going to compete for the NCAA Tournament every year that our class is here. We’re going to do everything we need to do to give them every opportunity to cheer for the Hawks.”