IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every fan base has its quirks, but Iowa’s fascination with the NIT stumps most people outside of eastern Iowa.
Going on two generations, the college basketball world has revolved around March and the NCAA Tournament. Made-for-TV games in November and December are brushed aside because of football. January conference matchups become curtain-raisers for the eventual league tournament. The league tournament renders the previous two months virtually meaningless because a hot team can reach the NCAA Tournament with three or four good days.
The NIT once carried similar prestige. Now it’s the consolation tournament, like a third-tier bowl game with a sponsored name. That’s the way most of America treats the NIT. It’s something to bet on and something to show in bars during the pregnant pauses between rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Athletics departments often reject NIT home games because their fans trickle rather than flood into the arena. We saw that with Indiana last week. It happens almost every year.
But not in Iowa. It’s the darnedest thing. After three consecutive seasons in the NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes were one of the four top teams left out of the Big Dance this year. While disappointing, it was more or less expected with a young team filled with promise and inconsistency. Iowa gained one of the NIT’s top four seeds, which includes up to three home games.
Again, some places hosting NIT games see them as more of an irritant than a celebration. A few days ago, fellow top seed Syracuse hosted 4,288 fans in its cavernous Carrier Dome, which seats nearly 35,000. Illinois, a No. 2 seed, attracted 4,719. That’s more the norm than the exception.
Iowa nearly tripled the attendance at Syracuse and Illinois with 12,864 fans Wednesday against South Dakota. Saturday, officials announced a sellout for the Sunday afternoon home game against TCU. Think about this for a moment. While most fans casually shrug faint interest in the NIT, Iowa’s fans rush to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Why is that? It’s a new group of fans that invade Hawkeyeland for these games.
“We don’t have absolute numbers, but roughly about half the crowd here are fans that maybe don’t get to a lot of games during the regular season,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. “Maybe they don’t have season tickets, but they see this as an opportunity. (It’s during) spring break so a lot of families that don’t go out of town, this is a great way to come and see a great team.
“They’ve been watching them on TV all year. You can tell that with the way that they cheer for certain players. You know that they’re educated about our team. They just haven’t had a chance to experience Carver-Hawkeye Arena. We have emails, and we’ll continue to try to get them excited.”
Iowa generally ranks in the Top 25 nationally in attendance and this season averaged 12,372 fans for 18 regular-season games. The crowd is a mix of older, lifelong fans, middle-aged family types and students. At times during regular-season action, the arena gets strangely quiet. Anecdotally — and too many times to document — fans have remarked that sections are divided between louder fans who want to stand and cheer and those who prefer to sit and watch the action. It often results in uncomfortable disagreements that never lead to boosting the environment.
— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 16, 2017
It’s a different type of fan who invades Carver-Hawkeye Arena during the NIT. It’s a louder, football-type crowd. The energy stays in the arena; it doesn’t flatline with each play stoppage. Iowa’s players noticed it during their 87-75 win against South Dakota.
“They said the biggest crowd of the NIT was like 5,500, and we had almost 13K here,” Iowa freshman Tyler Cook said. “For it to be spring break and the first round of the NIT, and those people came out and cheered us on and supported us was huge for us. I think when we saw that crowd and saw the energy that they brought, that just fueled us, especially in the second half.”
“[The crowd] had great impact on our energy level,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Just very thankful. I know the players and the coaches really appreciate that kind of support. That was an unbelievable atmosphere in here [Wednesday], and we’re very thankful.”
Team officials publicly and privately for years have raved about the NIT crowds at Iowa. In McCaffery’s second and third years as coach, the Hawkeyes hosted three NIT games. In 2012 with two days to prepare, Iowa brought in 13,190 against Dayton in what this observer considers the loudest game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in at least a decade. The following year, both Iowa NIT games were sellouts at 15,400. Both games featured the highest attendance for an NIT game since 2009.
From 2010 through 2017, Iowa has held four of the top five gates in the NIT. That number will grow to five of six by Sunday night. Only BYU’s impressive showing (15,525) in 2016 keeps it from an Iowa sweep.
But now comes the interesting part for Iowa. How do university officials keep the newcomers engaged and encourage them to return more frequently? How do they straddle the uneasy line of keeping patrons and longtime (oftentimes silent) fans happy while allowing others to stand and cheer and provide the necessary homecourt advantage?
Those are uncomfortable questions that need to be asked, debated and answered in the months that follow this season. Should Iowa reseat the arena in a way that divides the standers from the sitters? Should officials revise and revamp the student section?
The surprising momentum of NIT basketball should usher in a new wave of ideas of how to enhance Iowa’s basketball environment. The Hawkeyes have the fan following, and the NIT proves Carver-Hawkeye Arena can provide the atmosphere. It’s just a matter of capturing that momentum and propelling it forward in the future.