Five years ago this week, Iowa basketball was the beneficiary of a strange confluence of scheduling events. The Hawkeyes finished the season 17-16, but had racked up a handful of big wins, including home victories over Wisconsin and Indiana (then both Kenpom top 10 teams) in February. On Selection Sunday, Iowa received a somewhat-surprising bid to the NIT, its first appearance in the basketball postseason in five years.
Normally, the higher-seeded team hosts all games in the first three rounds of the NIT, but Iowa drew Dayton, and Dayton had a problem: The NCAA "First Four" is played in its gym every year, which meant there were already two games scheduled in Dayton on the same night as its NIT game. So it was quickly announced that Iowa, as a seven seed, would be hosting Dayton in the first round.
Iowa athletics handled ticketing flawlessly. Season ticket holders had roughly 12 hours to purchase seats after the game was announced on Sunday night, after which it became first-come, first-served. And in the NIT, where half-full arenas are the norm, Iowa sold every seat, the vast majority to fans who don't have season tickets.
I've been to dozens of games at Carver Hawkeye Arena. I have attended Iowa State games during the Eustachy regime, when the Cyclones were at their fighting weight and the crowd was enraged. I've been to Iowa-Wisconsin after the Uthoff incident, where Bo Ryan was the greatest heel in sports to all 15,500 in attendance. I was at 2006 Senior Day to honor the best Iowa team in a decade. I was at the 2007 Iowa-Indiana game, where Adam Haluska disemboweled the Hoosiers as one final gift to Steve Alford. I've seen Carver Hawkeye Arena loud and engaged. And I've never seen anything like what I saw that night, for an NIT game against Dayton. Because Dayton stepped off the bus and into the third ring of hell.
There was little doubt Iowa's raucous, near-sellout crowd put the higher-seeded Flyers at a major disadvantage.
"They had us on our heels," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "Probably the toughest venue we've been in all season long other than maybe a Xavier game on the road. But we were coming into a bee's nest."
The Hawkeyes fed off that energy, taking control of a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair with their second-half run.
Five years later, Iowa again hosted an NIT game, and again got the ticketing right: Season ticket holders got access for just over 12 hours, and then the free-for-all began. And so, for a Wednesday night game against South Dakota that was announced just three days prior and tipped at 8:00 after a last-second scheduling change, Iowa damn near sold out Carver Hawkeye Arena, and it wasn't the usual crowd.
In the 7 NIT games played last night, the highest attendance was 5,500 at Georgia Tech. Iowa has sold roughly 12,000 for tonight's game.— Gary Dolphin (@GaryDolphin) March 15, 2017
"After a shot went in tonight, you couldn't hear anything. It was so loud. It was unlike any atmosphere I've been in." @imoss38— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 16, 2017
"I loved it tonight. The crowd was amazing and my teammates just told me to keep shooting." @imoss38— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 16, 2017
"When we saw that crowd and the energy they brought, it really fueled us." @iamTC5— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 16, 2017
"We can't thank the crowd enough for showing up tonight. It's unreal to have that type of support." @JordanBo_3— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) March 16, 2017
I want to thank our fans for showing up the way they did. We had a couple days to sell tickets. I’m not surprised, they’ve always done this.
Had great impact on our energy level, our ability to keep coming. Just very thankful. I know the players and the coaches really appreciate that kind of support. That was an unbelievable atmosphere in here tonight, and we’re very thankful.
The game stories brought up the fans' role, too. From The Gazette's Jeremiah Davis:
Ultimately, it was an opening-round National Invitation Tournament win for the Iowa men’s basketball team. The Hawkeyes got an 87-75 win against South Dakota on Wednesday night in front of an electric Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd of 12,864, and part of what made them electric was the play of a few guys who could do some special things in an Iowa uniform the next few years.
It was hard to tell which came first Wednesday — the pent-up energy from a near-capacity crowd or the Iowa basketball team's late-arriving swagger.
Whichever it was, the Hawkeyes used an inspired second half to outrun South Dakota 87-75 in a first-round National Invitation Tournament game before a riled-up crowd announced at 12,864 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I don’t think we could have done it without them,” said freshman guard Isaiah Moss, who brought the fans to their feet with four first-half 3-pointers. “I’m looking forward to Sunday. I hope they all come out again.”
We checked with the ultimate arbiter of Carver Hawkeye Arena atmosphere, a man who tweets out every burrito lift and Red Panda sighting all season, the Hawk-Eye's John Bohnenkamp:
@PV_GIA Absolutely.— John Bohnenkamp (@johnbohnenkamp) March 16, 2017
And if there was any doubt that this was a different kind of crowd:
GO HAWKS!!! pic.twitter.com/IKacLl4Vxm— Tommy Lang (@tommylang1630) March 16, 2017
This is what happens when you open up the country club pool to the caddies. Words like "raucous" and "electric" do not usually describe the knitting club attending a weeknight Iowa basketball game against a Summit League opponent, but every time that we clear the crowd and let in the general public, Carver Hawkeye Arena transforms from the world's biggest soft serve ice cream shop into an actual college basketball arena.
There are no easy answers for this. I received a dozen tweets last night from people who attended their first game of the year, and absence makes the screaming grow louder. If you lowered season ticket prices and let the underserved Iowa fan into the arena every night, that electric atmosphere could evaporate quickly. And that is ignoring the basic economics of the situation, that Fran McCaffery is expensive and has to be paid, and that money talks.
But we've spent a decade -- not coincidentally, since the department tied basketball ticket ownership to football ticketing priorities -- complaining about the atmosphere at CHA. We've replaced the video boards and audio systems, we've tried to update the music. We've objected to Sunday scheduling and late night tipoffs. If Wednesday night was any indication, none of that matters. If given the opportunity, Iowa fans -- the ones that don't complain when someone stands up or are more interested in ice cream than the game -- will show up and be loud and make Carver Hawkeye Arena the true home court we so desperately need. They just have to get a chance, and Iowa athletics needs to find a way to get it to them more than every fourth March.