New Years Eve Date with Indiana Offers Iowa Basketball a Grand Stage for its ReturnPosted by KTrahan on December 28th, 2012
The loudest I’ve ever heard a crowd at a sporting event was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was Big Ten-leading Iowa vs. #20 Michigan on February 20, 2006, and I was a seventh-grader who put tickets to an Iowa basketball game at the top of my Christmas list. Those days in Carver-Hawkeye were special; they were the beginning of my love of college basketball. The Hawkeyes walloped Michigan 94-66 on that particular day en route to a Big Ten Championship season. I sat there taking in the atmosphere, preaching to my dad — a Syracuse fan — that nowhere in the country could top the Carver-Hawkeye experience.
Nearly seven years later, a lot has changed for Iowa basketball. The Hawkeyes’ decline has been well-documented, marked by the Steve Alford soap opera and the failed Todd Lickliter era. By the end of the Lickliter era, local high school games rivaled the atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Now, the healing has begun in Iowa City, as Fran McCaffery enters year three of his rebuilding project. Iowa has gone from cellar dweller to a program on the rise, and as Big Ten play approaches, Iowa is back in the NCAA Tournament conversation for the first time since, well, that season in 2006.
Iowa has been eating up the “on the rise” slogan — in fact, it’s the team’s official slogan this year — and the fans seem to be buying in. The Hawkeyes have been on the rise for awhile, and considering the steady progress that McCaffery has made, the fans have been patient with what they knew would be a painstaking rebuilding process. But nobody has mistaken the rise of the program with being “back.” That’s the next step for this program, and could come in the waning hours of 2012, as the Hawkeyes host #5 Indiana Monday in the first game of the Big Ten season.
A lot has changed for me in the past seven years as well. I no longer ask for Iowa basketball tickets at Christmas, and now I cover Northwestern basketball as an objective journalist. It’s been a long time since that day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena seven years ago, and while I no longer show up to games sporting black and gold, I still remember the feeling I got sitting in the arena for that show. It’s a feeling Iowa fans are dying to relive. Every program that has ever come “back” from a down period has a signature win to get there. Indiana’s, for instance, was last year against #1 Kentucky. Iowa has showed moments of promise over the past few years, and Carver has been “rocking” at a few games recently, but it hasn’t been back to where it was. It hasn’t been 2006 back. It hasn’t been Dr. Tom Davis era back. On New Year’s Eve, with one of the best teams in the nation visiting and a sold-out crowd in attendance, Iowa has a chance to announce its arrival on the big stage once again. This is the biggest game at Iowa since 2006, and the most important game in who knows how long. Of course a loss against the Hoosiers doesn’t ruin Iowa’s season, and every subsequent big home game this year will be promoted as the Hawkeyes’ biggest game in years. But none will take on the significance of this one. None could raise the perception of Iowa basketball in the national and regional scope more than a win over Indiana on New Year’s Eve.
I’m far removed from Iowa basketball these days, and I have been for awhile, but I know what nationally significant basketball means to the state. Football is, and always will be king in Iowa, but there’s a special place for basketball, too. Hawkeye athletics are the unifying identifier for the citizens of a state with corn, kindness and not much else. And for the first time in years, Iowans will be able to share pride in that identifier past the end of football season. While I won’t be in Carver-Hawkeye or wearing black and gold on New Year’s Eve, it’s nostalgic to think back to how these last seven years have gone for the Hawkeyes, and how close things have come to getting back to how they were the night I first fell in love with the sport. In the last seven years, things have nearly come full circle — nearly, but not quite. After a long period of trying times, the stage is set and the pieces are in place. And on New Year’s Eve, Iowa has the chance to complete the circle and rock Carver like it’s 2006 again. It’s a moment Iowa basketball is ready for, one that it has been waiting on for a very long time.