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.