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Bryce Miller: Big Four Classic mostly a success; bitter feelings fester

[ 0 ] December 15, 2012 |

The inside of Wells Fargo Arena became a concrete canvas on Saturday, splashed with hues of black, purple, blue and cardinal — as if the result of wild brush strokes from the hand of an imaginary painter.

The first Big Four Classic created an interesting, vibrant portrait in downtown Des Moines.

It also featured a few mismatched drips of red and green.

Hints of frustration, jealousy, or at least a smidge of crankiness still existed as the twin tipoffs arrived for college basketball event featuring Drake, Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa — muted, but muttered all the same.

Northern Iowa fans cheer on their team during game action against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the first half at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. (David Purdy/The Des Moines Register)

For all involved, the event meant a unique, first-in-the-state hoops happening. For half of the dance card, though, it signaled the potential end to memories such as 23,000 fans roaring like a 747 engine at takeoff when Northern Iowa beat Iowa 77-74 in 1990.

“Some UNI fans are a little bitter — there’s some resentment about losing home court games,” said Dave Andersen, a Panther fan from Cedar Falls. “But hey, we came. We show up. And this will be exciting every year.

“Wells Fargo is an awesome arena, and the people in Des Moines have been great. So maybe there’s some disappointment, but there are pluses, too.”

Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen framed the mixed-bag feeling of those who follow the Panthers and Bulldogs with the “r” word, too.

“Our fans won’t like it,” Dannen said. “They resent the fact that Iowa and Iowa State won’t play us at home. I understand that. That’s the emotional reaction.

“I think once they’ve been at this event for a year or two, though, they’ll enjoy it.”

Dannen estimated that a crowd of 11,500 would be enough for his university to make up for the loss of revenue from a home game each season against either the Hawkeyes or the Panthers. And, Dannen added, “if this were sold out, we could make as much as $40,000 more than a home game.”

So the announced crowd of 13,180 seemed like soothing salve, at least in the cash-register department.

In this situation, though, the major-college programs make the rules, or at least nudge all involved toward the rules they covet most. Making the event happen caused some traditions to take their lumps — in Cedar Falls and along Drake’s Knapp Center section of Forest Avenue.

The question: Does the potential and plus-side for this event mean hoops harmony is even more possible among the state’s top Division I programs?

“There are two schools of thought,” said Dolph Pulliam, Drake’s radio analyst who played in the Final Four for Drake in 1969. “You lose the prestige of playing a team from a major conference on your home floor.

“On the plus side, fans get to see the top four teams in the state at one place for one price.”

One of the fans on Saturday was Wade Lookingbill, a Hawkeye in the late 1980s and early ’90s who played in front of the near 23,000 who jammed into the UNI-Dome and 15,000 at Drake’s former home of Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

“It’s kind of sad something like that might not happen again,” Lookingbill said of the games at Drake and Northern Iowa. “But I understand the reasons. You might go to those places and possibly get beat (and hurt NCAA Tournament prospects). As an Iowa fan who lives here, though, I think it’s a great idea to get them all in one place.”

That’s the unspoken undercurrent of the move away from the mid-major living rooms of the Panthers and Bulldogs. Fewer road trips against in-state rivals also means fewer potential losses as teams like Iowa State and Iowa chase the infinitely more important grail — the NCAA Tournament.

Northern Iowa has been the cream of the state’s sneaker-wearing crop in recent years, making five trips to the tournament since 2004 while beating Iowa State in six of its last eight meetings.

Drake, for its part, has won a combined four of its last eight against the Hawkeyes and Cyclones.

In the world of the NCAA Tournament chase — a world with millions at stake — every non-conference victory and loss is magnified.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said scheduling has evolved, so in-state matchups needed to shift, as well.

“Our scheduling has changed a lot at Iowa in the last seven to 10 years,” Barta said. “We added a Big Ten/ACC Challenge. We went from 16 Big Ten games to 18 Big Ten games, so it started to take away our flexibility in the non-conference schedule.

“That, on top of the fact, as you look around the country, there isn’t really anybody that plays each other in a home-and-home. … I didn’t want to eliminate playing each other, but we needed to modify it. And this was sort of a win-win possibility.”

Dannen chose pragmatism over pouting as he explained the situation.

“You can’t go cry in the corner if you don’t get what you want,” Dannen said. “… I knew we had no leverage to stick our feet in the ground. You’d like to have home-and-home, but that’s not the reality these days in college athletics.

“The schools pulling in big-time money for football have the power in other areas. They don’t need Northern Iowa in their building to draw crowds. They don’t need Northern Iowa on their schedule to drive up their RPI (a measure of schedule strength used to help determine NCAA at-large berths). They get that in their conference.

“We need the RPI boost, though.”

Make no mistake, though: The first-run event earned a solid B-plus on its report card, with a sellout and a buzzer-beater here or there from rising to a solid A.

Guiding the four teams to the same building on the same afternoon forged a solid start with the potential for a bright future.

“Hopefully, this will turn into an NCAA Tournament event down the road — but we need to pack the place,” said Iowa State fan Dave Mehmen, of West Des Moines. “If it turns into a sellout, they had some hotels and other things (the NCAA needs), who knows?”

Those who follow Northern Iowa and Drake, said or unsaid, feel a bit bullied on the first lap of the Big Four Classic — even if the diplomatic way of framing it in politically savvy Iowa might be “successfully leveraged.”

In the end, though, the event could grow into an artful hoops masterpiece all can enjoy — regardless of jersey color.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

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