Even with a 0-3 start in Big Ten play, it’s obvious to Mike Breitbach that the Iowa men’s basketball program is moving in the right direction under coach Fran McCaffery.
It’s so obvious that Breitbach is willing to make the near eight-hour round trip from his home in Rochester, Minn., to watch Iowa games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on a regular basis.
He was part of the sellout crowd that watched Iowa, which plays Sunday at Northwestern, fall just short in its upset bid against fifth-ranked Indiana in the Big Ten opener on New Year’s Eve at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Breitbach said. “It was fun to see Carver packed like back in the old days.”
Breitbach is typical of many Iowa men’s basketball fans in that he is again rallying behind the program after losing interest after three seasons of losing records under previous coach Todd Lickliter.
McCaffery was hired in late March 2010 to replace Lickliter, who was fired after just three seasons. McCaffery faced a major rebuilding project on two fronts, not just on the court, but also in the stands where home attendance had become disturbingly low.
Iowa’s average home attendance dropped to an all-time low of 9,550 during the 2009-10 season, which was Lickliter’s last season as coach.
The average has risen steadily under McCaffery, who is midway through his third season at Iowa. The goal for Iowa this season, in addition to making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, is to average at least 13,200 in home attendance.
That would give Iowa its highest average in home attendance in a decade.
Iowa’s 62-59 loss to Michigan State on Thursday was played before an announced crowd of 12,872 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which has a seating capacity of 15,400. That pushed the season average for home attendance to 12,773. That’s the best mark since the 2003-04 campaign, when Iowa averaged 12,977 in home attendance under former coach Steve Alford.
“In the short run, I would love to have the largest average attendance since the 2002-03 (season), and that number would be 13,200,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “And ultimately, some day, I want to get it back, and Fran wants to get it back, to where every Big Ten game is sold out.
“Those are big goals, but at any rate, Hawkeye fans clearly have been showing that they’re buying into this team, to these student-athletes and to Fran, just watching it over the last three years grow each year.”
Breitbach, 45, was used to seeing Carver-Hawkeye Arena packed on a regular basis for Iowa men’s basketball games. He attended the University of Iowa and was a freshman in 1987 when the Hawkeyes won a school-record 30 games and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Breitbach has attended numerous Iowa home games since finishing college, but like many fans, he drifted from the program during the Lickliter era, which in addition to having three consecutive losing seasons saw numerous player defections.
Lickliter’s teams also played at a slower pace than what Iowa fans were used to seeing. That became an issue with some fans, including Breitbach, when the losses started to mount.
“To be honest, the years under Lickliter, I didn’t drive down once it got into the Big Ten season and during the week because it wasn’t worth my time driving down,” Breitbach said.
It’s now worth his time to drive down because Breitbach believes in McCaffery and has seen enough progress under McCaffery to feel optimistic that the program is moving forward.
Iowa advanced to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament last season and finished 18-17 overall, its first winning season since 2006-07.
But for Breitbach, the renewed interest goes beyond just winning more games.
He also likes that McCaffery prefers to push the pace on both ends of the floor. Iowa is averaging 74.4 points per game, which is substantially higher than when Iowa scored fewer than 60 points in 54 of 95 games and fewer than 50 points in 18 games under Lickliter.
“It’s good to see the excitement in the arena and the exciting style of play that McCaffery has brought to the team,” said Breitbach, who grew up in West Des Moines. “I’m definitely looking at my schedule and this year I can see myself, if it’s an eight o’clock game, I can drive down, watch the game and get home at two in the morning.
“And I’m willing to do that for the style of play he’s brought back to the arena.”
Iowa City resident Steve Ballard has been a men’s basketball season-ticket holder for 14 years and a Hawkeye fan for as long as he can remember. Ballard, 50, grew up in Iowa, attended law school at the University of Iowa in the late 1980s and is now an attorney.
He embraced the decision to hire Lickliter, who is now the men’s basketball coach at Marian University, a NAIA school in Lickliter’s hometown of Indianapolis. Ballard also had no problem with the methodical playing style that Lickliter installed until Iowa sunk to near the bottom of the Big Ten.
“I’m kind of a believer in the system,” Ballard said. “I have faith in Mr. Barta. If coach Lickliter was the guy for the job, then I’m willing to sign up and go root pretty much. From a personal standpoint, I don’t mind an offense that slows it down. It doesn’t bother me so much as long as we win.
“Now I said that back then and it was true, I meant it. But I will say, and thinking back to those days and comparing them with the athleticism of our team now and the promise of our team now, yeah, these guys are just more fun to watch. There is just no two ways about it.”
Barta feels the same way.
He’s unhappy about Iowa’s slow start in conference play, but not discouraged by it. Barta said he believes that Iowa is better now than it was last season when it finished 18-17 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, and he has no doubt that fans believe it.
However, Barta also believes that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country for men’s basketball and he wants fans to keep Iowa’s current skid in perspective.
“I think if you look at who we had coming back, the players all could see it, the fans could all see it, the coaches could see it; we’re a better basketball team than we were a year ago,” Barta said. “But then you also look at the Big Ten and you have to understand that you’re not going to win every game. It wasn’t like we were going to go undefeated this Big Ten season.”
All three of Iowa’s Big Ten losses have come against ranked opponents, including two at home against No. 5 Indiana and against No. 22 Michigan State by a combined seven points.
“This is the best Big Ten basketball conference that I can ever remember, at least for a long, long time,” Barta said. “So as a fan of college basketball, not only are you watching a team in the Hawkeyes that’s exciting, it’s fun to watch, it’s fast-paced, it’s competitive, but you’re also watching them against some of the top teams in the country.”
The arena was loud for both Big Ten home games, but especially for the Indiana game because of the season-high crowd, which included Barta.
“Anybody that was there against Indiana, I felt it and I could feel it in the building,” Barta said. “And the players and coaches could feel that as well.”
Barta felt entirely different when Iowa played games under Lickliter with the arena often more than half empty.
“Let’s contrast it; my honest feeling (about the Indiana game) was what an electric environment, what a hard-fought game and man I wish we could have gotten that one,” Barta said. “But when I contrast how I felt that night to how I felt in some of those games in 2008 and 2009 through that stretch where we might have 5,000 to 10,000 people in the building, it puts a smile on your face that fans are having fun, the coaches are excited, the players are having fun and so is the athletic director just seeing that kind of excitement back in the building.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball