March 18, 2004
The last time the Iowa women’s basketball team played in Virginia they had been dislocated from Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a concert by a popular music group – Guns N’ Roses. That will change on Sunday.
The Hawkeyes will take on Virginia Tech in a first-round game of the 2004 NCAA tournament at 11 a.m. in Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va. The matchup will pit the eighth-seeded Hokies against the ninth-seeded Iowa squad, which hasn’t played since March 5, when then 24th-ranked Michigan State handed it an 81-54 loss in the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament.
But according to Head Coach Lisa Bluder, the time away from the game is not as big of an issue as their opponent and location of the game – Virginia Tech’s home court.
“We know we’ve got a tough task at hand,” she said. “There’s a couple of reasons why this is a tough matchup for us. One is because of Virginia Tech and the other is having to play them on their home floor, something that you usually don’t have to do in the NCAA tournament as a nine seed. Usually, you’re facing someone on a neutral floor.”
Cassell Coliseum is one of 16 pre-determined sites for the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, which gives 13 schools home-court advantage. Iowa State, Florida State and Arizona State failed to qualify teams for the tournament, so their venues will remain neutral for the 12 teams playing at them.
The pre-determined site formula is a departure from previous years that gave venues just five days to prepare for games, after NCAA tournament officials determined the sites on Selection Sunday. According to Bluder, the new way gives university officials more time to market the event to build attendance figures.
“They’re trying to get people in the stands, so it’s more of a tournament atmosphere,” she said. “The way we were doing it before, people had about five days to put people in the stands for that home site, because people didn’t know ahead of time what that home site was. But there are three neutral sites out there, and we’ve never had that before.”
Bluder has heard good things about the Virginia Tech marketing team, which is said to be expecting over 8,000 spectators on Sunday.
If 8,000 people attend the game, it would be the fourth-largest crowd at an Iowa game this season. Last month, 14,091 people saw then-No. 4 Purdue hand the Hawks an 84-55 loss in West Lafayette, In.
Numbers in the five figures and high four figures were almost unheard of just two decades ago, however.
In the 1983 season, nine years after women’s basketball started, Iowa averaged 380 spectators per home game. Total attendance for all the games that season stood at just 8,755.
Through 28 games this season, Iowa’s average attendance at all games has been 4,485 and total attendance has increased 14-fold in 20 years. Iowa’s figures mirror those recorded across the nation.
According to a New York Times report today, 7.3 million fans attended regular-season or postseason games, which was a one million increase over the 1999-2000 season. The increase was the 19th in a row for Division I women’s basketball.
Like numbers from across the nation, the Hawkeyes’ have shown steady growth from their humble beginnings. The Hawkeyes’ largest average crowd happened during the 1997-1998 season, when Iowa went 18-11 and 13-3 for the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship. The team ranked 24th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll and went to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Television and radio broadcasts have also increased nationwide for women’s basketball, and reasons for the newfound interest range from teamwork to style of play, which places more emphasis on shooting and style than on athleticism and brute force.
Whatever the cause, NCAA officials, universities, coaches and players are certainly welcoming the fans. So confident are NCAA officials that they will be reducing the number of pre-determined tournament sites to eight next year.
“We’re moving in positive directions,” said Bluder, who will be participating in her seventh NCAA tournament. “At least we’ll have eight fewer people playing on their home floor than this year. It’s growing pains right now. We’re trying to get to that neutral site, and we’re getting there slowly.”
Neutral site or not, the Hawkeyes have performed well on the road this season.
“We’re moving in positive directions. At least we’ll have eight fewer people playing on their home floor than this year. It’s growing pains right now. We’re trying to get to that neutral site, and we’re getting there slowly.”
Head Coach Lisa Bluder
Iowa has an 8-5 away-game record this season and a 1-1 neutral-site record, even defeating then 18th-ranked Michigan State 78-67 in East Lansing, Mi., on Feb. 1. It’s the best road record for the Hawks since 1993.
“I think our team is kind of excited to put the black jerseys on,” Bluder said. “We have played well on the road.”
“I think it’s a challenge,” sophomore guard Crystal Smith said. “We’re doing good on the road, almost as good as we are at home. We just play better on the road. You really can’t pinpoint anything.”
Classmate and starting point guard Lindsay Richards agrees.
“Sure,” she said, “it would be nice to play on a neutral site. It’s not that big of a thing for me. I think at this point in the season we’re almost better on the road than we have been at home most of the time.
“I think you need a little bit of a different mindset when you play on the road, but at the same time we try to do everything the same and that’s what I think actually helps neutralize the home court,” Richards added. “We do everything the same way that we do at home. That’s a huge thing that his team has accomplished, and it’s a huge asset.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com