Leistikow: Hawkeyes banking on raucous Carver crowd to upset Michigan State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tyler Cook will do whatever it takes for Iowa to beat Michigan State on Thursday night.
He’ll even be your Uber driver, if it means contributing to a full house at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“If people need rides, I’ll take people to the game, I don’t care,” the Hawkeyes’ talented junior forward said Wednesday. “You’ll get there about five hours early, but I’ll help get them there.”
The university’s athletics department is clearly making an effort to drum up a capacity crowd of 15,056 for this showdown between ranked teams in the top five of the Big Ten Conference. The call has been put out to “Storm Carver” — 1,000 free student tickets have been offered, and there’s free parking for everyone — for No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 21 Iowa on what’s expected to be a bitterly cold night.
“If that student section isn’t full,” Cook noted, “I don’t know what else will work.”
I’ve seen a lot of sarcastic comments about the free student ticket offering by the university.
Must be desperate for fans to give away tickets for a battle of ranked teams.
But give the UI credit on this one. Instead of sitting back and doing nothing about the consistently paltry student-section attendance, it’s trying to take a bold step to improve the atmosphere in what’s the biggest Iowa basketball game in two seasons.
At 16-3, the Hawkeyes have tied the best start to a season under ninth-year coach Fran McCaffery.
MORE HAWKEYES BASKETBALL
- Four lessons Hawkeyes hopes they've learned from Round 1 Spartans blowout
- Joe Wieskamp surprises 89-year-old Iowa fan with unannounced hospital visit
- Bracket analysis: Is the new NCAA rating system punishing Hawkeyes?
Thursday’s 6 p.m. matchup against the Spartans offers the chance of a signature victory to remember — for both fans and players.
“We’re excited to have a top team come in here,” senior forward Nicholas Baer said, “and have an opportunity for us to prove ourselves as one of the best teams in the Big Ten.”
The chore is a difficult one.
Michigan State is 17-2 overall and is not only 8-0 in league play, it's 8-0 against the spread in Big Ten play. That's unheard of.
Furthermore, good luck finding a weakness in Tom Izzo's team. The Spartans rank No. 5 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense statistic. They rank No. 6 nationally in adjusted defense.
Oh, and they’ve won 20 straight regular-season games — including 11 on the road.
Eleven in a row on the Big Ten road.
But take a guess which opponent gave them their toughest game among those 11.
That would be last year's dreadful Iowa team, which rose up and played one of its best games in a 14-19 season in a 96-93 defeat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
I wrote after that game that the announced crowd of 11,350 “was electric, energetic and loud — the best of the season.”
For one night, Iowa gave a hungry fan base something to cheer about.
Now, the stakes are far greater.
As such, the noise should be far louder.
A win Thursday, and Iowa’s already considerable NCAA Tournament chances shoot way up.
Baer is the only current Hawkeye who knows how it feels to beat the Spartans. As a freshman on the 2015-16 team, Baer scored 11 points in an 83-70 upset of then-No. 1 Michigan State on Dec. 29, 2015.
“When Carver’s rocking,” Baer said, “it’s one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball.”
No wonder the Hawkeyes, who are riding a five-game winning streak, are looking for any extra edge from the stands in this one. The Spartans were listed as early 5½ -point favorites in a Fox Sports 1-televised game. (Tim Brando and Bill Raftery are on the call.)
“When we have that energy behind us,” sophomore center Luka Garza said, “we’re hard to beat.”
The Carver crowd has actually been quite good this year. It might’ve been at its best during a spirited 98-84 win against Iowa State, even though at 13,414 fans (and many of them rooting for the Cyclones) it was a few grand short of capacity.
So, even with the frigid weather, Thursday figures to be perhaps the best atmosphere of the Hawkeyes’ home season.
And yes, fans, the players do notice if you’re there or not — especially before the game starts.
“(If) in warmups, you look up and see 15,000 in the stands, it definitely gets you more excited,” Cook said. “I’m looking forward to seeing Carver full tomorrow.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.