Big Ten tourney interest rising?

February 14, 2008
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Thirty six hours ago, it looked like the Big Ten tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse March 13-16 would be an attendance blockbuster. Indianapolis has had difficulty matching the tournament’s crowds at Chicago’s United Center, but this figured to be the year to change that.

The high mark for Big Ten tournament attendance in Indianapolis came in 2006, when 90,763 fans filed in for five sessions. The tournament drew 109,250 in 2005 and 94,412 in 2007, the last two years the Windy City hosted it. In 2004, when Indianapolis hosted the tournament, it only drew 77,012.

But several intriguing story lines are pushing interest far above where it was when Indianapolis hosted the 11-team men’s tournament in 2004 and 2006, event organizers said. “Early ticket sales are very strong,” said Rick Fuson, who oversees operations at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Before Wednesday, the biggest story line was Indiana and Purdue bubbling to the top of league standings. “If IU and Purdue make it to the finals, that would be absolutely huge,” Fuson said.

But there are other story lines. There is the Eric Gordon vs. Illinois story line. Many Illini fans want another crack at the recruit that spurned their school. Michigan State is strong and always comes with a good following. Ditto for Wisconsin, who has beaten IU twice, but lost two nail biters to Purdue. Badger faithful are salivating over another shot at the Boilers. First-year Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, a former Butler coach, will likely draw a local following.

It was shaping up to be a special tournament. Then the NCAA’s gavel fell on Sampson, who some speculate could be suspended or fired before the tournament tips off.

“The scandal already has had a noticeable chilling effect on Sampson’s popularity,” said Pat Forde, an ESPN.com senior writer.

Sampson was greeted at Assembly Hall last night with only moderate applause and a smattering of boos. Not much of a welcome for the coach of a 20-3 team.

Will the myriad interesting story lines attract a record crowd to the tournament this year? Or will IU’s troubles put a damper on attendance?
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  • ESPN is reporting this afternnon that Kelvin Sampson's status as IU basketball coach will be decided on a game-by-game basis. Discussions about whether Sampson would coach Wednesday night's game against Wisconsin went on as late as the afternoon preceding the game, ESPN reported. A source told ESPN that there is an air of uncertainty on the staff regarding Sampson's status and whether he'll finish out the season. Sampson met with his staff Tuesday into the night and again on Wednesday. Larry MacIntyre, the assistant vice president for university communications, said IU president Michael McRobbie has met with IU's legal counsel, the board of trustees and athletic director Rick Greenspan.
  • The Big Ten loves its basketball. The lower attendance in Indianapolis is due less to interest than the number of people who live there. Chicago attracts more tourists to begin with (sorry, but it's true) and has a much higher number of people working less than two miles from the United Center where they can work half a day and head to the Thursday and Friday games. Many of the residents of Chicago and its suburbs went to IU, Illinois, Wisconsin or Northwestern, where a huge number of Chicago employers recruit their employees. I think Indiana's attendance is primarily hurt on Thursday and Friday, when out of towners would need to take both days off to attend. If you take the first two days out of the equation, I would imagine that attendance in Indiana meets or beats that of the United Center.

    ***As for the news that Sampson is day to day: that's all well and good, but who will they bring in at this stage to replace him? His assistants were complicit in the behavior, so it's got to be someone outside. I hear Bobby is available.....

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