Big Ten tourney interest rising?

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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 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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