NCAA Tournament Reporter’s Notebook: Controversy swirls on the eve of round one in Iowa City

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Greetings from Iowa City, Iowa, the heartland of girls and women’s basketball.  

Your faithful Ivy Hoops Online correspondent grew up in the Hawkeye State, so covering Princeton women’s basketball at this venue has been a nice homecoming for me.  In fact, the last time I visited Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City was for a Boston concert with a group of my high school buddies 45 years ago.  To be honest, I barely remember the concert, other than it was loud.

But one thing I remember clearly from those long ago days is how important girls’ high school basketball was to the state of Iowa. Back then, the girls’ game was quite different than today.  Each team played six players at a time, three on offense and three on defense, and neither the offensive nor the defensive players were allowed to cross the half-court line.  

Women’s basketball has come a long way since then, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion for the sport.  When I was growing up here, no event was more important to the people of Iowa than the girls’ high school basketball tournament, which took place every year at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Des Moines.  

Now, the chief passion in the state is Caitlin Clark and the University of Iowa women’s basketball team.  The No. 1 Hawkeyes kick off the first round of games here Saturday afternoon against the No. 16 Holy Cross Crusaders.  Later in the day, the No. 9 Princeton Tigers will face off against the No. 8 West Virginia Mountaineers.

Surrounded by photographers, Caitlin Clark walks down the hallway of Carver-Hawkeye Arena to a pregame press conference. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

How big of a circus is the Caitlin Clark show here in Iowa City?  So big, that a gaggle of cameramen and reporters from all over the nation this morning staked out the Iowa women’s locker room in the bowels of Carver-Hawkeye Arena just to get a glimpse of the star player as she walked down the hallway to the team’s pregame day press conference.  Then, after the player part of the press conference ended and it was time for coach Lisa Bluder to take questions from the media, nearly every reporter shuffled out of the room, leaving only yours truly and a couple of others to ask questions of the person who actually runs the team.

Here are some other impressions, news, and notes from Iowa City on the day before the round one games begin:
A ticket, a ticket, my kingdom for a ticket!

Getting tickets to the first and second round games in Iowa City has been a tremendous challenge for anyone who didn’t purchase season tickets to Iowa women’s basketball months ago. 

The few tickets that were made available to the public were snapped up in a matter of minutes after they went on sale on Monday.  I spoke to a local resident who informed me that she waited for hours to get into the online ticket portal, but never even got a chance to buy a ticket as the website crashed in response to the overwhelming demand placed on the system.

Shortly after the brackets were announced, the Princeton ticket office sent out multiple notices to its fan base warning that very few or possibly even no tickets would be available from the Princeton Athletic Department due to Iowa having sold out the venue to its season ticket holders.  

Today, I asked Steve Roe, Iowa’s recently retired Sports Information Director, whether the allotment of tickets made available to participating schools had been cut back to deal with the overwhelming demand from the local population.  He said he didn’t know for sure but thought the allotment was the same as usual.  The problem, according to Roe, was the lack of tickets available to be sold to the general public.

Usually, fans can buy tickets directly from the host school after tournament pairings are announced, but since Iowa long ago sold nearly every available seat to season ticketholders, the only real option for non-season ticket holders this time around was to purchase tickets on the secondary market, where the prices are still hovering around $500 per ticket.    

Caitlin Clark takes a shot during a practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

Did she really say that?

At Friday’s pregame day press conference, I asked West Virginia’s Jordan Harrison, a sophomore guard, a simple question:  “What kind of challenge do you think Princeton will give you?”  Here’s her answer, taken directly from the transcript:  “I don’t think we’ll struggle much with them.  I think as long as we bring our pressure, they’ll struggle with us.”

I admire Harrison’s confidence in her team and system, but is it really a good idea to give your opponent extra motivation by disrespecting them in the pre-game press conference?  

Later in the day, I asked Ellie Mitchell when it was her turn at the dais what she thought of Harrison’s comments.  Here’s how Princeton’s all-time leading rebounder and the three-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year responded:  “I don’t think we have much to say in response to that. Ivy League basketball is tough basketball, and we’ve had a lot of challenges throughout the year. We’re excited to play West Virginia tomorrow. We’ll see what happens, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Mitchell’s response was classy and smart.  I especially like the way she elevated the Ivy League as a whole in reaction to Harrison’s dismissive comments.  After she finishes playing in the WNBA, Ellie Mitchell could have a great career in public relations. Or politics.

Ellie Mitchell and Kaitlyn Chen take questions from the media during a pre-first round game press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

“Let’s win one and then send Caitlin Clark packing.”  

West Virginia may well prevail against Princeton Saturday. After all, the Mountaineers are the higher seed and have a roster of scholarship athletes built to compete in one of the premier conferences in women’s college basketball.  

But if for any reason the Mountaineers should falter, they only have themselves to blame for creating some negative vibes in the leadup to the first-round clash.  

It all started on Sunday night, after the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee announced the brackets and pairings.  Upon learning that the Mountaineers would be sent to Iowa City as a No. 8 seed, first-year coach Mark Kellogg excitedly proclaimed, “Let’s win one and then send Caitlin Clark packing.”  

Kellogg’s comments offended some Iowa fans, but they also suggested that West Virginia might be looking past Princeton, a more than worthy first round opponent.  

Kellogg tried to unring the bell Friday at his pregame press conference by complimenting Clark and claiming that his team is 100% focused on Princeton.  

But then he complicated things by explaining that his real gripe isn’t with Clark or Princeton but rather with how low his team was seeded.

“[T]here was some surprise in the room is how it got going with our seed is honestly really where it started,” Kellogg explained.  “So it was, whoa, okay, I thought we were a little — that wasn’t really the seed maybe that some people in the room were expecting, not even from me necessarily.”

In other words, Kellogg thought West Virginia should have been seeded higher than No. 8.  

To recap, the head coach in his first year at a power-conference program stirred up the ire of the home crowd by promising to send the local superstar packing. Then he complained about his team’s seeding, and all the while one of his leading players had just trash-talked his team’s first-round opponent, the five-time defending Ivy League champion Princeton women’s basketball team.  

If Kellogg leads his team to the Sweet 16 this weekend, then maybe he’ll look like a genius.  If not, well …

The Princeton women’s basketball team gathers around coach Carla Berube during a practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Photo by Steve Silverman)


2 thoughts on “NCAA Tournament Reporter’s Notebook: Controversy swirls on the eve of round one in Iowa City”

  1. Thanks for the awesome write-up, Steve! So glad you were able to make it to beautiful Iowa City.

    After following the Quakers magical run to the Final Four in ’79, I was captivated by Lute Olsen, Ronnie Lester and the Iowa ’80 Final Four team. Lester injured his knee in the national semis to Louisville and the Hawkeyes ended up losing that game & the consolation game.

    I spent 3 summers at the University of Iowa during high school doing research at the medical school and lived in Daum Hall.

    My biggest Carver-Hawkeye experience was seeing the 1984 USA Olympic men’s basketball team take on a group of NBA All-Stars. In front of a packed house, the Olympic team won 92-79.

    The US team’s head coach was Bobby Knight and one his assistants was future Iowa head coach George Raveling. The team featured Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullins, Steve Alford & Wayman Tisdale. That day’s All-Star team had was coached by former Iowa player Don Nelson and featured Lester, Clyde Drexler, Buck Williams, Derek Harper, Danny Ainge & Bill Walton.

    Hopefully, Steve follow a Tigers’ victory with pizza and beer at The Airliner a few minutes away on the other side of the Iowa River!

    • Thanks for sharing those amazing memories, Rob. The Airliner has been hopping all weekend here in Iowa City. One of the crazier sights to behold is the throngs of Iowa students shivering in tank tops and tees as they wait in line amidst freezing temperatures to get into the various bars and restaurants in downtown, including the Airliner. I know this will make me sound (correctly) like an old fogey, but when did students here stop wearing coats or even sweaters during the freezing winter nights?

      I also remember some of those great Iowa teams of the 1970s and 80s. And also the legendary Drake teams coached by Maury John and later by Bob Ortegel. Few may remember this, but Drake actually reached the Final Four in 1969 before falling to UCLA and Lew Alcindor in an achingly close game. I remember watching that game as a little boy on a grainy TV screen and shedding a few tears when our beloved Bulldogs went down to defeat.

      As for the Hawkeyes, they also made a thrilling run to the regional semi’s in 1970 before bowing to a Jacksonville team led by Artis Gilmore. As a freshman at Princeton, I remember watching the Hawks shoot their way to the Final Four in 1980 under Lute Olson.

      Could this finally be the year that a team from the Hawkeye State wins a title? I’m looking at you, Iowa State!

      Go Bulldogs, Go Hawkeyes, Go Cyclones!

Comments are closed.