Northern Iowa basketball finally has a home of its own -- the sparkling new McLeod Center.
The special occasion? The University of Northern Iowa athletic department's weekly press luncheon.
It's a pretty big deal in this town of approximately 36,000 people -- a stark contrast from the first two stops of my Missouri Valley tour, Wichita and Omaha. Every Monday afternoon, the Northern Iowa coaches whose sports are in season speak about the state of their teams. And the general public is invited to attend and ask questions.
I was told there usually are about twice as many people at the luncheons, but with the men's basketball team on the road at Indiana State on Monday night and coach Ben Jacobson unable to attend, a bunch of people decided to sit this particular luncheon out.
Page 2's resident college basketball junkie, Kieran Darcy, hits the road for a grassroots tour of the Missouri Valley Conference.
The men's basketball team is the pride and joy of this community, having vaulted UNI into the national consciousness the past few years. The Panthers have been to three straight NCAA Tournaments, and they gave a scare to all three of their first-round opponents (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Georgetown), although they lost all three games.
This season, UNI is again in the NCAA at-large bid conversation. Led by a pair of talented forwards, 6-foot-6 junior Eric Coleman (13.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and 6-8 senior Grant Stout (12.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), the Panthers are 16-8 overall, including bragging-rights wins at Iowa and against Iowa State. The win against Iowa State was particularly meaningful because the Panthers were facing former coach Greg McDermott, who left Cedar Falls after last season to coach the Cyclones.
I spent Monday night in Des Moines -- the capital of Iowa -- so I'd have a shorter drive to Springfield, Mo., on Tuesday morning. Des Moines also happens to be the home of Drake University, another Missouri Valley school.
The Drake Bulldogs are the cellar dwellers of the Valley at the moment, with a conference record of 3-10. But they're 12-12 overall -- still a tough test for any of the other teams in the MVC. Like Northern Iowa, Drake knocked off both Iowa and Iowa State this season.
Drake's coach is legendary Dr. Tom Davis, who is the winningest coach in the University of Iowa's history and has the sixth-most wins among active NCAA Division I basketball coaches. His top player this season is forward Ajay Calvin, an athletic 6-foot-5 senior who's averaging 16.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He also has Klayton Korver, the younger brother of former Creighton star and current Philadelphia 76er Kyle Korver.
I didn't arrive in Des Moines early enough to check out Drake's afternoon practice, but I was able to take a quick look around campus -- including a stroll past the Knapp Center, another nice-looking facility, which seats 7,002 people and opened in 1992.
If I ever make it back to Cedar Falls for a game at the McLeod Center, I'll definitely try to tack on a game at the Knapp Center too.
-- Kieran Darcy
Drake might be in the MVC cellar, but it earned victories over Iowa and Iowa State this season.
But after losing 59-46 at Indiana State, UNI has dropped to 7-6 in the conference -- meaning it will need a very strong finish to warrant serious at-large consideration.
That won't discourage UNI fans like Sean Ward, though. Ward, who attended Monday's luncheon wearing a "Northern Iowa Cheerleader" sweatshirt, was overflowing with pride about the Panthers when I talked to him. He just wanted to make sure of one thing.
"Please tell me you're going to see the McLeod Center," Ward said to me. "You're going, right? You have to go see it!"
That was indeed my plan. The McLeod Center, the basketball team's brand-new home, just opened this past November. From what I'd read, it sounded like an impressive facility.
The Panthers' previous home court was also in an impressive facility -- the UNI-Dome.
That's right, the University of Northern Iowa has its own dome. The UNI-Dome, which opened in 1976, stands out like a flying saucer perched on the flat Iowa landscape surrounding it. It's still home to several of Northern Iowa's sports teams.
With a building that big, having enough seats for basketball games was clearly not a problem. But there was a problem, according to UNI athletic director Rick Hartzell, whom I also got to talk to at the press luncheon.
"We'd have the baseball team practicing in one corner of the dome, the basketball team practicing in another area and the track team running around all of them," Hartzell said. "Baseballs and shot puts would be flying around, starter guns would be going off it was a mess. The basketball team didn't really have a place to call home."
It does now. The McLeod Center, which is attached to the south end of the UNI-Dome, includes brand-new offices and locker rooms for the basketball program, as well as a beautiful 7,018-seat arena. The seats are right on top of the court -- there's not a bad one in the house -- and the building has been close to sold out for every game so far this season, creating one heck of a home-court advantage for the Panthers.
Beyond that, the McLeod Center will play another vital role in the future of the Northern Iowa program.
"It's really going to help us attract more and better recruits," Hartzell said. "We've got a place to really show off now."
Drive 2: Omaha, Neb., to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to Des Moines, Iowa
The McLeod Center is just the latest addition to a conference with lots of fun, fan-crazed arenas. Wichita State's Charles Koch Arena and the Qwest Center in Omaha were featured in the first chapter of my tour. Another new Missouri Valley venue is on the way, as Missouri State is scheduled to open the JQH Arena in 2008.
As for Northern Iowa, I just hope I can make it back here sometime to catch a game at the McLeod Center.
I bet Sean Ward would save me a seat.
COMING WEDNESDAY: One freaky free-throw shooter
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.