IOWA CITY -- Only once in Fran McCaffery's previous three years as Iowa head coach had ESPN televised a Hawkeyes' regular-season game.
Sure, they'd received plenty of national television exposure, but the main ESPN channel had overlooked them as they climbed from Big Ten bottom feeder to mid-range competitor. The Hawkeyes competed on ESPN in the 2011 season finale, but the mid-afternoon Saturday choice was more for No. 6 Purdue than for rebuilding Iowa.
But entering last summer, Iowa's perception had changed. The Hawkeyes returned 93 percent of their scoring from a team that won 25 games. Expectations were elevated to the highest levels in a decade, and ESPN noticed.
"We try to do our homework in terms of looking at teams in terms of what they bring back from last year and how they performed last year," said Nick Dawson, ESPN's senior director for programming and acquisitions, "and how they project to the following season when we’re putting the schedules together in the summer. Sometimes you take some risks and Iowa was a team we were willing to bet on here, based on sort of the trend we saw over the last couple of years and having a lot of key guys back this year. Obviously we’re very thankful that they’re playing well."
Dawson worked with Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, to select games for ESPN's family of networks that could drive interest and viewership. Along with its traditional "Big Monday" telecast, "Super Tuesday" has morphed into a mainstay of ESPN's primetime window. In fact, last year's "Super Tuesday" was the network's highest-rated night of college basketball.
The Big Ten's recent surge has helped increase viewership. The league, which boasts many of the nation's most important media markets, has led the nation in attendance for 37 consecutive years, and those crowds have provided the backdrop. The league's on-court success coupled with many of the nation's best players has given the "Super Tuesday" brand sizzle. The games have been competitive with both upsets of top-ranked teams (Minnesota over Indiana last year) and tremendous individual efforts (Brandon Paul's 43-point performance against Ohio State two years ago).
Iowa didn't quite fit with "Super Tuesday" until recently. The team hasn't had a winning Big Ten record since 2007. It hasn't qualified for an NCAA tournament since 2006. But with high expectations and a bullish Big Ten schedule, ESPN was ready to gamble that the team had enough juice for its marquee basketball night.
The No. 15/12 Hawkeyes (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) will appear three times on "Super Tuesday" -- tonight against No. 7/6 Michigan State, next Tuesday against 24/23 Ohio State and Feb. 18 at Indiana. Iowa also received plum a ESPN Saturday home game against No. 10/14 Michigan (Feb. 8) and likely one against longtime rival No. 14/13 Wisconsin (Feb. 22). Iowa's Thursday night game at Michigan State (Feb. 25) is set for either ESPN or ESPN2. The Hawkeyes, at least in television circles, have arrived on the big stage.
"The games you see on Super Tuesday with Iowa are all high-priority games for us, whether they ended up on the Super Tuesday franchise or in some great ESPN Saturday windows as well," Dawson said. "All those games were on our hit list as far as priority games.
"The other thing about Iowa that made it sort of a safer play for us was just you know that if they are good, you know that you’re going to get a great environment when you go there from a fan perspective. It definitely makes sense for us to put them back on the Super Tuesday franchise. We’re excited to have them on, and it should be a big-time game (Tuesday) night."
Mike Tirico, who calls play-by-play for "Monday Night Football," joins analyst Jay Bilas for tonight's game. That adds to excitement for Iowa's players.
"That’s a big statement for us," Iowa junior Aaron White said. "It’s come a long way since I’ve got here. It’s a blessing to have "Super Tuesday," Jay Bilas, national TV, that’s cool. Especially to be at home."