On the road again
By Aaron Sharockman, Special to CNNSI.com
The Gatorade tastes a little fresher. The towels are softer. The bopping, oversized mascot isn't quite as annoying.
Ahh, to be home.
Oh yeah, and if you're home in the Big Ten Conference, you win. And on the road well, that's a different story.
Just ask Penn StateLast season, a banner year by all accounts, the Lady Lions were a force on the road. In a league with the general mentality of "win at home, and go .500 on the road," Penn State was dominant.
They beat eventual WNIT champion Wisconsin 57-52 in front of 8,600 fans. They beat then No. 12 Purdue in Mackey Arena with over 9,000 Boiler fans. They smashed Iowa, and held on against Ohio State. They decimated Indiana and Minnesota by a combined 90 points. In all, just one Big Ten road loss slipped the Lady Lions perfect conference season. This was a road team.
But the Lady Lions traveling bags have seemingly stayed in the friendly confines of the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State, with thoughts of returning to the Final Four, has been less than good on the road so far this conference season. They've been bad.
"We have a slight concern with playing on the road," Lion coach Rene Portland admitted. "We've won before so I know we can do it, we just need to change our focus a little."
Though early in the Big Ten season, PSU has already lost three times on the road, all to teams it handled a season ago. Even its conference road win, a 66-63 victory over Ohio State, was a struggle.
The Lions lost two straight conference games a week ago to Illinois and Michigan -- the first time in nearly three years.
The losses prompter Portland to switch her point guards from Katrena Carr to Ashley Luke. But so far, the change hasn't helped.
"We're struggling at the point guard right now," Portland said. "Ashley knows what she's supposed to do, but she's not comfortable with the rest of the offense. She can't anticipate what Rashana [Barnes] is doing." The road woes sharply contrast the home cooking the Lady Lions receive in Happy Valley. Though early, PSU is 3-0 in the Big Ten at home, winning by a majestic average of 25.67 points a contest.
"There's a comfortability about playing at home," Portland said. "When we're on the road, we're not playing smart basketball."
Big Big Ten crowdsOh, Portland forgot to mention that when her teams been on the road, she's seen an average of about 6,000 fans screaming for Lions loss.
And almost everywhere you go in the Big Ten, 5,000 fans is likely -- making it the regularly the best-supported conference in America.
Six of the 11 Big Ten schools are averaging over 5,000 fans a home game, according to a University of Wisconsin weekly figure. The Badgers lead the way, averaging more than 6,800 fans a contest. That number keeps growing as 9,100 fans watched the Badgers win last Sunday, 57-52 over IU (former UW men's coach Dick Bennett's first-time back to the Kohl Center to watch his daughter, IU coach Kathi Bennett, did help).
"It's very exciting," coach Jane Albright said. "We've always had awesome fans here in Wisconsin. We've had two or three sellouts since we moved into the Kohl Center. Hopefully, we can keep playing good basketball and get a couple more."
But it's just not Wisconsin (7) that's big Big Ten crowds. Ohio State (8), Penn State (9), Purdue (10), Illinois (12), and Iowa (13) all also grace the lists top 15 in attendance figures.
"The Big Ten is consistently at the top in attendance and we're very fortunate for that," Albright said. "When we go on the road, to Ohio State, or wherever, we know there are going to be a lot of people there."
Even places where traditionally there haven't been fans are starting to see a turnaround.
Last season, Indiana averaged just 700 fans to a home game in the 17,000-seat Assembly Hall. The conference numbers weren't much better, averaging 830 fans a game.
But this season, with a new coaching staff and better record, the Hoosiers are drawing more than 2,000 fans per Big Ten contest, a drastic improvement. IU had nearly 4,000 fans watch the Hoosiers lose to intra-state rival Purdue earlier in the season.
"I've seen a drastic improvement in our crowds," said Bennett, acknowledging that there is much work left to do. "Our crowds are very knowledgeable and into the game. We might not have as big as crowds as other places in the Big Ten, but are fans are good."
Bennett said there's only one way for women's basketball to thrive at Indiana.
"I hate to say it, but we need to be very successful to get the crowds here."
So far, so good.
Aaron Sharockman is a reporter for the Indiana Daily Student, the student newspaper serving Indiana University.