Iowa forward Aaron White celebrates after making a 3-pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northwestern, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 69-52 and White led all scorers with 25 points. (AP Photo/Ju
Justin Hayworth
March 13, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) With just three million people and no major pro sports, Iowa has long directed its passion toward its college teams.

It's turned out to be a dream season for basketball fans in this sleepy Midwestern state.

Iowa State is ranked 13th and is a legitimate Final Four contender. Northern Iowa reached the top 10 for the first time, won the Missouri Valley tournament and is mentioned on the cover of this week's ''Sports Illustrated.'' Iowa finished the regular season with a six-game winning streak, its best in the Big Ten since 1987, and will likely make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in nearly a decade.

''I think it's awesome,'' said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, an Ames native nicknamed ''The Mayor'' and one of the best players the state has ever produced. ''It's great for our state. It's great to have the interest level where it is.''

And why not? It could be just the second time that all three of Iowa's public universities reach the NCAA Tournament in the same year. California, Florida and New York will barely be heard from this March.

Iowa's schools have been deeply committed to basketball for decades.

The Cyclones first rose to prominence in the 1980s under colorful and engaging former coach Johnny Orr. Orr entered Hilton Coliseum to the old ''Tonight Show'' theme - ''Here's Johnny!'' with a smile and a fist pump. Orr's up-tempo style of play was fun too, helping cultivate a devoted fan base fanatic about the ''Hilton Magic.''

The Hawkeyes, save for a few lean years in the late 2000s, have been a competitive Big Ten program for a long time. Iowa was a regular in the NCAA Tournament in the 1980s and `90s under popular coach Tom Davis. Its fans stuck with the Hawkeyes as coach Fran McCaffery slowly remade them into a winner.

Northern Iowa rose to prominence under former coach Greg McDermott, a native Iowan who built his program by recruiting heavily in Iowa, in the early 2000s. The Panthers have remained one of the top programs in the Valley under Ben Jacobson. He turned down opportunities to jump to bigger programs after Northern Iowa shocked top-seeded Kansas in the 2010 tournament, and this week his Panthers sat just a spot behind the ninth-ranked Jayhawks in the Top 25.

The state's passion for hoops has been felt at the ticket office, too.

Iowa State averaged 14,295 fans per game this season, nearly three times last year's national average, and Iowa drew just over 14,000. Northern Iowa averaged crowds of just over 5,000 - which often includes U.S. senator and UNI graduate Chuck Grassley, who's been known to tweet out the final score within seconds of the final buzzer.

''I think all three institutions have really impressive fan bases. I think that helps. When you have an opportunity to play in front of people and it matters; certainly, that goes a long way,'' McCaffery said.

All three schools have also spent money on the kinds of facilities that modern-day recruits are looking for.

The Hawkeyes recently spent over $40 million renovating its arena, including the addition of a brand-new practice facility. Iowa State opened up an $8 million off-campus facility in 2009, and Northern Iowa's McLeod Center, built in 2006, is one of the nicer gyms in all of mid-major basketball.

There's also a lot more talent in Iowa than many might realize - even with the likes of Harrison Barnes, Doug McDermott and Marcus Paige leaving home in recent years.

The Hawkeyes went from going 11-20 overall to 12-6 in the Big Ten during the regular season behind high-profile in-state recruits like Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Peter Jok and Josh Oglesby.

The small-school Panthers have taken a more developmental approach with their local talent. No player epitomizes their success in doing so that more than star Seth Tuttle.

Once a rail-thin freshman, Tuttle is now a 240-pound senior who recently won the league's Player of the Year award and could soon be among the breakout stars of the NCAA tournament.

But Tuttle is far from the only Iowan making an impact for the Panthers. In fact, 53 of the 69 points Northern Iowa scored in the Valley title game came from players born in Iowa.

''It's been the backbone of our program,'' Jacobson said. ''Without professional sports in our state, the kids grow up really attached to college athletics...and I just think we've just got tremendous role models and tremendous coaches for those kids.''

Iowa State has just two Iowa kids on its roster - and they barely play.

But the Cyclones do have ''The Mayor.'' Hoiberg has built up so much goodwill among Iowa State fans - some of whom have been cheering for him since he led Ames High to the state title in the early 90s - that he's been able to build through transfers without alienating his fan base.

It's worked again this season.

Senior Bryce Dejean-Jones, despite a few behavioral hiccups, has thrived while playing for his third school, averaging 11.4 points and 5.2 rebounds during the regular season.

Dejean-Jones and fellow transfer Jameel McKay headed to their first Big 12 tournament in Kansas City this week and got their first taste of ''Hilton South.'' That's what Iowa State fans call the Sprint Center because of its preponderance of cardinal and gold.

All those traveling fans helped the Cyclones pull off a stunning comeback Thursday.

Willed on by a crowd that was at least three-quarters in favor of Iowa State, the Cyclones rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes and beat Texas 69-67 on a buzzer-beater by Monte Morris.

''It was like a movie, honestly,'' McKay said. ''Everything was going our way. The crowd was unbelievable. It felt like we were at Hilton. It was like a little magic in there.''


Associated Press freelance reporter Rob Gray contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.


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