On Iowa

Hlas: Consumed by Ramblers, Retrievers and Madness

NCAA tournament was an overload of greatness and weirdness

Loyola’s Clayton Custer reacts on the floor after hitting the game-winning shot against Tennessee Saturday in the second-round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Dallas’ American Airlines Center. (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)
Loyola’s Clayton Custer reacts on the floor after hitting the game-winning shot against Tennessee Saturday in the second-round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Dallas’ American Airlines Center. (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in seven years, I watched the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Oh, how I watched it.

I’ve paid less and less attention to televised sports over the years, with a short attention span and all. I have it on in the background, but I don’t sit there and watch NFL regular-season games or NBA regular-season games or MLB regular-season games or NHL regular-season games, and it’s been forever since I’ve watched an XFL game.

Which isn’t long enough.

The last six years, I had a team from our state to go cover in the men’s NCAAs. Iowa in Seattle and Brooklyn. Iowa State in Louisville, Dayton, San Antonio, New York and Milwaukee. Northern Iowa in Seattle.

This year? Zippo. So starting Tuesday night, I watched the games on TV from home. And after six days of this, I’ve got a lot of disconnected thoughts. Such as:

The Maryland Baltimore County thing. I loved it as much as anybody. For so long, I wanted a No. 16 seed to blow everyone’s mind and beat a No. 1. Then when it happened, it was a blowout. The second half looked like almost every other 1-16 game, a blowout. Except for the first time, the 16 was doing the hammering, and we got to savor it for basically a full hour before the game was over.

We localize everything in my racket, especially in a market the size of the one in which I work. So here’s my localizing:

On Dec. 6, 2014, UMBC played at Iowa and lost, 77-47. That defeat dropped the Retrievers to 0-8 on their way to a 4-26 season. That was just three years ago, and it was the sixth of seven straight seasons in which they didn’t win 10 of their 30-plus games.

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(By the way, being called “Retrievers” just adds to UMBC lore. Not “Warriors” or “Wildcats” or something faux tough. They’re “Retrievers,” and what thinking person wouldn’t love a Golden Retriever?)

Anyway, that UMBC-Iowa game was just an exhibition billed as a Division I game, a paycheck for UMBC and a home date and guaranteed win for Iowa. But three years later, the Retrievers experienced fame and glory greater than any the Hawkeyes or any other Big Ten team since ... you tell me.

Life is funny, wouldn’t you say?

You can have your conference championships and No. 1 rankings. Do what Northern Iowa did in 2010 and beat No. 1-seed Kansas in the first week of the NCAA tourney. That, people will remember for decades.

The only team still alive in the tournament from a state bordering Iowa is Loyola of Chicago. That’s funny to me in so many ways.

For one, Wichita State bolted the Missouri Valley Conference after last season because it felt it outgrew the league, and climbed to the American Athletic Conference, home of Cincinnati and Connecticut and Memphis instead of Illinois State and Indiana State and Missouri State. And Northern Iowa.

So Wichita State got dumped by Marshall in the first round of this year’s tourney, while Loyola has won twice and has a winnable Sweet 16 game against Nevada.

Loyola’s leading scorer and second-round tournament hero is Clayton Custer, whose college career began at Iowa State. Where, by the way, he scored a total of 13 points over 12 appearances in the 2014-15 season, and made just three of the 15 shots he took in mop-up time. He was on a team with veterans, and the playing time wasn’t there right away.

Iowa State wasn’t for Custer. It happens. Fred Hoiberg left Ames for Chicago in 2015, and so did Custer. Now, in his junior season with Loyola, he became a national name Saturday with his jumper that bounced in the basket and bounced No. 3-seed Tennessee out of the tournament.

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Custer was the Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year this season, getting 40 of the 47 first-place votes. He’s a player.

Loyola, by the way, won the 1963 NCAA championship with four African American starting players when teams simply did not look like that. The Ramblers beat Cincinnati in the title game. Three Cincinnati players were on the all-tournament team. Just one Loyola player joined them. Why do you suppose that was?

The Final Four’s MVP award went to Art Heyman of Duke, who obviously didn’t have anything to do with the national-championship game.

Loyola is so easy to cheer, the small school from the mid-major conference with the big history, an afterthought of a program in its own city for most of the last half-century. But Nevada appeals to me, too.

Nevada’s coach is Eric Musselman. He coached the Rapid City Thrillers for much of the same time Cedar Rapids had a team in the Continental Basketball Association. Musselman was 23 when he became the Thrillers’ coach in 1989.

He coached in that now-defunct minor-league for several years. He also coached in the United States Basketball League and the NBA D League (now the G League). He was the national coach for the men’s teams of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He was head coach for both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, and neither stint lasted very long.

He has been a basketball gypsy, and now he is in Reno coaching a Mountain West Conference team in the Sweet 16. Sunday, his team came from 22 points behind to take out Cincinnati. The Nevada Wolf Pack. Crazy.

Either Loyola or Nevada will be in the Elite Eight, and it’s great. And crazy.

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Michigan has won its last 11 games, is in the Sweet 16, and Iowa pushed it to overtime two weeks ago in New York. On the right day, UMBC can beat Virginia and Iowa can almost do the same to Michigan.

On Jan. 20, Iowa State (which, like Iowa, was 4-14 in its conference) beat Texas Tech by 18 points. Eleven days later, the Cyclones beat West Virginia by 16. It’s good to play at home. By the way, Texas Tech and West Virginia are in the Sweet 16.

Meanwhile, Syracuse ousted Michigan State Sunday. Jim Boeheim is Syracuse’s coach. He was Syracuse’s coach in 1980 when it lost to Iowa in the NCAA East Regional semifinals in Philadelphia. Thirty-eight years ago!

Boeheim is 73. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is 71. North Carolina’s Roy Williams is 67. Dan D’Antoni, who coached Marshall into the second round of this year’s NCAAs, is 70. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, fresh off an upset win over No. 1-seed Xavier, is 69.

It has to be about something more powerful than just money.

Yet, the power of money constantly mystifies. In six days, I saw the commercials with Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee about 66 times. We all want security. We all want nice things. So these three men, who have made a lot of money in their lives, are doing commercials for more money.

But no one even tried to explain why those three would be driving together through the Texas countryside in one commercial, let alone riding horses in another. It. Does. Not. Make. Sense.

Oh, and let’s close with this: Every time someone banks in a 3-pointer, someone says “The bank was open.” It happened at the end of the first half in Sunday’s Syracuse-Michigan State game when MSU’s Matt McQuaid made a most-unlikely 3-pointer off the glass.

Stop it. Just stop. “The bank was open” is not original. Just like when a player makes a shot from the corner and a sports anchor says “3-ball, corner pocket.”

Heard it, a thousand times. Stop, stop, stop.

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No, let’s actually close with this: Oh, Iowa signee CJ Fredrick (32 points in the championship game) led his high school team to a Kentucky state-title this weekend.

Iowa State signee Tyrese Haliburton (30 points in the championship game) led his high school team to a Wisconsin state-title this weekend.

The weekend before, Northern Iowa signee AJ Green (24 points) led his Cedar Falls High team to an Iowa state-title.

The future. It reminds me of this Paul Simon song lyric:

The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

That line came from the song “Train in the Distance,” which was released in 1983. That was early in Jim Boeheim’s tenure at Syracuse.

Simon’s “The Farewell Tour” starts in May.

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