This is the week that matters most in Division I men’s basketball if you’re from a major conference. If you aren’t still alive in the NCAA Tournament when this week is over, your season is remembered harshly or isn’t remembered at all.
Is that fair? No. But is anything?
Ask longtime Iowa State fans which March is dearer to their hearts, the one in 2001 or 2014. In ’01 the Cyclones won their second-straight Big 12 regular-season championship, then lost to No. 15-seed Hampton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In ’14, ISU tied for third in the Big 12, then won the league tourney and went on to upset North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs.
Going into the way-back machine, which of the following two Iowa clubs had more enduring magic: The 1979 team that shared the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State and Purdue or the 1980 Hawkeyes that were 10-8 in the conference but strung together four straight NCAA wins to get to the Final Four? Duh.
Iowa hasn’t had an NCAA feel-good story since 1999 when it downed UAB and Arkansas to go to the Sweet 16 in Tom Davis’ final season as its coach. The Hawkeyes have won just three NCAA games since 2000. They won 20 from 1980 to 1999.
You’d almost get the impression Iowa is a football school.
So what the Hawkeyes are presented with this week is a chance to turn their image on its ear, to become a program that comes up big with the nation watching. They haven’t won a game as a lower NCAA seed in 20 years. Do that twice in Columbus, against Cincinnati and Tennessee, and the program gets an instant facelift.
The coach and players of Iowa’s team have frequently reminded us about their marked improvement from last season, and it indeed was after last season’s 14-19 slog.
However, going 10-10 in the Big Ten, getting eliminated in the conference tourney’s quarterfinals, and losing four of the last six games by 14 to 21 points stops this season from being considered memorable, NCAA tourney berth or not. Especially when it includes going 2-9 against the other NCAA teams from the Big Ten.
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But this week can make the season an unqualified success. This week defines the season. Get beat by Cincinnati and have your season ended Friday, and the good feelings from being nationally ranked almost the entire season have no staying power. The excitement from crazy rallies and shots that beat Northwestern, Rutgers and Indiana in February won’t leave any footprints behind.
OK, so will you pick Iowa to win a game or more in your NCAA pools? I don’t know about you, but my ears almost start bleeding with all the analysis about tournament matchups and brackets and predictions.
Nobody knows anything. Who had Villanova beating Michigan for the national title three weeks before it happened last year, though Villanova was a No. 1-seed and Michigan was a 3? Did anyone with a sports media job that paid actual money pick Loyola to reach the Final Four?
Nothing means anything. When you hear about some team going into the NCAAs with a full head of steam or in a tailspin, ignore it. Last year, Florida State, Syracuse and Texas A&M didn’t even reach the quarterfinals of their league tourneys. Syracuse and A&M went on to the NCAA’s Sweet 16, and Florida State advanced to the Elite Eight.
Arizona won the Pac-12 tourney, then fell to Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA event. Virginia won the ACC regular-season and tournament crowns, then got popped by UMBC in the biggest upset in NCAA tourney history.
No one in global media picked UMBC over Virginia. Not one soul from here to the Antarctic Peninsula with any intention of winning an NCAA pool wrote “UMBC” on a bracket.
Do not listen to anyone when it comes to making your picks. Let the whims take you where they will. As long as you pick a No. 1-seed to win the championship, that is.
I’m taking Virginia. Because UMBC isn’t in this year’s field.
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