KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s an intoxicating mix of state pride, work avoidance, bracket-related wrist injuries, Jim Nantz, vasectomy-procedure ads and impulsive big-screen television sales.
It’s caring yourself crazy about the home team, but also your new love — triple-secret, pool-eviscerating Cinderella pick Foghorn Leghorn State.
In the world of college basketball’s NCAA Tournament, the more the absolute merrier. In Iowa, it’s been nine years of too much hardwood heartache since March 2005 — a hand-wringing wait for the state’s two biggest programs to double down on the excitement, beer and chicken wings.
This is the season: Iowa State is in and, despite a flaming tailspin down the stretch, Iowa’s almost assured of joining the net-cutting fray, too.
The advice for the tournament’s opening days from Adam Haluska, a member of the Iowa team that fell to Cincinnati in 2005’s first round after starting his career at Iowa State: “Go to lunch — and never go back to work.”
The Big Dance matters from the lapping waves of the Atlantic to the rocky Pacific Coast. But there’s more “matters” in a state such as Iowa, devoid of attention-devouring teams from the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball.
Iowa is a college state, one of the few in the country with roots buried in two power conferences — Iowa State’s Big 12 and Iowa’s Big Ten. That means the pride affixed to Bracketville ramps up and ripples across all 99 counties.
Winning delivers a bigger payoff in a place such as Iowa, where an NCAA run adds money to athletic department coffers and nudges star recruits waiting to make college decisions.
Relevance in college basketball is measured by the NCAA Tournament — and nearly nothing else.
“More of the lights, more of the cameras, nationally-televised games,” said Curtis Stinson, the former Iowa State star who plays for the Iowa Energy, as he ticked off the elevated significance. “Meeting the announcers like Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg. I remember Dickie V yelling out my name on TV. I was the player to watch going into the North Carolina game.
“It just felt so good to know everyone was watching you, in that moment. It was like, ‘This is the show. This is the show.’”
The last time The Show featured both the state’s most prominent stars, Iowa State toppled Minnesota before running into the eventual national champion Tar Heels in the second round. Iowa fell in its first game, 76-64.
On Saturday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicted Iowa State to land as a No. 3 seed in San Antonio against 14th-seeded Western Michigan. Lunardi crystal-balled Iowa as a No.10 in St. Louis against seventh-seeded Saint Louis University.
The state’s biggest groan has been reserved for the Hawkeyes, who have dropped six of their past seven games, with the sole win against Big Ten cellar-dwelling Purdue. USA TODAY’s “Bubble Tracker” still lists Iowa as one of five Big Ten teams definitely in the field, even as the team’s Ratings Percentage Index (measure of schedule strength) hovered from upper-40s to lower-60s.
The highest at-large RPI to ever make the tournament, according to CollegeRPI.com, is New Mexico at No. 74 in 1999.
Greg Brunner, who played on Iowa’s 2005 team and is a member of the professional team Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia in north-central Italy, said NCAA teams from BCS-level conferences, along with Northern Iowa runs and Drake’s in 2008, resonate as years drift by.
In 2005, for context, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and Wells Fargo Arena opened in Des Moines.
“In Iowa, that’s a special thing,” Brunner, 30, said in an interview via Skype. “It doesn’t come along very often.”
So when it does arrive, Iowans suddenly come down with a hacking cough to justify watching hoops at home until they develop bed sores. They stealthily maneuver around work, misusing office equipment and company time. They stop what they’re doing, because a team from Iowa stepping on an NCAA Tournament court is appointment TV.
The grand stage built some of the state’s biggest sports heroes, from B.J. Armstrong and Jess Settles to Dedric Willoughby and Royce White. Can anyone ever forget the cold-blooded 3-pointer by Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh to slay No. 1 Kansas in 2010?
What the NCAA Tournament delivers in smiles and high-fives, it rips away in moments of ache and anguish.
Iowa fans remember scoring 58 points in the first half and leading UNLV by 16 points in 1987 before Armen Gilliam, Geraldo Paddio and Freddie Banks roared back for a spot in the Final Four. Iowa State followers grimace at the thought of what could have been against Michigan State in 2000.
For Iowa State, there’s Hampton, 2001. For Iowa, there’s Northwestern State, 2006.
The pain is worth it, though. It beats the alternative in a landslide.
March is about mattering. And, for the first time in nine years, the state is on the verge of mattering to its two biggest fan bases at the same time.
It’s been a long wait.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball