The Unfairness of March Madness

Let’s be honest here for a second…if Iowa loses to Grand Canyon on Saturday, the 2021 Iowa men’s basketball team will be remembered with a great deal of ignominy.

The team that thrilled us for the better part of four months, the team that we all thought about, framed about, tweeted about, wrote about and spoke about since last year’s tournament was canceled will go down in the annals of Hawkeye history as a big disappointment.

That’s how many people remember the 2005-2006 Iowa basketball team, who entered the tournament that year as a three-seed, fresh off winning the Big Ten Tournament, the team that had the #1 defense in the nation, the team that came into the NCAA tournament on a five-game winning streak, the team that finished second in the regular season Big Ten standings, which is higher than any Iowa basketball team has finished in the Big Ten standings since the 1982 team also finished in second place, as did the 1981 team.  They were also the team that entered the tournament as a three-seed and lost in the opening round to Northwestern State, a 14-seed, and the Hawks led by 17 with under 10 minutes to play.

The 1981 team was really good, too.  It finished 13-5 in the Big Ten, it earned a three-seed in the NCAA tournament, it was never ranked lower than 11th at any time in the regular season and was in the Top Ten through late February, however I remember that team mostly for losing in overtime to the Idaho Vandals, an eight seed, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.  It’s the only reason I know what Idaho’s nickname is. As an aside, Idaho was ranked 6th in the nation entering the NCAA tournament and Iowa was ranked 11th…talk about bad seeding!  This was in the era before there were 64 teams in the tournament, too.

The 1986-1987 Iowa team remains my favorite Hawkeye team of any sport, any era.  That team went 14-4 in the Big Ten, Iowa’s best winning percentage in conference play, then or now, since the 1969-1970 Iowa team went 14-0.  The 14 wins in 1970 and 1987 remain tied for the most in Big Ten regular season play in school history.

Oh wait, there is another, as Yoda once said.  This year’s team that won 14 games in school history, and that is the 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes.  This year’s team.  This incredibly fun team that filled a lot of empty COVID spaces in our lives for the past several months, that helped us all pass the depths of a Midwestern winter with a light always at the end of the snowy and cold tunnel a couple of games per week at a time.

It had Luka Garza, the highest scoring center in Big Ten history and debatably the best basketball player in Iowa history.  It had Jordan Bohannon, the greatest long-range gunner in school history and just 13 made trey’s away from making more three-pointers than any other player in league history.  It had Joe Wieskamp, one of the most accurate shooters in Iowa history and has done things through a junior season that no other Iowa player has done before him.  Keegan Murray’s rookie year has been a revelation and a sign of stardom to come.  I could go on and on with the individuals…all brought me a great deal of entertainment and if I am being perfectly honest, joy.

The win against North Carolina put a smile on my face that lasted a couple of nights until the win against Iowa State broadened it.  The win at Northwestern was one of the most impressive offensive performances of my life watching Iowa basketball.  The win at Ohio State was very fulfilling and Iowa beating Wisconsin three times in the span of 24 days was very satisfying to my Badger-hating bones.

However, for some, if Iowa should lose in the second round, or even not make it to the Elite Eight, this season will go down in their minds as a disappointment.

Hey, I am not here to tell YOU how YOU should feel.  I hate it when sportswriters do that (and some do it quite often).  If Iowa would lose in the first round, I would be floored.  If they lost in the second round, I probably won’t feel satisfied.  If they make it to the Sweet 16 and no farther, as long as they don’t blow a 19 point lead the way the 1987 team did, I will likely feel contented.

But that’s the thing with March Madness.  My first, knee-jerk thought about 1987 is blowing the lead vs UNLV and how much then 16-year old Jon was devastated.  As I have gotten older and farther removed from that ‘bad day’, I have been able to appreciate that team more and as I mentioned before, that team is my all-time favorite.  I watch some of those games on youtube here and there and they bring a smile to my face.  That was an incredible team that won so many games and helped light a fire of passion in my belly for covering Iowa sports that still burns 34 years later.

Yet March Madness is cruel that way.  I shouldn’t have needed a good 15 or so years of self-loathing and angst at the thought of that team to get to this point.  Perhaps that just says more about me than you.  Perhaps you are better adjusted than I am.  Perhaps you, faithful reader, are more rational than I am and if this year’s Iowa team doesn’t hit that lofty perch their seed would indicate they should hit, you will be fine with it and you will appreciate the journey more than the weight you place on the ultimate end, or the destination.

As Jules said in Pulp Fiction, I am trying hard, real hard to be The Shepherd with all of this.  Not your shepherd, but the shepherd of my own emotions.  I’d like to think I am at the point where being disappointed with an early exit is simply that; disappointed.

I’d like to think I am to the place where I will always appreciate this team and not have some ten-year psychological malaise that inhibits my addressing or enjoyment of ‘the mems’.  I am fairly certain I am there, but not 100% certain.

Such is the Madness of March…the magnificent, wonderful and enjoyable journey we all just took together is so quickly forgotten, or shoved to the recesses the cob-webbed hardwoods of our mind and only those brackets matter.

The Journey, my friends, is truly what life is all about.  Life is THE DASH, not A dash…when you visit a cemetery, and on the headstone it reads the year of birth DASH year of death…that dash is such a small etching, yet it’s EVERYTHING.  THE DASH contains a life and THE DASH represents the journey.

The 2020 DASH 2021 season is no different.  That dash was so much fun and a ride I won’t soon forget, nor would I want to.

Here is to hoping Iowa plays to seed so none of us needs to take a visit to any psychological couches anytime soon.  Relative to this year’s team, The Journey continues for at least one more day.

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