So it begins. The dumbest and most amazing sporting event in the known universe. Dumbest, because there is not a more ludicrous way of determining a national champion in all of sports than throwing 68 teams into a single-elimination bracket and seeing how it all plays out. Amazing, because there isn’t a way of determining a national champion in all of sports that is more fun. No doubt you could find a process that churns out champions with more veracity, but screw that. I’m more than happy to trade in the snobbery of a College Football Playoff for an egalitarian crapshoot in which it feels like any random schmo can get hot and win the whole damn thing, and that feeling isn’t total bullshit.
With that said, I am not going to enjoy one second of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Instead, I will be staring blankly as other teams play, catatonic, as I impatiently wait for Iowa’s turn. When Iowa does play, I will be a twitchy, anxious mess, fretting over Iowa’s every missed switch on a pick-and-roll, Iowa’s every clanked 3, and being just plum miserable any moment that Iowa isn’t up by double-digits. Should Iowa win, temporary relief, followed quickly by more skittish, nervous waiting. Should Iowa lose, well, how that plays out depends entirely on when Iowa loses.
That's the rub when a goofy one-and-done tournament will have more to say about how we view this Iowa season than literally anything else that happened before it. Make no mistake, that is where we are at. Every moment of elation or frustration, every triumph and mistake, big or small, that has occurred to this point in season have been mashed together into a big wad and slammed onto this blackjack table of an athletic competition, and we are letting it ride. What happens in these games will pretty irrevocably shape how we view the most talented Iowa men’s basketball team of the 21st century, pretty much in perpetuity.
Of course not everyone at the table is playing with the same stakes. Take a middling, underachieving squad that sneaks into the tournament. Lose early and it only confirms the varying degrees of “meh” that everybody already feels about you. Go on a surprise run, though, and they get to watch as the fans, haters and all, shower them with praise and forgive every stupid mistake they made that year. On the flip side, for an elite squad whose regular season was a string of heavyweight KOs, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen is necessary just to prove the regular season wasn’t a fluke. And if that squad peaces out in the first round? Good luck getting anybody to remember anything at all about your regular season.
There just aren’t many teams with more table stakes in this tournament than Iowa. We all know the hype surrounding this squad. We haven’t seen a team like this in a very long time. It would be really cool to say there are more teams where this one came from, but I can't quite convince myself of something so fanciful. This means that for me, as for a lot of you, this tournament is Sweet Sixteen-or-bust. I want that extra week to dream of two more victories and highlights of our guys cutting down the nets, and a whole lot more. Anything more than the Sweet Sixteen would be the stuff of legends. Anything short of that will be mean all-time colossal disappointment.
By way of example, here are the top 3 NCAA tournament moments in my lifetime, ranked not by happiness but by their salience:
3) the Woodbury tip-in against Temple in 2016,
2) the almost greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history in 2019,
and TRIGGER WARNING 1) the goddamn fadeaway corner 3 by some fucking guy on Northwestern State in 2006.
(I was too young to appreciate the 1999 trip to the Sweet Sixteen along with anything before it and Iowa’s lone other NCAA win in the 21st century has left almost no impression on me.)
Each of those games became ciphers for the Iowa teams that created them. The Temple win was a nice coda on the end of a season, putting a positive spin on a talented squad that never quite reached the heights that we, or they, hoped for. The Tennessee comeback that almost was erased an inconsistent regular season and became a harbinger of hype, with Tyler Cook moving on but a relatively young squad flashing elite potential and the promise of riches to come. But those memories pale in comparison to the horror of the 2006 NCAA tournament in terms of visceral, stomach-churning, I-still-feel-it-in-every-cell-in-my-body recollection. I’m pretty sure that if I get Alzheimer’s and forget every member of my family, you will still be able to hear me muttering “Fucking Northwestern State” under my breath as I walk in circles in some care facility.
Look, I know I am supposed to make some sort of “file not found” joke in regard to that awful, awful moment, but the opposite is the actual truth. That memory is absolutely seared into my brain. Sitting at my frat house and watching the game with a bunch of dudes who seemed to give several less shits than me about its outcome. (In a life filled with baffling choices and bad calls, my decision to join a frat is one of the weirdest.) The aggravation as Iowa built a lead but could not quite put Northwestern State away. That aggravation hardening into a dread anchored my stomach as Northwestern State narrowed that lead to one towards the end of the game. The terror as Greg Brunner made only one of two free throws tries, leaving the door to a death by a dagger 3 unlocked. The half-second of relief when Northwestern State missed their first attempt at a dagger 3, followed by the horrific certainty that the second, flailing, desperate fade-away attempt that followed after Northwestern State recovered the loose-ball rebound was destined to find its way right down the middle of the basket, catapulting any good feelings about that season into the fiery pits of Hell.
The shock of that loss eventually dissipated, and life moved on, because of course there are more important things than college basketball. But the real bummer is that now whenever I think of that season, all I CAN think about is that loss. Not the scrapping and clawing for the 11 Big Ten wins out of 16. Not the majestic Big Ten Tournament run. Nope. Just that shot, playing on a loop in the top right corner whenever I conjure up any memories of that season. This is exceedingly lame, because we can say whatever we like about [REDACTED] but that was a talented, senior-laden squad that busted their asses and was a lot of fun to watch.
That isn't fair, but it isn't supposed to be. There is no better, more-enlightened perspective to take about any of this. I have no advice to give. This tournament is cruel. It is agony and ecstasy living in the same duplex with nothing but a shared, thin, moldy wall between them. All you can do is walk up to the door, knock, and hope it is ecstasy that answers the door. Whoever answers, I am going to remember their face for a very, very long time.