The Iowa Men and The NCAA BURNament

By BenSewardLewis on March 21, 2022 at 1:01 pm
© Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports


Another year. Another March spent with us Hawkeye fans all suffering from the mass-delusion that this would be the year we would see our men's basketball team playing in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. That we are all collectively debased of this delusion in increasingly painful ways doesn't stop us. We are back here every spring like some lonely, deranged songbird warbling out an "I-O-W-A" chant for a prospective mate that perpetually ignores us.

The part that made this loss super-duper shitty is that it wasn't just us chanting the "This is our time" line from The Goonies. It felt like damn-near every sports personality on the planet was picking us for the Final Four, a summit Iowa hasn't climbed since I was negative four. It was hard not to start counting the chickens even though not a single egg was even starting to crack, let alone hatch. It turned out that the only egg that mattered was the massive one that the team laid on Thursday.

With two of Iowa's best men's teams of the 21st century combining for one NCAA tournament win (and you can throw in that 2006 squad to round out an uber-depressing top-3 if you like) I found myself wondering just what it will take to see these guys in a Sweet Sixteen before my lifeless corpse is buried in the ground. (I'm almost 38 if you want to assess just how melodramatic that last sentence is.) If we weren't making the Sweet Sixteen in the last couple of years, then when?

The answer to that question is a very ungratifying "someday." This is obviously so open-ended and non-specific that it can't possibly be wrong. (I'm right even if it takes a Chicago Cubs-like century of futility first!) But as obnoxious as that answer is, it is honest. There will come a day when Iowa fans get to see the men play in the Sweet Sixteen. Despite the fact that each tournament feels like buying a ticket in a rigged lottery, there is nothing rigged about it. It's just a plain ol' lottery, and plumb rotten luck, not some perceived flawed strategy for picking numbers, is to blame. If we keep getting a ticket every year, someday our numbers will come up. 

I am not the least bit interested in telling you how to feel about this. I've already alluded to my moping around like some crestfallen diva who was just told she will never perform again. This loss, and the men's lack of NCAA tournament success generally, sucks rancid donkey balls. If you're pissed about it, be pissed, but obviously don't hurt anybody or tweet stupid shit at players. (Feel free to tweet stupid shit at me though!) 

I am interested in trying to convince you that IT IS in fact nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous basketball fortune than to take up arms against a sea of NCAA Tournament troubles. By that I mean it is easy to look at Fran's 4-6 NCAA Tournament record and come to the conclusion "Dude just doesn't have it when it counts the most." As seductive as that thought is, that is just your brain trying to trick you into believing something stupid.

I don't want to come off as too judgy. I absolutely get why a person would want to believe that Fran will never take us there. One the one hand it has a nice, sadness-hedging fatalism to it ("We will never reach a Sweet Sixteen under Fran, so why bother hoping?") At the same time, you can couple that fatalism with a nice sense of control. (Fire Fran and we go from a zero percent chance of making the Sweet Sixteen to a nonzero percent chance with someone else.) But for all the work that statement is doing for you emotionally, it is doing nothing for you logically, because Fran's present failure to have taken us to the Sweet Sixteen isn't very good evidence of his ability to take us there in the future. 

I'll skip the condescending epistemology lesson and dive straight into the practical example. I mean, we just knew Fran was terrible at coaching in the Big Ten Tournament. I'm far too lazy to do this, but I don't think it would take much digging to find a bunch of comments on this website to that effect, and I felt the exact same way. I mean, Fran was an objectively terrible 2-7 in Big Ten Tournament games at one point. In the past few years he managed to claw that record all the way up to whopping 5-10. He has spent the past decade bumbling into one tournament win a year at best. Until this year.

Perhaps something drastically changed with Fran's approach to the BTT. I seriously doubt this, and you would be hard-pressed to find any meaningful evidence that he did. (And you would be even more challenged to figure out why those changes helped.) Far more likely is that Iowa just played better this time, coupled with just a bit of good luck against Indiana, and you all-of-a-sudden have Iowa's best Big Ten Tourney run of the last sixteen years from a guy that we knew couldn't coach in the Big Ten Tournament.

I guess more importantly than the sheer poor deductive reasoning behind the "Fran can't coach in the NCAA" belief is just how vapid that belief really is. What specifically is Fran doing in the NCAA tournament that is problematic? Weird timeout usage? (He does that during the regular season.) Bad substitutions? Does he tell his players that the game is in the bag so don't try very hard? Is he just ripping fat blunts all day and neglecting to coach all together?

If you think I am saying you can't criticize Fran's coaching in the NCAA tournament, I'm not. I don't doubt you can find numerous in-game mistakes he has made. (Those easy baskets off in-bounds plays by Richmond were egregious and why did every Iowa player look like Michael Scott trying to finish a sentence when they brought the ball into the lane?) But if you are going to say Fran can't coach in the NCAA tournament at all, what is he doing systemically in March that is so flippin' terrible other than just not winning? 

Obviously losing games in the Tourney creates room for all sorts of fantastical conjecture and lazy narratives, but the lame, solace-less truth is that the NCAA is a crapshoot, now more than ever, and this year we walked up to the table with a fat stack of chips and immediately rolled snake eyes. Really though, it hasn't mattered how many chips we've brought, we just aren't ever sitting at the table after the first week in March. But if Fran keeps getting us a seat in the game, someday we will. (And yeah, hopefully before I'm dead.) I get that this isn't a fun or hopeful take, but it is the right one.

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