The Great Iowa Sports Weekend That Wasn't

By RossWB on March 21, 2020 at 1:09 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

This is not how today was supposed to go. Today was supposed to be the high point of a marvelous weekend for Iowa sports. Today was supposed to be the day Iowa wrestling officially claimed its first national championship in 10 years. Today was supposed to be the day Spencer Lee claimed his third straight national championship and when (hopefully) he was joined atop the podium by some of his Iowa teammates (Pat Lugo? Alex Marinelli? Michael Kemerer? Austin DeSanto? A surprise contender?). And, depending on how the schedules worked out, today might have been a day in which Iowa men's basketball punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in over 20 years. It might have been a day in which Iowa women's basketball advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in front of thousands of cheering home fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

All of those glorious, thrilling possibilities, snuffed out by the NCAA's decision to cancel the NCAA Tournaments a little over a week ago. It was the right decision, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic has only gotten more concerning and more threatening since those events were canceled, and it's likely that things don't seem likely to get better in the immediate future. Not having these events was and is the absolute correct decision to try and slow the spread of the virus. But that doesn't mean we can't lament what was lost and Iowa sports lost what was shaping up to be a truly great winter sports season.  

We can't know what would have happened, who the men's and women's basketball teams would have drawn or when they would have played. There's no guarantee they would have won their first round games, let alone possible second round games. There's also no guarantee that Iowa wrestling would have won that long-awaited team championship (though the odds were certainly in their favor). "That's why the play the games," as the cliche goes. 

But the opportunity was certainly there this season. Iowa men's basketball seemed likely to draw a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would have meant a game with a potentially tricky (but likely beatable) #11 seed. It also would have put them in line to face a #3 seed in the second round -- not an easy task, to be sure, but perhaps easier than the outstanding #2 seeds Iowa had drawn in their last three second round match-ups. And this Iowa team had a Luka Garza playing at an incredibly high level and carrying this Iowa team to heights few thought possible at the beginning of the season. This Iowa team had also slayed several good teams over the course of the season, which should have given them plenty of confidence in a hypothetical second round game against a #3 seed. 

Iowa women's basketball was on track to earn a #4 seed, which would have meant hosting duties for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa has been unbeatable at home over the last two seasons, which would have been a source of great comfort as they settled in to try and make a run for their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. And as for Iowa wrestling, well, I talked a lot about their ability to claim an NCAA title this season yesterday. 

It's rare that all of Iowa's sporting fortunes align like this. Just twice have Iowa men's and women's basketball both made the Sweet 16 in the same season -- 1987 and 1988. It's been 30+ years since both squads have been playing on the second weekend of their respective tournaments. (Of course, just one of those teams making it to the Sweet 16 has been rare enough; the men haven't won two games at the NCAA Tournament since 1999 and the women had a lengthy drought of their own -- since 1996 -- before advancing past the second round in 2015 and 2019.)

And there's never been a season when the both basketball teams made the Sweet 16 and the wrestling team won a national title. As noted, 1987 and 1988 are the only year in which both basketball teams made the Sweet 16; the wrestling team finished as national runners-up in both of those seasons as they took a brief dip following their nine consecutive national titles from 1978-1986. There have been just five seasons when one of the basketball teams made the Sweet 16 and the wrestlers won a national title: 1980 (MBB), 1983 (MBB), 1993 (WBB), 1996 (WBB), and 1999 (MBB). The closest they've come was probably 1991, when both basketball teams won a game in the NCAA Tournament and the wrestlers won a national championship. 

There were painful losses outside of the most high-profile sports, too. The indoor NCAA track and field championships were set to take place last weekend, with several Iowa athletes poised to do well there, especially Wayne Lawrence and Laulauga Tausaga. Lawrence and Tausaga were named the Indoor Athletes of the Big Ten Championships a few weeks ago, Lawrence for winning gold medals in the 200 meters, 400 meters, and 4x400 relay and Tausaga for winning gold in the weight throw and finishing second in the shotput. They would have been among the favorites in their respective events at the NCAA Tournament. The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament is especially cruel for Tausaga, a senior whose excellent Iowa career is now over. 

There are bigger things than sports, obviously, and I hope you and your family and friends are able to stay healthy and safe during this crisis -- that's what truly matters. But sports endure for a reason and losing them now is a reminder of that. Iowa sports seemed to be on the cusp of a truly memorable and wonderful weekend (and maybe even a bit longer than that) and we'll never know what might have or could have been. It just sucks. 

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