When Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh caught the pass out of the backcourt with just 38 seconds left with his team up a point over top seed Kansas he had a teammate on the other side of the court and only Tyrel Reed was back as a defender. In that type of situation clinging to a lead against a charging team, usually the player holds on to the ball and lets the clock inch closer to zero. But with the way Kansas was moving the ball and finally pressing the Northern Iowa offense, the Ali the Assassin knew that could cost his team the game. So with Reed backing off to cover the pass Farokhmanesh was able to line-up a three pointer that CBS announcers Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner were ready to admonish him for taking such a risky shot. But before they could find a response the ball fell through the twine, giving the Panthers a four-point edge of the Jayhawks, allowing them to hold on for the lead, move on to the Sweet 16 and has so far become the stand-out moment in a four-day stretch of exciting basketball.
It was surely a thrilling game for anyone who watched it, even the many of us, including myself, about one-third of my Bracket Pool, many of the expert prognosticators, and even President Obama, who had to rip up their bracket with the demise of the Jayhawks. The overall #1 seed didn’t make it through the weekend, and Bill Self’s squad suffered another early exit surrounded by one championship (ironically, in the year that four #1 seeds made the Final Four) and was one of three Big 12 teams to fall in the second round. And since other popular champion picks Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State and Kansas State are still alive, those of us unfortunate enough to have picked Kansas will need a few miracles to contend in our bracket.
But that’s the beauty of March Madness. Even if our brackets fall apart, we can still enjoy every moment of the tourney we’ve seen and will come to see in the next rounds. And this has been an exceptional tournament so far, full of upsets and buzzer beaters. Ali the Assassin has more than earned that moniker not just for having the intestinal fortitude (or as Bill Raftery might quip, “He orders his burgers and pizza with extra onions!”) to eliminate Kansas, but also UNLV in the first round. And Northern Iowa is one four bonafide Cinderella’s along with Cornell, Washington, and Saint Mary’s in the Sweet 16, and each with a very good chance to play for a Final Four birth. The CBS broadcasting trucks must’ve been in a frenzy for much of the weekend as it seemed they often had to switch back and forth between multiple close games in the closing seconds (why these games aren’t spread across multiple networks so we can pick which close game to watch is beyond me, doesn’t CBS own any cable channels they can use to broadcast games for a few days a la NBC and the Olympics?) and featured four overtime games, twice as many as all of the 2009 Tournament.
So if like me your bracket is busted, you can sit back and watch some of the great David-and-Goliath match-ups including Northern Iowa against Michigan State, a team that always seems to be in the Sweet 16 but lost Kalin Lucas likely for the rest of the tourney. Or Duke against Purdue, a team the everyone wrote off after they lost Robbie Hummel. Or Baylor, playing in nearby Houston against Saint Mary’s led by Omar Samhan, who has been the dominant big man in the tournament. Or West Virginia against Washington, the last Pac-10 team left. Or the craziest match-up of them all, Kentucky vs. Cornell, SEC vs. Ivy, talent vs. team. The names Kentucky and Cornell look like they don’t belong on the same bracket. But Cornell has been as dominant as anyone over the first two rounds, knocking of Temple and Wisconsin by wide margins. Kentucky has become the de-facto favorite in the tourney, but they could get their toughest test from a 12 seed with no NBA prospects from a conference that hasn’t advanced this far in over 30 years, since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were college stars.
With no way to win, I will throw my support and fandom fully behind my alma mater, Syracuse. I had them in the Final Four to start, and it still looks like they can get there. If their guards have the hot hand and if Arinze Onuaku can come back healthy, they will be a tough out. Now (knocking on my wooden desk as I type this) I just hope that my support isn’t the kiss of death for the Orange.