My earliest memories of the NCAA Tournament are vague, shifty ones. I entered into my neighbor’s March Madness pool without fully understanding the event, but I remember being about 8 years old and completely captivated by the layout of the bracket and the logical set-up of the seeding. My second year went far better – that’s another story for another time – but I don’t have detailed memories of watching an NCAA game until the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the Final Four in 2000. I remember going over to a different neighbor’s house (the home of my best childhood friend, shout out to Phil!) and watching the disciplined Dick Bennett Badgers take down the more athletic, Stromile Swift-led LSU Tigers and the favored Purdue Boilermakers (with the immortal Brian Cardinal). Led by Duany Duany and Mike Kelley’s defense, Jon Bryant raining treys, and Mark Vershaw down low, they captured an improbable berth in the national semifinals as an 8-seed. Although they lost to the eventual champion Flintstones of Michigan State in the semifinals (Cleaves, Mo Pete, Charlie Bell, et al), I was all in as a Badger hoop fan.
Three games into the next season, Dick Bennett resigned, saying he was “drained.” His lead assistant, Brad Soderberg, took over a talented squad facing an unknown season. Soderberg did an admirable job under the interim tag, guiding the Badgers to an 18-11 record and a first round NCAA tournament loss. Despite this, the Badger athletic department decided to make an outside hire – Bo Ryan, from little DIII Wisconsin-Platteville. Ryan rewarded the department’s faith immediately, ending the regular season on a 6-game winning streak en route to a share of the Big Ten title.
But Bo was only getting started. He kept winning year after year, despite a mostly local recruiting presence that rarely involved top tier talent. The insane stats have been everywhere over the past couple days, but my favorite is worth repeating: he finished in the top 4 of the Big Ten in all 14 years of his tenure. Every single year! He was good right away, he stayed good, and he went to the Final Four in his final two full years on the job. He maintained and built on the positive trajectory on which Bennett had started the program. I grew up watching Bo’s teams run the swing offense, played in it from sixth grade all through high school under a coach with similar beliefs to Bo, and won a state championship running it on the Kohl Center floor. Bo WAS Badger basketball for me; he’s almost all I can remember there.
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Though my love for Iowa State basketball doesn’t go back quite as far, it’s fair to say it’s been a torrid three-year love affair. The Cyclones first caught my interest during the 2012-2013 season, when Korie Lucious played his one year there. Lucious was always the best player in Wisconsin my age; I never knew him, but my love for basketball caused me to stay interested in his career. He played with an incredibly entertaining squad at Iowa State. The coach, Fred Hoiberg, preached versatility and shooting – the team’s top 6 players all hit at least 24 threes – and soon enough, Hilton Magic was restored in Ames, courtesy of the man affectionately known as The Mayor. The Cyclones suffered a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round on a pull-up 3 by the evil Aaron Craft, but my love for their style had already been cemented.
Fast forward to the 2013-14 NCAA Tournament. I had always dreamt of going to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the tourney; they were already my favorite four days of the year, and what could be better than an environment where a gigantic mass of people hung on almost every single basket, no matter the score? I was lucky enough to have a few friends who wanted to go as well, and we combined with another group to embark on our first annual pilgrimage to the March Madness Mecca. My love for Iowa State (and that of fellow writer DJ Dimes) convinced our group to make the Cyclones -5.5 in the first half over NC Central our collective biggest bet of the trip. As the seconds withered away and the 1st half buzzer neared, our mega-wager appeared to be in trouble. With 40 seconds left, the Clones had only a 4-point lead and were still on defense. Only a stop and a bucket could save us. With student loan payments on the line, stud point guard DeAndre Kane gave us hope with a massive block, and then sure enough this happened at the buzzer:
Needless to say, we absolutely erupted into a senseless mob of celebration, nearly dog-piling in the middle of a fairly crowded bar. Initially startled by our raucous cheers, other patrons in the bar quickly figured out what had happened, and congratulated us happily – all because a team won by 6 in the first half. Ah, the beauty of Vegas.
From then on, this Cyclones team has been immortal in our eyes, and Naz Mitrou-Long was a massive part of that. He played with raw emotion and buried transition threes with deadly accuracy – a perfect fit for playing in the electric Hilton Fieldhouse under Hoiberg’s entertaining system. Along with Georges Niang, DeAndre Kane, Monte Morris, and the rest of the Clones over the last couple of years, he represented the free-flowing, spaced out offensive juggernaut that my friends and I loved. Seeing the news that Naz would miss the rest of this season – the Cyclones best chance yet to win a national title, with Long, Jameel McKay, Abdel Nader, and All-American Georges Niang in their senior seasons – was a crushing blow, one that felt like the end of a mini-era.
Another tidbit: For two years, the 3MW fellas have had our own running GroupMe chat. The avatar for that group? Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue, and Naz Long. Man, it sucks that he’s hurt.
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For both schools, these losses leave a cloudy future. Wisconsin faces more of a long-term fog – who will take the reins at the school? Will it be Bo’s preferred successor, longtime assistant Greg Gard? Or will it be a higher profile name from outside the program – Tony Bennett? Bryce Drew? Ben Jacobson? Can the guy who takes over really maintain the success that Bo had, despite a relatively low basketball budget and a slightly-less-than-elite reputation among national recruits? Bo’s success developing players from promising-but-unrefined newcomers into sure-handed, seasoned veterans was almost without peer, and it’s understandable to wonder if it can be replicated.
For Iowa State, this is more of a near-term issue. The Cyclones were a bona fide title contender, but losing a senior leader, a deadeye shooter, and an emotional sparkplug all rolled into one is a blow to those hopes. Nasty Nazdaq, as I affectionately refer to him, had a penchant for big shots: see his game-tying three at the end of double OT en route to a win at Oklahoma State in February 2014 or his game-tying three to end regulation a month later, against that same Cowboys squad. Morris and Niang are capable of hitting big shots, too, but Long’s cold-blooded gunning will be tough to reproduce.
While some criticize Bo for leaving in the middle the season (and with maybe his worst team in 15 years), Bo did so for a reason – it essentially guaranteed that Gard, his own longtime assistant, would have a chance to audition for a head gig. Like Soderberg following Bennett, there’s no guarantee Barry Alvarez will hire Gard even after a successful season, but Gard can show another program he’s ready for another job right now (SLU hired Soderberg as an assistant for a year, then promoted him to the head job when Washington hired away Lorenzo Romar). I think doing a large favor for a guy that’s been by your side for 20+ years is a pretty damn respectable move. And to those criticizing Bo for leaving the players behind – there are no scholarship seniors on this roster. At the very least, every single player has another season (or more) within the program to continue to grow and find success. There will never be a perfect time for him to leave, but I implore you to find a solution that is fairer to all parties Bo cares about. I’m thankful for getting to watch the Bo Ryan era at Wisconsin.
And though this may sound like an obituary for Iowa State’s title chances (and my love for that team), it is far from it. The Cyclones still have the aforementioned Niang to anchor them, a promising young coach in Steve Prohm, one of the best point guards in the country in Morris, an elite inside force in McKay, and a few wings (Nader, Matt Thomas, Deonte Burton, Hallice Cooke) who can collectively try to replace Long’s production. Naz is applying for a medical hardship waiver to gain an extra year of eligibility next year, and if I can have one more glorious year of the Morris/Naz backcourt, I will be eternally thankful to the NCAA. It’s in their grimy, heartless hands, though, and I am trying to prepare myself for the sobering possibility of never seeing Naz play another game for the Clones.
Losing Bo and Naz in the same day was a major blow indeed – two guys that have embodied my love for college basketball, both at its earliest stages and even now as I continue to find new teams to love. But my goal is to look at it differently: there’s room in my basketball heart now, and part of the joy of this sport is finding the next great coach or joyful team to fill that hole.