Those of us who follow the Missouri Valley and stay informed (hello, Panther Nation!) in depth of the programs around the league aren’t surprised that the ninth-seeded Northern Iowa Panthers are being fitted for glass slippers. With their 69-67 victory over #1 overall seed Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, the rest of the nation was shocked.
The Panthers are the first Valley team in the Sweet 16 in three years, and the first league tournament champion to survive the first two rounds since 1979, when a guy named Bird was tickling the nets. Heck, no Valley team had beaten a #1 ranked team since 1962. To say this win was monumental for the league is an understatement.
Too often, the mid-major conferences are overlooked for the power leagues. This season was no different, even though the eight at-large bids earned by mid-major schools was the highest number in several years. The absolute best case in point was the treatment of the Panthers, who ran away from the pack in the Valley, and crushed their three opponents in the conference tournament.
The selection committee for the NCAA Tournament decided that the top team from the ninth-ranked league in the country could do no better than a #9 seed, with a matchup against the #1 overall, national powerhouse Kansas in the second round, should they defeat UNLV. Never mind the fact that UNI finished the season 28-4, or that their RPI was 17 entering the tournament. Ignore their scoring defense, ranked second in the nation. Forget the truth that the Panthers are one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country and feature six upperclassmen in their primary seven-man rotation. All of these are recipes for postseason success.
Yes, the Valley has been down in the past few years, but the accomplishments of the Panthers have been underappreciated all season. Saturday was the proof in the pudding.
While not entirely representative of the fan base, the initial reaction from Kansas fans has been disappointing. Said one forum poster on Northern Iowa’s fan site, www.panthernation.com, “Until you win a BCS bowl game and national championship in basketball in the same year.. then come talk to me.. other wise… this win was a waste.. you won’t win the tourny..” Another offered this nugget, “As long as you realize this is your greatest accomplishment and our greatest shame… I think I’ve proven my point.”
The last poster is correct. This was the biggest win in the school’s history. So pardon the Panther fans if they are excited. Northern Iowa doesn’t play in a power conference. They don’t have a men’s basketball team that earns them $24 million, as Kansas does, according to Forbes magazine. They aren’t a national power, or even the most well-known team in their state.
The other interesting counterpoint is that this is hardly Kansas’ greatest shame. Yes, losing as the overall top seed is embarrassing, but I’d argue there were other moments in Kansas basketball history that belong in the picture. Between recruiting scandals, other horrible losses (including a first-round loss in 2006 to 13th-seeded Bradley – another Valley member) and in-fighting between different sports teams, KU has had its share of image-smearing incidents in the past. A loss to an excellent basketball team who happened not to gain any respect isn’t one of them.
The Panthers will face Michigan State next weekend, with the winner going up against the victor of the Tennessee/Ohio State game. The Spartans will be without their best player, as Kalin Lucas reportedly suffered a torn Achilles tendon in MSU’s win Sunday over Maryland. Lucas, who averages 15.2 points and 3.9 assists per game, will be very difficult to replace for Tom Izzo’s squad. The Spartans have been installed as an early four-point favorite, but expect the money to swing in the direction of the Panthers once it becomes official that Lucas won’t play.
Whatever the outcome of their next game is, Northern Iowa threw another pie in the face of those who continually belittle mid-major programs. The Panthers proved that team play and solid defense can carry you a long way. There isn’t a significant talent gap between the power conference schools and the top mid-major programs, and the national exposure and success that the likes of Northern Iowa, Gonzaga, Butler and others gain in March can only help pry open the eyes of those who believe that college basketball revolves around six conferences.