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Excessively Feeling The Panthers' Pain

I love the NCAA tournament, usually.

I play in the office pool, but more than just that, I emotionally get involved with the games.  Yes, that's not an exaggeration.  Emotionally involved.  I stand up and yell at the TV set for teams located in places I've never visited, becoming hoarse for schools I didn't attend, cheering for Cinderellas I didn't know existed a month before.

Like most of America, I have fallen in love with the underdog narrative - the plucky, underdog story we've all seen in Hoosiers and Little Giants and countless good, bad, and terrible sports movies over the last fifty years.

And as a fan of my alma mater, Lehigh, I guess I live this underdog story on a near-daily basis.  Lehigh is almost always the "smaller school" in all their NCAA athletics contests, whether it's wrestlers going against the semi-pros of Penn State and Iowa, or the football team going against the 100+ scholarshipped players of Yale or Princeton.

That has to be why, after standing up through two overtimes, yelling at my TV and imploring a bunch of college athletes I do not know to somehow take down one of the richest schools of the country, I felt sick.

Lehigh and Northern Iowa are not similar institutions of higher learning, but they have more linked threads athletically than you might imagine.

Treasured Lehigh Football Memory
In the 2010 FCS football season, the Panthers played a sort-of FCS Goliath to Lehigh's David, a game where underdog Lehigh escaped the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa with a 14-7 win.

"Northern Iowa, so well tested in Missouri Valley Conference football play, were so loaded with talent, so the story appeared to go, that Lehigh would be simply overwhelmed by the talent mismatch and could not keep up with the hometown Panthers," I wrote. "The conventional wisdom was: UNI never loses in the first round of the playoffs. In sixteen years, they hadn't lost a first round game. And the Patriot League doesn't win in the first round of the playoffs. Since 2003, there had been plenty of moral victories but no real victories - you know, where the Patriot League team ended up with more points than the other team.

"But this group of Lehigh players did not go slack-jawed once they made it to the UNI-Dome."

I play that underdog card a lot in the FCS playoffs, that teams like UNI have more advantages than "plucky" Lehigh.  The Missouri Valley Football Conference, home of the North Dakota State Bison, is a lot like the SEC of the FCS, a reputation that has been earned though the near-term dominance of NDSU.

In men's basketball, however, the Missouri Valley occupies a strange place.

They are not considered a true "autobid conference", a conference like the Patriot League or America East where only winning your conference tournament is a guarantee of making the tournament at all.
They have teams that are considered true sleeper picks to win the entire thing, the NCAA championship.  This year, Wichita State and Northern Iowa might have been 11 seeds this season, but they were clearly no pushovers, and the inclusion of Wichita State in the field of teams in the tournament wasn't even really up for debate.  The Missouri Valley is a multi-bid conference - not your typical underdog story.

In 2010, there was another thread between the Mountain Hawks and Panthers: Lehigh, the 16 seed starring C Zahir Carrington and two freshman up-and-coming players called PF Gabe Knutson and G C.J. McCollum, tested Kansas for thirty tense minutes before finally falling by double-digits to No. 1 seed Kansas.

How Did They Miss Him?
Two days later, Northern Iowa would slam the door on Kansas' title hopes that year as the 9 seed, winning 69-67 with a kill shot from a wide, WIDE open G Ali Farokhmanesh.

I watched that game, too, on TV, trying to implore the Panthers to pull off the upset and to allow me to believe just one more weekend that a school with an FCS football team, a school without waterfalls in the locker room, a school where there's at least hope that the athletes actually go to class, can win the whole thing.

Perhaps it's a form of addiction.  You become addicted to underdogs, addicted to the possibility that they could do it, that the pain happens when they don't.  You see these threads with your own school, and maybe even play them into something they're actually not, but it doesn't matter.  When you see UNI doing well, you see yourself in them.  You see your school in them.  They become the vessel of your own school's hopes and aspirations.

Fast forward to last night.

A lot of "smaller schools" lost this weekend.  On Friday, the Patriot League's representative in the tourney, Holy Cross, got blown away by an Oregon team that looked like they could win the whole thing.  They were impressive.  Then again, their Nike-sponsored warmups were probably worth more than half the recruiting budgets of some of the other schools.  Oregon is in the Waterfall Club.

I didn't ache after Middle Tennessee State lost to Syracuse, or Arkansas-Little Rock fell to Iowa State.  I didn't yell at the officials to call fouls in the St Joe's/Oregon game, or try to shift blame away from Stephen F. Austin after Notre Dame beat them on a great, athletic play by their center.  The Cinderellas lost, some in excruciating fashion.  But I got it.  The Waterfall schools did what they do: blew the Cinderellas out, or made great plays to win it at the end.

But UNI's loss on Sunday night hit me in a place that those other losses didn't.

In a game in which my office pool was unaffected, I watched.  I watched the Panthers go up by 10 at halftime, and saw F Klint Carlson go on a tear early in the second half that seemed to essentially put away the Aggies.

I saw the last two minutes, and some of the turnovers, caused by Texas A&M's tough press on the inbounds (or boneheaded plays by G Wyatt Lohaus and G Paul Jesperson take your pick), that resulted in points for the Aggies.

But then I saw Carlson's dunk off a full-court pass, which had that weird echo of one of Lehigh's famous NCAA Tournament moments, the lob pass to Knutson that resulted in a dunk, that helped the Mountain Hawks in 2012 stun Duke.

After that play, I thought that was it; with the Panthers up 5, smug, happy and satisfied, I switched to check the other game, even posting a quick near-celebratory tweet about UNI holding on.

But after another check of Twitter, I went right back.  Something was wrong.

Two C-words were already being bandied about on Twitter in regards to UNI.  Choke.  And collapse.

I saw the replays of the drive to the basket by Aggie F Danuel House.  Jesperson made half a move towards House on his drive, and perhaps grazed him, but he was called for the foul and donated an extra free throw attempt to Texas A&M.  A baloney call, I thought and said.

Then I saw the infamous inbounds play as it happened, with UNI G Wes Washpun of Northern Iowa was double-teamed in the corner.

Depending on who you were rooting for - the Waterfall team, Texas A&M, who received more than $31.2 million in payout in SEC TV rights last year, or the Cedar  Falls team, whose "money from TV rights is unknown" - you saw the play in two different ways.

If you're Team Waterfall, you saw some great Texas A&M athletes expertly pressing Washpun, not fouling him, and forcing him to make an error.  When he did, G Admon Gilder took the ball, laid it up, and tied the game.

But if you're Team Cedar Falls, you saw a reach-in, a play that's often called by college basketball refs in similar situations, but was not called here.  You saw Washpun, not getting the foul call, get frustrated, try to do what many kids would try to do in that situation - hit the ball against the defender, and have it go out of bounds - and get the ball back.

It's this play that I can't seem to get over.

It's the type of play I often see reversed, in the movies of my head - the plucky underdogs playing good, fundamental defense, forcing the big, Waterfall school to make the unforced error, getting the tying layup and taking the momentum shift to write another wonderful chapter in The Underdog Is Always Right.

Yet - how often do underdogs get that type of call?  Underdogs almost never get that sort of narrative.  Underdogs usually win because, at some level, of lack of sufficient respect from the opposition - they miss covering the guy who makes the big shot.  They don't put a hand in the face of  Jesperson as he swishes the half-court heave that he's probably rehearsed 1,000 times from his backyard driveway to the practice court to the game - and is also the same type of halfcourt shot that Sunday's hero, Admon Gilder, also practiced 1,000 times.  They don't guard the inbounds play, because the smaller school always wilts in the presence of The Waterfall, because they're The Waterfall.

In this game, the plucky underdog narrative I love, and perhaps desperately need to believe, was turned on its head.   It was UNI, the underdog, collapsing under the pressure, and Texas A&M, playing good fundamental basketball to make the improbable comeback.

As high school students, both sets of athletes worked very hard at their craft to get to this point.  Both are getting scholarships to go to college, to their immense credit.

But one trains in Texas A&M's state-of-the-art training facility with tablet-sign-in, workout analytics and flat-screen TVs in all the areas, not to mention athlete allowances for spending money and unlimited food and snacks.  UNI just recently allowed their student-athletes to receive full cost of attendance payments, and their training facilities are not in the same league as Texas A&M's.

The difference between Texas A&M's and UNI's spending is immense.  It is, in terms of dollars spent, a mammoth difference in resources.  It is something that I hate.  I feel it to be unfair.

But does that difference that make UNI underdogs?

Training is only a part of the story, of course.  Despite the spending difference, talent-wise, UNI clearly belonged on the same court as Texas A&M last night for about 39 minutes and 30 seconds of regulation.  You can make a temple of athletics at a university, but in the end it comes down to coaching and executing.  You can win the training-room championship and get beaten on the court - and, in fact, that's exactly what happened 48 hours earlier, when UNI won on the half-court heave to eliminate an even bigger, richer school than Texas A&M - the University of Texas.

The officials didn't wave off Jesperson's 3-point miracle shot 48 hours ago because they were a smaller school.  There were no officials right there trying to take away the game for the underdog.  Why should I think that this was the case 48 hours later?

So the ultimate question I end up with after this epic game is: does that hatred of the system that allows waterfalls in the locker room for some schools, and not others, cloud my judgement of the game?  Does it make me see fouls that don't exist in the last 30 seconds of a game?

Or does the spending disparity, at some level, mean that smaller schools like UNI are destined to not get the benefit of the doubt from the officials?  Does it mean that when a player leans into a driving player and barely grazes them on the way to the basket, they always get called for the foul?

I don't know the answer to that unanswerable question, but all I know is the destruction of Cinderella and the tearing up of multiple underdog narratives I've loved and embraced for years made my night sleepless last night.  UNI may have only been the vessel of the athletics hopes and dreams in regards to my own alma mater, but it didn't make the result hurt any less, or make me sleep any better.


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