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Coming back from heartbreak: Northern Iowa’s journey past a tourney collapse

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — It wasn’t until the impossible materialized that Jeremy Morgan really realized what was happening around him.

Morgan and his Northern Iowa teammates were 48 hours removed from witnessing the improbable, but the impossible, the seemingly truly impossible, was now real. A lead that should have been safe from famine, pestilence and plague had been vaporized.

Northern Iowa had collapsed completely. A 12-point advantage on the scoreboard and 44 seconds on the clock should have been enough. It should have been foolproof.

But Texas A&M, in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, miraculously made up the difference.

“We were just kind of in shock,” Morgan, now a UNI senior, told NBCSports.com this summer, “but at the same time we knew we were going to have to go out and try to win the game in overtime.”

They didn’t, though. Not in the first extra five minutes and not in the second, when the game went to double-overtime. That’s where the Aggies finished off the Panthers, 92-88, and one of the most stunning comebacks in the history of the sport.

“We were in the Sweet 16,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson told NBCSports.com this summer, “and we let up.

“We let the game get away. That’s what made it the hardest one.”

What happened next, though, began to define the moment.

The Panthers’ three seniors – Matt Bohannon, Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson, whose half-courter at the buzzer beat Texas just two days earlier – sat at the post-game podium and fielded questions, many of which they couldn’t possibly have answers for in that moment, with poise and patience.

I hope people understand just how much we came together,” Bohannon said then, “and how much if you believe you can do something special. Man, I’m just going to lean on these guys. I mean, we’ll eventually get over it, but we’re just going to need our time for now.”

Their reactions, from the guys who had the most invested and the most to lose as seniors, seemed to set the tone for UNI.

It was the best medicine,” Jacobson said. “To see those three young guys stand up there and answer the questions … and just be 100 percent open with what they were thinking, what they were doing, what they feel, I just thought it was obviously impressive but it was great for all of us to help us get on with it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Alex Caruso #21 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrates after defeating the Northern Iowa Panthers in double overtime with a score of 88 to 92 during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Moving on, of course, is what Northern Iowa simply has to do. A little more than a week into the season, it certainly would appear they’re going to do just that, with runner-up finish last weekend at the Puerto Rico Tip-off.

To appreciate a bounce back, though, the context of the depth should be understood.

A number of mathematical models had the Panthers at essentially a 99.99 percent win probability. FiveThirtyEight had it at 1-in-3,000.

“We actually played a really good game,” Morgan said. “We had control of the game the whole time. We had control of the tempo, and then they played perfect basketball the last 45 seconds.

“They played perfect basketball for that 45 seconds, and they came back and got it.”

The ending – full of inexplicable turnovers, a whistle that went against them and huge plays by the Aggies – was the lowpoint. Contrasting it with the high points is what makes the emotional toll on UNI so remarkable.

This was a team that was under .500 on Jan. 27. They won 12 of their next 13, including three in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament – besting Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Wichita State in the semis – to make the NCAA tournament. Then came Jesperson’s spot-on heave against Texas.

This was a team with an air of invincibility.

“These guys thought they were going to beat everybody,” Jacobson said. “(Eventual West Region champ) Oklahoma was terrific but we were at the point with these guys, it didn’t matter. They thought we would beat them or Golden State.

“You name it. They thought we were going to beat everybody.”

In a way, the Panthers weren’t wrong. It took an act of God to beat them.

“We were playing some of the best basketball we’ve ever played,” Morgan said. “Guys were hitting shots, making plays, playing defense. We were playing really good basketball at the end of March there and on into the tournament.”

Then it was as if David’s slingshot backfired.

“At the end of the day, there are certain things that are what they are,” Jacobson said. “We just did one of them. That’s going to be what it is. There’s no reason for me to try to change that narrative or to defend it or to make sense of it because facts are facts. This is what it is.

“So that’s what we’re going to be associated with. So I don’t spend any time thinking about it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Matt Bohannon #5 of the Northern Iowa Panthers sits on the court after a play in the second half against the Texas A&M Aggies during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time Northern Iowa has found itself very publicly at a crossroads.

Six years ago, it was a very different one, but a fork in the road nonetheless.

Ali Farokhmanesh delivered on the ultimate heat check to beat top-seeded Kansas to put the Panthers in the Sweet 16 and the national consciousness.

Responding to that level of success, seemingly out of nowhere, can, in its own way, be just as problematic as reacting to failure.

“There was an excitement after the Sweet 16,” Jacobson said, “but I think there was also a little bit of, alright this is great but this could be the only time.”

The Panthers now, though, have a foundation of success to lean against and propel off of. They missed the NCAA tournament for the four years after that Sweet 16, but have now won tourney games in back-to-back years and had one MVC player of the year in Seth Tuttle and could have another this year in Morgan.

UNI has to respond to that catastrophe, but they’re not building from scratch.

“The feeling now is we will do it again,” Jacobson said. “Where after 2010, we weren’t quite there yet. Now, when you see people and talk to people and I see our guys, now everyone is like, ok, yeah, we’re going to do it again.”

The Panthers have the roster to make a return trip to the Big Dance. Morgan may be the best player in the league. Klint Carlson, Bennett Koch, Wyatt Lohaus and Ted Friedman all played against Texas A&M and are back. They’ve added Iowa State transfer Jordan Ashton and have a number of players eligible after redshirt seasons last year.

UNI already has wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma, and played No. 11 Xavier tough in an eight-point loss on Sunday night.

“There’s nothing we can do to go back and change what happened, no matter how much we wish that could be,” Morgan said. “That’s something that’s over and done with. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all or how we wanted it to go but that’s over with now.”

It’s over, but not forgotten. Scars heal, but they don’t disappear. Memories may fade, but that pain remains visceral.

“They’re motivated by knowing we had another game in us,” Jacobson said. “We should have played one more game, and everyone knows it. There’s a lot of motivation in that.”

Louisville files lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino

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The University of Louisville has filed a lawsuit against former head coach Rick Pitino, seeking monetary damages, including money the school will lose from vacated NCAA tournament wins from 2012-2015.

According to a report from Jason Riley of WDRB, the school is claiming that since Pitino is the active wrongdoer and not the University. “To the extent the University is obligated to pay financial penalties to the NCAA, the University is entitled to indemnity from Mr. Pitino for the total amount of the penalties, if any, and any other resultant consequential damages, including the costs and attorneys’ fees associated with the compliance investigation and defense of this action,” the lawsuit read.

The university is also going after “any bonuses and other compensation wrongly paid” to Pitino, according to the suit.

This Louisville lawsuit runs counter to Pitino’s breach-of-contract suit that he filed in late November in which he claimed that he was owed more than $35 million left on his contract. Louisville dismissed Pitino “for cause” as the school has maintained that Pitino isn’t owed anything.

Based on the back-and-forth lawsuits, this sounds like it’s just getting started as we’ll likely hear a lot more from both sides in the coming months. Never shy to publicly respond to anything, it’ll be interesting if Pitino speaks or if he’s told to stay quiet until anything is required in court.

NCAA committee hears final Louisville appeal as they try to keep title banner

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Louisville had their final day in court on Wednesday as they made a last-ditch appeal to the NCAA Infractions Committee to try and save their 2012 Final Four and 2013 National Title.

Neither Rick Pitino nor Tom Jurich, who were both fired by Louisville in the wake of this fall’s FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, were in attendance.

An interim president and interim athletic director were present for the University as they tried to push back against the ruling the NCAA came down with this summer. If you’ve forgotten: The Cardinals were hit with a slew of recruiting restrictions, sit on probation and must pay back a bunch of money they won in forfeited NCAA tournament games due to a former staffer’s efforts to provide strippers and sex workers to players and recruits over the course of four years. The vacated wins are the result of players that were retroactively ruled ineligible for receiving what the NCAA is deeming impermissible benefits participating in those games.

Louisville also initially self-imposed violations, including a 2016 postseason ban that was implemented in February of that year.

Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal has all the details here, but we know what the story is at this point.

Louisville’s argument is centered around the money. Essentially, they are saying that value of the transactions in question – the amount of money that was spent by former assistant Andre McGee – was small enough that the players involved would have been able to pay back what was owed had the violations been discovered in real time. The NCAA’s argument is even simpler: We’ve never seen something like this, so precedence does not matter in this case.

A final ruling is not expected until at least January.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part I: Alabama through Louisville

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Alabama to Louisville.

Let’s get into it.

ALABAMA: Fold

Collin Sexton is awesome. He’s fun to watch, he’s efficient and he puts massive pressure on defenses. Still, the Tide may just not have enough to be a true contender in the SEC. Losses to Minnesota, UCF and Arizona suggest that Avery Johnson’s group isn’t strong enough past Sexton. (Travis Hines)

ARIZONA: Raise

It hasn’t been pretty early for Arizona, especially with that 0-3 run in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Yet despite the issues this team needs to address, most notably its defense – especially when DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic are on the court at the same time – Arizona has one of the best 1-2 tandems in Ayton and Allonzo Trier. Ayton’s damn near unstoppable offensively, as he can score inside and out which makes him an absolute handful for just about any team Arizona faces. And for all the talk of Trier’s shot selection last season, he’s been one of the most efficient players in the country. After taking six of his seven shots from three and attempting just two free throws in the win over Texas A&M, Trier managed to earn 16 free throw attempts with just six official shots from the field against Alabama. The return of Rawle Alkins gives Arizona a consistent peripheral offensive option moving forward, and I think Sean Miller will be able to turn this group into an adequate defensive unit. (Raphielle Johnson)

ARIZONA STATE: Raise

I still have questions about the Sun Devils when it comes to their defensive chops, especially with just two front court players who are 6-foot-9 or taller (Vitaliy Shibel and DeQuon Lake) and opponents rebounding just over 30 percent of their misses on the season. But if you have good guard play, and experienced at that, this can cover up a lot of issues in the college game. As their hashtag says the perimeter unit of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Remy Martin and Kodi Justice is #Hard2Guard, and they all play with a chip on their shoulders that Bobby Hurley had during his own playing career. And there aren’t many teams around that have two wins as good as Arizona State’s over Xavier and Kansas on their resume. I believe in this group, and I’ll believe even more if they can improve the defense (and rebounding). (RJ)

Tra Holder (David Becker/Getty Images)

ARKANSAS: Check

The Razorbacks have my attention. They blew out UConn, they beat Minnesota soundly, they handled Oklahoma, they have a talented crop of veteran guards. But they also got smoked at Houston and beaten by North Carolina again. Mike Anderson’s teams have a tendency to be great at home and miserable on the road. Before I make any sweeping proclamations about this Arkansas team, let’s see what they can do on the road during league play. (Rob Dauster)

BAYLOR: Fold

A lot of the Bears’ early-season success has been predicated on a defense that has really kept opponents in check. Is it sustainable though? Baylor is keeping opponents to 29.7 percent from 3-point range and an effective field goal percentage of 44.9. Those would all be the best numbers of a Scott Drew team in recent years – dramatically better than many of his teams. I’m skeptical that Baylor can keep up this pace. (TH)

CINCINNATI: Check

It’s easy to be optimistic about a team with a top-five defense but Cincinnati hasn’t defeated anybody of relevance this season. Losing to Xavier and Florida, the Bearcats’ best win came over Mississippi State this week. Cincinnati can get balanced scoring on certain nights but on others they have to win in rock fights. Let’s see them beat somebody good before we commit more to them. (Scott Phillips)

CREIGHTON: Check

There are things to like about the Bluejays. They have a great offense and own solid wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and UCLA. But Creighton has also fallen to better teams like Baylor and Gonzaga and they’re still the Big East’s fourth best team at this point. Are they truly any kind of contender or just a tournament team? (SP)

Grayson Allen (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

DUKE: Check

So I think I’m the only person covering college basketball that is worried about Duke right now. That might mean I’m an idiot. It might also mean I’m a genius. But here are my concerns, which I laid out in this column in more depth a couple of weeks ago:

  • They don’t play defense all that well. Boston College’s guards looked like all-americans running something as simple as pick-and-rolls every possession.
  • They don’t seem to want to play all that hard until they’re down by 10 points in the second half of a game they shouldn’t be losing.
  • Trevon Duval is talented but he’s not the best decision-maker we’ve seen at the point guard spot. When he goes to the bench, it forces Grayson Allen to play on the ball, which is not his best position.
  • Allen, as a result, has become a streaky shooter that seems to be a little too reliant on the jumper.
  • As a team, Duke is a little too reliant on their jumpers for a team that is not loaded with great shooters.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a young team going through some growing pains, but considering that Duke is, quite literally, the favorite to win the title in Vegas, let’s wait before we put any more money in the middle. (RD)

FLORIDA: Raise

The Gators had their issues last week. They lost at home to in-state rival Florida State. They lost at home to Loyola-Chicago. That came after they blew a 17-point lead to Duke. None of those things are a good look for a top five team, and they took a hit in public perception as a result. I think that reaction may have swung the pendulum too far. They showed an impressive amount of toughness in their win over Cincinnati, and I have faith that Mike White will be able to figure this thing out. Plus, John Egbunu’s return is looming. This isn’t a top five team, but they’re better than being a borderline top 25 team. (RD)

FLORIDA STATE: Raise

A surprising 9-0 start has Florida State in the top 25 after they smoked Florida on the road. Food for thought: Everyone freaked out about Arizona State’s 10-point win on the road against a top five team, so why didn’t they freak out about the Seminole’s 17-point win on the road against a top five team? Junior Terance Mann has breakout potential in the ACC and Braian Angola can put up numbers across the board. This team is intriguing. (SP)

GONZAGA: Bet The Mortgage

Despite having a lot of holes to fill from last year’s national runner-up team the Bulldogs are off to an 8-2 start with the only losses coming against Florida (in double overtime) and Villanova. Josh Perkins has done a good job of running the show, the perimeter rotation has both athleticism and talent, and the front court doesn’t lack for bodies with Johnathan Williams III leading the way. Player such as Perkins, Williams, Killian Tillie and Silas Melson were part of last season’s rotation so this isn’t an inexperienced team by any stretch; they’ve simply got a decent number of players who are getting used to more significant roles than what they had in the past. Add in the presence of Mark Few, and Gonzaga has what it takes to once again play deep into the NCAA tournament. (RJ)

IOWA STATE: Check

Steve Prohm’s team had a brutal start to the season, losing at Missouri and at home to Milwaukee, but a move to put Nick Weiler-Babb at point guard has energized the Cyclones and has them on a seven-game winning streak. Still, none of those seven wins are against impressive opponents. They topped Boise State without Chandler Hutchison on a neutral and a spiraling Iowa team at home. We just don’t know enough yet about the Cyclones to see which way their season will go. (TH)

KANSAS: Raise

The Jayhawks have lost back-to-back games, but they’re still immensely talented and coached by Bill Self. Kansas’ roster was always flawed, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome with some tweaks – and the potential arrival of Silvio De Sousa next semester. Kansas remains the team to beat in the Big 12, and the reinforcements are (hopefully, in the case of Billy Preston) on the way. (TH)

Devonte’ Graham, Kevin Knox (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

KENTUCKY: Raise

Frankly, I still have no idea what to make of this Kentucky team. They haven’t really been tested beyond playing Kansas, and that Kansas team, as it would turn out, is not as good as we thought they were. They are still flawed – having one point guard that can score but can’t guard and another that can guard but can’t score is going to be endlessly frustrating – but they are also flying totally under the radar right now. If we’ve learned anything through the first month of the season, it’s that no one outside of Michigan State and Villanova appear to actually be great. There is no third-best team in the country right now, best that I can tell. So why can’t it be Kentucky? (RD)

LOUISVILLE: Fold

Prior to the season, reasonable minds could disagree about the status of the Louisville program in the post-Pitino era. There still was talent on the roster, and that talent was old enough that, in theory, they could coach themselves. But that hasn’t exactly worked out. Shockingly, replacing one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time with a 32-year old interim in his first season as a head coach is not easy. Louisville will probably make the NCAA tournament still, but I can’t see them being a contender for much of anything this season. Cut your losses now. (RD)

 

No. 25 Cincinnati sends Mississippi State to 1st loss 65-50

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.

Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.

The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.

“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.

Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.

“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”

Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.

“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”

Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.

BIG PICTURE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.

“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”

DRY SPELLS

Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.

FIRST TRIP

It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.

“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”

UP NEXT

Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.

Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.

POSTERIZED: Jericho Sims throws down dunk on Duncan Robinson

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Playing without leading scorer Andrew Jones, who’s out of the lineup after suffering a fractured wrist, Texas got off to a slow start in the first half of its game against Michigan Tuesday night.

Freshman forward Jericho Sims did his best to provide a spark, as the 6-foot-9 Minnesota native rose above Michigan’s Duncan Robinson to throw down a vicious alley-oop dunk.

Sims has a couple inches on Robinson in the height department, and the running start Sims managed to get rolling to the basket didn’t help Robinson’s chances of stopping the dunk either.