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Introducing Cinderella: Bradley earns comeback win to grab Missouri Valley’s autobid

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Bradley rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to stun Northern Iowa on Sunday as the Braves earned the Missouri Valley Conference’s autobid with a stunning 57-54 win.

The Braves trailed by 12 at halftime as they only mustered 15 points of offense before getting hot and rallying quickly in the second half. Down 35-17 with 17 minutes left, Bradley made a furious comeback (a common theme for them this season) behind a balanced scoring effort.

Sophomore forward Elijah Childs paced the Bradley offense with 16 points while senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye (13 points) and senior guard Luqman Lundy (11 points) also finished in double-figures. Bradley was able to rally and win despite a poor offensive night from junior guard Darrell Brown — the team’s All-MVC player. Brown was only 3-for-10 from the floor to finish with seven points, yet the Braves still found a way to win and advance to the dance.

After knocking out No. 1 seed Loyola in the semifinals and rallying to beat Northern Iowa, Bradley is playing with a lot of confidence heading into the NCAA tournament.

CONFERENCE: Missouri Valley Conference

COACH: Brian Wardle

RECORD: 20-14, 9-9 Missouri Valley Conference

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 170
  • NET: 176

PROJECTED SEED: Missouri Valley top seed Loyola was previously projected as a No. 15 seed in our latest bracket and Bradley finished below them in both the conference standing and most major metrics. That means we could be seeing a very dangerous No. 16 seed come from a historically-proud basketball conference if the right teams in other one-bid leagues keep winning.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Junior guard Darrell Brown (14.9 ppg, 3.1 apg, 44% 3PT) is the heart-and-soul of the Braves as he’s earned back-to-back All-MVC honors. Sophomore forward Elijah Childs (12.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is the team’s top interior presence. Junior Nate Kennell (9.5 ppg, 39% 3PT) and senior Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye (8.5 ppg, 40% 3PT) are upperclass veterans on the perimeter who can both light it up from three-point range.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Bradley didn’t play a particularly tough non-conference schedule but they did pick up a Q1 win by beating Penn State on a neutral floor — the only Q1 game they’ve played all season. The Braves have also been inconsistent at times this season, as evidenced by a very mediocre 7-4 record against Q4 opponents — including a very bad loss to Eastern Illinois (309).

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Bradley has trailed at halftime and come back to win eight times this season as they’ve shown tremendous resiliency. Three-point shooting will likely be the key for the Braves in the NCAA tournament as they shot a respectable 37 percent from there (52nd in the country) during the season.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: The Braves were an actual Cinderella story the last time they made the NCAA tournament in 2006. Behind eventual first-round pick Patrick O’Bryant in the middle, Bradley took down No. 4 seed Kansas and No. 5 seed Pitt before falling to No. 1 seed Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen. Former veteran NBA guard Hersey Hawkins, one of college basketball’s most prolific scorers of all time, is also a Bradley alum.

FINAL THOUGHT: Head coach Brian Wardle deserves a tremendous amount of credit for rebuilding Bradley into the team they have today. Inheriting a program that didn’t have a lot of hope or talent, Wardle and the Braves suffered through a miserable 5-27 campaign during his first season in 2015-16. But Wardle and his staff found players who fit their system and continually improved as they’ve now reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Annual doubleheader featuring state of Iowa’s four schools ending after 2018

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One of college basketball’s distinctive events is coming to a close after this season.

The Hy-Vee Classic, formerly the Big Four Classic, which has put the state of Iowa’s four Division I programs under one roof for a doubleheader each season since 2012 will have its last edition this December with the University of Iowa electing to exercise its option to pull out of the event with the Big Ten’s move to 20 conference games.

“The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement, “but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

The event was unique as it pit the state’s two Power 5 institutions – Iowa and Iowa State – against its two Missouri Valley Conference programs – Northern Iowa and Drake – on a rotating basis each season in the state capital of Des Moines. One year Iowa State would play Drake while Iowa would face Northern Iowa with the following year featuring Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Iowa vs. Drake. And so on and so forth for the last six years and ending after one last go-round this December.

The event was a sort of compromise to keep the intrastate series alive after years of both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-homes with Drake and Northern Iowa most years, putting them on the road in hostile MVC arenas.

That went away in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be likely to return with the dissolution of the yearly doubleheader.

“Although we would certainly welcome continuing to play games against UNI or Drake in the future,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a statement, “our ability to do that will most likely depend on each of their institution’s willingness to play games in Hilton Coliseum.”

Needless to say, Drake and UNI were not pleased with Iowa’s decision to force the end of the event.

“What has made our state unique on the college basketball landscape was the willingness and cooperation between the state’s four Division I universities to play each other on a regular basis,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said in a statement. “I understand the position that Iowa and Iowa State believe they are in. However, it is a sad day for passionate basketball fans of all four programs who have enjoyed nearly a century of history and rivalries between these four schools that were played in various great venues in our state.”

When the event was initially announced, it always felt like it was intended to act as a wind-down for Iowa and Iowa State – who will continue to face each other in on-campus games every year –  of the mid-major games that were popular with fans but not always with Hawkeyes and Cyclones coaches. Given the option, few Power 5 coaches are going to be excited about facing a lower-tier in-state rival every year anywhere other than its home floor.

Still, it’s a major loss for a unique situation in a small-population state that is not home to professional sports, but four Division I men’s hoops programs. College athletics is the passion in Iowa, and depriving the state’s fans of what were – if not national marquee – fun and interesting matchups that carry with them pride and bragging rights is a step in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, these games are likely going to be replaced on the schedules for the Cyclones and Hawkeyes with low-major opponents that won’t move the needle either at the gate or on their NCAA tournament resumes. Instead of an innovative event that against a co-worker’s or neighbor’s alma mater, Iowa and Iowa State fans can say hello to a steady diet of games against Bryant, Campbell and Maryland Eastern Shore while Drake and UNI get relegated to even more pronounced second-class status.

The move isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.

Top-100 recruit commits to Northern Iowa

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Northern Iowa persuaded a top-100 recruit to remain in-state, spurning offers from the Big Ten and Big 12 in the process.

AJ Green, a 6-foot-3 Cedar Rapids native, gave his verbal commitment to Ben Jacobson on Friday afternoon, according to Cole Bair of The Gazette.

“I’m excited to make the decision to be a Panther. I’m also glad that the recruiting process is finished now,” Green told The Gazette. “Looking back on it, it was a pretty cool experience. Knowing a lot of schools want you, it’s kind of humbling knowing all the hard work you’ve put in is starting to pay off.

“It just felt right. Down inside I knew that (UNI) was the place. I’ve been a Panther fan. Been around the program my whole life, so I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s pretty cool. Coach (Jacobson) has told me that he feels like we can go to the Final Four, so hopefully, we can accomplish that.”

Northern Iowa has seen great success during Ben Jacobson’s 11-year career, with seven 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament appearances. With Witchita State now a member of the American Athletic Conference, and with Jacobson locked up through the 2026-27 season after receiving a two-year extension in March, Friday’s commitment could lay the foundation to a strong run for Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference in the coming seasons.

Green is listed as a four-star recruit, rated No. 91 overall in the Class of 2017 by Rivals. He had offers from Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska. He played for the Iowa Barnstormers in the adidas Gauntlet this spring and summer.

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.”

POSTERIZED: Wes Washpun dunks on Evansville big man

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Northern Iowa’s pulled off some major upsets this season, beating both North Carolina and Iowa State, but they haven’t been able to maintain the level of consistency needed to threaten Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. Wednesday night the Panthers knocked off Evansville 57-54, with senior guard Wes Washpun being a key contributor in the win.

Washpun, who was a handful against both the Tar Heels and Cyclones, finished the game with a team-high 14 points and four assists. Two of those points came in impressive fashion, as he turned the corner on a ball screen and threw down an emphatic one-handed dunk on Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius.

Yeah, Wes can get up.

Issues on both ends result in No. 1 North Carolina’s first loss

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Come Monday we’ll have a new team atop the national polls, all because the shorthanded occupant of the top spot could not maintain a 16-point second half lead.

No. 1 North Carolina scheduled their game at Northern Iowa as a homecoming of sorts for senior point guard Marcus Paige, who is currently sidelined with a broken bone on his right hand. But what would have been a tricky matchup even with Paige on the floor turned into a nightmare of sorts as the second half wore on, with the Panthers outscoring UNC 31-11 over the final 17:40 to win by the final score of 71-67.

UNI certainly deserves credit for their play both offensively and defensively in making the comeback, but they had some help in the form of a visiting team that lost focus. After doing a good job of finding quality looks on offense, including scoring on their first four possessions of the second half, the Tar Heels hit s dry spell. The ball didn’t move as crisply as it did earlier in the game and the player movement wasn’t as sound either.

So even with Justin Jackson scoring 25 points in his best performance of the season to date, these issues were bound to catch up with North Carolina playing against a team as sound defensively as UNI. The three perimeter players who played so well in their first three victories, Joel Berry II, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson, all struggled Saturday afternoon. The trio accounted for 11 points (4-for-16 FG), nine assists and eight turnovers on the day.

That’s something North Carolina can make up for when Paige is in the lineup. But in this period where their best ball-handler and scorer is on the bench, the play of the guards who normally would be in supplementary roles becomes even more important.

The bigger concern coming out of the second half was North Carolina’s play defensively. The Tar Heels had no answer for guards Matt Bohannon and Wes Washpun, who combined to score 26 of their 40 in the game’s final 20 minutes. Some of the responsibility for that can be placed on the guards, but there were also poor defensive rotations on ball screens that led to Washpun (five second-half assists) getting opportunities to either score himself or find open teammates (Bohannon hit three three-pointers).

Of UNI’s final 31 points Washpun had a hand in 25 of them, scoring ten and assisting on 15. That speaks to both the senior’s impact on the game and North Carolina’s inability to slow him down.

Ultimately it’s only November 21, so Roy Williams and his team have plenty of time to work out the kinks on both ends of the floor. It was known that the loss of an All-American has a noticeable impact on how a team performs, so UNC going through an adjustment period is of no surprise. But if the team needed a reminder that their margin for error shrinks significantly without Marcus Paige on the court, they received it in his home state.