By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with all of its glory, prestige and influence, is one of the greatest sporting events in history, maybe the greatest.
It brings people together from all walks of life, and from all different cultural backgrounds, and captivates us for three weeks in March, and early April.
It turns non-sports fans into hoop fanatics for three weeks as they obsess over their brackets.
It signifies the change from winter to spring as much as the trees sprouting leaves do each year.
But in all of its glory, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament also has down side, a side that turns success into failure, a side that dismisses the journey, and a side that makes everything else seem almost irrelevant or inconsequential.
The Iowa men’s basketball team, for example, already has achieved a great amount of success this season with 20 victories, including 14 in conference play, and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament West Region.
But should Iowa fail to advance to at least the Sweet 16, or in the minds of some people, the Elite Eight, the season for many will be considered a failure, and that’s unfair and unfortunate.
I’m guilty of it, believing under the circumstances that Iowa has to at least make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 in order to satisfy the fans, and silence the critics.
I feel that way because it’s true.
Iowa could’ve won the Big Ten regular-season title for the first since 1979, and the season still would’ve been considered a failure to some if it didn’t end with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
But that’s where I disagree.
To me, the mark of a true champion is winning the conference regular-season title because it’s a 20-game grind, and to finish on top requires an incredible amount of focus, preparedness, durability, resolve, talent and some luck.
The NCAA Tournament, on the other hand, is a six-game march to immortality, but the best team doesn’t always win.
Some will say that’s the beauty of the Big Dance, a place where miracles happen, like Villanova’s stunning 66-64 victory over a superior Georgetown squad in the 1985 NCAA title game.
Upsets are one of the coolest experiences in sports, and the bigger the stage, the greater the upset.
So I get why the NCAA Tournament has captured our imagination, and why it has so much power and influence.
I just think it’s unfortunate that a season filled with lots of success can be tarnished, or some would go as far as to say ruined, by one loss in the NCAA Tournament.
Ralph Miller’s legendary Six Pack from the 1969-70 season finished undefeated in the Big Ten, and averaged over 100 points per game.
However, it also lost to Jacksonville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and some fans still are haunted by that memory a half century later.
Iowa’s 2005-06 team won the Big Ten Tournament and finished second in the regular-season, but was also upset as a three-seed by No. 14 seed Northwestern State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
And sadly, that’s what most probably remember about 2005-06 season.
They probably don’t remember that Iowa, led by the triumvirate of Greg Brunner, Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska, beat Michigan State twice that season, including in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
That team also swept Indiana and defeated Kentucky.
It was a good team that achieved a lot, just not in the NCAA Tournament.
The current Iowa team is also a good team with a proven track record in many respects.
Senior center Luka Garza is now a Hawkeye legend and the most decorated player in school history.
But there is one last mountain for Garza to climb, and that’s the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the one area where Garza’s legacy is lacking, with Iowa only having won one NAA Tournament game with him on the roster.
Should Iowa fail to make the Sweet 16, critics and naysayers will use that against Garza, and will use it to tear down Iowa’s season and minimize what has been accomplished.
It’s the same with Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery.
McCaffery also has been successful at Iowa after having taken over a program in disarray, and it was announced on Monday that McCaffery has been given a four-year contract extension.
But McCaffery has yet to lead Iowa beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and fair or not, that’s part of his legacy because the NCAA Tournament has that much power and influence.