NCAA basketball tournament berths are like 75-degree sunny days. They’re all welcomed and loved.
But this 2009 invitation the Northern Iowa Panthers earned a week before the full NCAA field is revealed, this one may be the best of UNI’s four in the last six seasons.
This is indisputably the Year of the Panther in the Missouri Valley Conference. There is no sliding into the NCAAs as an at-large invitee, no falling down in the league tourney after winning the regular-season crown.
First, UNI shared the MVC regular-season championship with Creighton with a distinguished 14-4 mark. Then, after Creighton was humbled 73-49 by Illinois State in the MVC semifinals Saturday, the Panthers staved off the 24-win Redbirds in overtime here Sunday at Scottrade Center, 60-57.
The toteboard shows four snipped nets and two championship trophies for Northern Iowa this season. That’s a first.
No matter how the Panthers do in next week’s NCAAs, this season forever stands as a special one in program history.
The vagaries of fate are more mercurial in college basketball than in most walks of life. A freakish injury here, a lucky shot there — it can be an awfully thin line between cutting down the nets in celebration, or getting verbally cut to shreds by the outer world.
Coaches who survive are ones who not only can game-plan and adjust during games, but who have keen eyes for recruits who have more than just major-college game. It also requires major heart.
Ali Farokhmanesh of Iowa City didn’t lure a stampede of major-college coaches to Kirkwood Community College last winter when he played for the Eagles. He is a 6-foot guard who has little razzle or dazzle to his game.
But the junior has this funny habit of associating himself with nothing but winners, be it at Iowa City West High, or Indian Hills Community College as a freshman, or last season at Kirkwood.
He did earn first-team NJCAA Divison II All-American honors at Kirkwood for a team that was 32-3 and finished third in the nation, but he had the stamp of “role player” to major-college coaches.
That role, at UNI, has been one of a productive starter who is a clutch player. Farokhmanesh couldn’t have been more clutch Sunday, making two huge 3-pointers in overtime before sinking a pair of free throws with 6.8 seconds left to force Illinois State to go for a 3-pointer to tie.
Farokhmanesh became the umpteenth example of a team showing you can get to the NCAAs with all sorts of lineups if the players are made of the right stuff.
He had taken just three shots in regulation, but Farokhmanesh sank back-to-back 3-pointers in the first two minutes of overtime to keep his team afloat.
Not every player would have been comfortable taking such critical shots, no matter what they all say. Fewer players yet would have stroked the shots with the apparent confidence Farokhmanesh showed.
“A lot of players need shots,” said UNI Coach Ben Jacobson. “They have to touch the ball a lot. They have to get shots. He can just kind of be there. When something comes his way, he takes it. If we run something for him, he usually comes through for us.”
Every team in the NCAA field will have at least a couple of players like that. Many teams that won’t be in the NCAAs will not.
With the Panthers up 58-57 with 6.8 seconds left, Farokhmanesh had two free throws. If he missed either, UNI could have lost on the Redbirds’ subsequent possession.
“I think everybody likes, if you’re a basketball player, everybody likes to be in those situations,” he said.
Not everybody. I’d guess that 99.4 percent of the time, the players who like those moments shoot better than those who don’t.
“You always hope guys are going to be tough,” Jacobson said. “You always hope they’ve got it inside to make plays that count.
“I watched him play last year. He took his team to the national junior college tournament and I watched him play some games out there, so I knew and felt really confident in what we were getting with Ali.
“Obviously, the recruiting part of it, you’re not always on target. But I did know what he was made of, and I think that’s why he comes through in those situations.”
UNI will play a really good team with dynamic athletes in the first-round of the NCAAs. The Panthers will probably be seeded No. 11 or 12.
Their opponent will start an off-guard who likely is three or four inches taller than Farokhmanesh and had played in national all-star games as a prep.
But while that player may have physical and skill advantages, for him to have any sort of edge on the Panther he’ll need to be this: Clutch.