March Madness

Head out the door, find a freeway, and drive to Lindbergh Field. Get on a plane and fly to Des Moines, Iowa. Rent a car, motor north on I-35, turn right on Highway 20, turn left on Hudson Road, turn right on West 27th Street, drive six blocks, stop, get out of the car, and slap your feet on the pavement. Pilgrim, breathe deep and take in the academic vista that is the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). As you must know by now, the UNI Panthers have been invited to this year's NCAA basketball tournament.

The Box is eternally vigilant when it comes to your sporting needs, so I have Matt Cross of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier on the phone. Matt is the beat reporter for Northern Iowa basketball.

"Tell me about the team."

"They're making their second straight NCAA appearance," Cross says, "first at-large berth they've ever received."

"What happened?"

"Four years ago, this program was 7 and 27," Cross says. "They brought in Greg McDermott from a Division II program as head coach. He played at UNI in the mid-'80s. He's turned the program around. They won 13 games his first year, then 15 games, and then two back-to-back 20-win seasons. His teams get after you defensively, and they rely on the three-point shot. He puts four or five guys on the court who can shoot the three."

"How does he recruit basketball players? Nothing against Cedar Falls..." save for the plane ride and the rental-car ride and the corn-field destination.

"The first thing McDermott said was, 'I'm going to target the state of Iowa. I'm going to get the best players in Iowa.' He's done that, and he's also got some big guys out of the Twin Cities."

"Is the town nuts over the team?"

"It is. Two years ago, they averaged 2300 fans for basketball games and now it's close to 5000. We're only an hour and 15 minutes away from Iowa City, so a lot of people who have been on the [University of] Iowa bandwagon are becoming fans. And we're only two hours from Ames, so a lot of people who have been on the Iowa State side of things have adopted UNI as their hometown team."

"When did you get a fix on the team; you know, what they were going to be like this year?"

"The second game. They went into Cincinnati, got up by 18 points with ten minutes to go and lost the lead; ended up losing the game in double overtime. People thought, 'Well, now we'll see what they're made of.' Three nights later they beat Iowa State by 20 points," Cross says. "UNI is resilient, disciplined, and relies on execution. But, if they don't execute their sets, because they run a ton of stuff, they're in trouble."

"How do you see them in the tournament?"

"In terms of match-up, the first round is as good as you can get. Last year, when they played Georgia Tech, they were behind the eight ball in terms of athleticism. But with Wisconsin [UNI plays Wisconsin Friday night], they match up pretty well. They're similar in terms of height on the front line. The guard position is pretty much a draw. I think it's going to be one of those 56--50 games."

"How long have you been working at the paper?"

"This is my second year."

"You fell into a pretty good deal."

"Yeah," Cross laughs, "I did. When I got here they were coming off a 24-win season. You could see something special was going to develop."

"How many papers cover the home games?"

"Des Moines Register has -- I don't know if I'd call him a beat guy; he covers all the home games, but he doesn't travel. The Cedar Rapids Gazette has a guy who covers the team. Cedar Rapids is about an hour away from here. And that's it, in terms of newspapers."

"I see UNI's enrollment is 12,800, so it's a midsized-to-small school?"

"Yeah. Two years ago the enrollment was 15,000, so it's declined by quite a bit over the last two or three years."

"How come?"

"People are leaving the state. I hate to say that. A lot of people are going to warmer climates."

"How about you?"

"Graduated from the University of Iowa in 2000. Then I worked at a small daily in Mason City, Iowa. Worked there for two and a half, three years and then came down here."

"Bottom line: How far into the tournament will they go?"

"The farthest this program has ever gone is the second round in 1990. They beat Missouri in the first round and then lost to Minnesota in the second round. So, I think if they can duplicate that, that would be good. I think Wisconsin is a winnable game, but then you're probably staring at Kansas in round two, which would be a nightmare of a match-up."

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