It was one of those ideas that seemed good at the time.
The 2014 NCAA tournament bracket was just a few minutes old when I hatched the brilliant plan of covering Iowa in the First Four game in Dayton, Ohio that Wednesday and then, if the Hawkeyes won, go from there to Raleigh, N.C., for the Friday game, and then make the 14 ½-hour drive home when the weekend was over.
It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t the brightest idea — that long of a time in a car by myself is probably a bit much — but I was committed to it, figuring that it would be one of those journeys you dread while going through it and then look back and laugh about it a few years later.
Of course, it didn’t happen — Iowa lost to Tennessee in overtime, and I was driving home from Dayton the day after.
I thought about that trip, and others, on Sunday when this year’s bracket came out.
No Hawkeyes. No Iowa State. No Northern Iowa.
(Drake is in the postseason, though, playing in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament today, so there is that. More about that later)
I’ve seen a lot of NCAA tournament games in my 25 seasons of covering college basketball, and it’s never fun not being a part of it.
My first tournament experience was the 1992 Final Four in Minneapolis, sitting in the media section behind the Duke bench on the night the Blue Devils won the national title.
Some of my best times have been covering the tournament, whether it’s been with the Hawkeyes or first-weekend or second-weekend games in St. Louis.
There was the 1997 tournament when the Hawkeyes went to Salt Lake City, winning the opener against Virginia before losing to Kentucky. I remember being on a flight from St. Louis to Salt Lake City with another Iowa writer, who said as we were taking off, “Look at it this way — if we crash there will be two pretty good jobs open.”
There was the 1999 tournament, when the Hawkeyes stunned Arkansas in the second round to reach the regional semifinals in Tom Davis’ last season as coach. If Ryan Luehrsmann’s 3-pointer in the second half against Connecticut stays in instead of rolling out, the Hawkeyes probably would have knocked off the team that went on to win the national title, and had a good chance of making it to the Final Four.
There was 2006, when I already had my flight booked for Atlanta for the regional semifinals and finals (just in case — it was refundable). The Hawkeyes were the third seed in the South Region, playing in Auburn Hills, Mich., and of course lost to Northwestern State on a last-second shot in the first round. The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel was cancel the flight.
There was the 2007 Midwest Regional semifinals and finals in St. Louis, when I sat behind the Butler bench when the Bulldogs nearly toppled a Florida team that would go on to repeat as national champion. A couple of weeks after that game, Butler coach Todd Lickliter would be the new coach at Iowa.
I was nearly in the same seat in 2010, when Northern Iowa’s run to the Midwest Regional semifinals ended in a loss to Michigan State. Hours before the Spartans would defeat Tennessee a couple of days later to go to the Final Four, it was announced that Iowa had hired Fran McCaffery as the new coach to replace Lickliter.
I got to cover at least a part of Illinois’ run to the Final Four in 2005 — the Illini were in Indianapolis, along with Iowa, for the first weekend, and I was there in St. Louis for the Final Four.
I’ve had to miss the last couple of Iowa trips to the tournament — we won’t get into the reasons why here — but it wasn’t a lot of fun writing down the bracket on Sunday.
No Hawkeyes. No Cyclones. No Panthers.
It just feels strange.
THE WISE BRACKET
Another thing that was strange about this year’s bracket — there didn’t seem to be much controversy.
OK, maybe Oklahoma State should have been in, and you can debate Oklahoma and Syracuse and maybe a couple of others. But, when you get down to those last few at-large teams, everybody has warts, and the committee has to decide among some flawed resumés.
Let’s break down the bracket.
Top seed: Virginia
The 2 seed: Cincinnati
My sleeper: Loyola (Chicago), the 11th seed. Ramblers will be a tough out for Miami in the first round, and could give Tennessee a problem in the second round.
My pick: Virginia over Cincinnati. That game has 22-20 written all over it.
Top seed: Villanova
The 2 seed: Purdue
My sleeper: The St. Bonaventure/UCLA winner in the First Four against Florida. Also, watch out for Alabama.
My pick: Chalk here again — Villanova gets a scare from Purdue.
Top seed: Kansas
The 2 seed: Duke
My sleeper: Of all the 5-12 games (there’s always an upset), the New Mexico State/Clemson game seems the most intriguing. Also, Auburn looked terrible in letting Friday's SEC Tournament game get away against Alabama. Do the fourth-seeded Tigers fall to 13th seed Charleston?
My pick: Michigan State finds its way out of the most difficult region.
Top seed: Xavier
The 2 seed: North Carolina
My sleeper: Ohio State is dangerous as a 5 seed.
My pick: I have this good feeling about Michigan. So do a lot of people after last week’s run through the Big Ten Tournament. Which means the Wolverines probably get dumped early. I’ll go with them, though.
Semifinals: Virginia over Michigan, Villanova over Michigan State.
Championship: Virginia over Villanova, 63-60.
TAKEAWAYS FROM THE WEEK
• Anyone else miss the Big Ten during the second week of conference tournaments? I did.
If Jim Delany wants to take the conference tournament back to New York and Madison Square Garden, have at it, but only if you can play in the second week. Otherwise, try Brooklyn like the ACC did.
• A lot of schools scoff at playing in the CBI or the CIT, just because of the cost.
Good for Drake for choosing to go to the CIT. The Bulldogs deserve a reward for a good season, especially for the seniors.
• Western Illinois’ women’s team didn’t get to repeat its trip to the NCAA tournament. But the Leathernecks at least deserve a WNIT bid.
The Leathernecks are 100th in the final NCAA RPI, and with 22 wins that include a road victory over Stanford (13 RPI), they should get into the 64-team WNIT field.
THE (FINAL) WISE AP BALLOT
7. Michigan State
9. North Carolina
12. West Virginia
15. Texas Tech
16. Wichita State
18. Ohio State
24. Loyola (Chicago)
25. New Mexico State