As you can see from the graphic there, my beloved Panthers finished their season ranked in the top 10 in the nation and are on their way back to the big dance for the first time since Ali Faroukmanesh scored one for the literal and figurative little guys with possibly the gutsiest shot in the history of college basketball. And as the top 10 ranking attests, this year's squad is significantly better than the one that went to the Sweet 16 five years ago.
The ironic thing is that now that I have a big boy job with a real income, I've been able to splurge on a fancy cable sports package, which has allowed me to watch more Panthers games this year than I did when I was in college living about two blocks away from the gym.
And while I'm excited about the upcoming tourney and think the Panthers at least have a shot to make some noise, maybe even make it further into the tournament than they did last time, this is one of those situations that reminds me how silly it is to judge a sports season on whether the team won a championship or not (though I guess they technically kinda won a championship by winning the MVC tournament, but not the same thing).
I've written a lot in this space about how cheering for small-market teams means you have to necessarily have a different metric for success, but the longer I've lived with it, the more I've come to see it as the superior way to view sports. For instance, look at Kentucky atop that list -- undefeated, full of A-list players, and with the weight of years of tradition, if they don't at least get to the Final Four, this will be remembered by many as a wasted season for them.
But with the Panthers, Final Four speculation is probably a step too far, and a championship run, while it would be the coolest thing I've seen in a very long time, is pretty much entirely out of the question. And while that might be discouraging for some sports fan, it's actually kind of nice. Because the Panthers have had an amazing year so far, but more importantly, they've just been super fun to watch. The play a gray game of basketball that features a lot of really well-designed plays, off-ball cuts, sharing the rock, and all that which is, to this humble blogger, far more entertaining than the 5 guys clearing out so they can play one-on-one that seems to dominate the bigger programs.
So with neither the weight of a winning tradition nor inflated expectations, I've been able to just sit back and watch some kids play some awesome basketball this year. With the added bonus of my tiny li'l alma mater occasionally being mention on ESPN (sometimes they even correctly note it's located in Cedar Falls, not Cedar Rapids as most of the national media seems to think. Must be because CR has the airport.).
If nothing else, when UNI goes on a magical run this year and becomes the darling of the tournament (hey, it could happen), I get to say I was there before the bandwagon formed. Even if that doesn't happen…well, at least it gives me an excuse to get drunk in the middle of the day on a Thursday in March, because you have to cheer on the ol' college...