A Salute to the Seniors

- Matt Cox

Timestamp: Monday 3/20/17; 11:30 A.M PST

As I sit here about an hour in to this turbulence-ridden flight from Las Vegas to Chicago, I can’t help but reflect on what was the epitome of another bittersweet opening weekend in the NCAA tournament.  Thanks to an emotionally fragile state of mind I’m in right now [for those of you that don't know me personally, I have an irrational fear of flying], I find myself searching for some positive thoughts to help maintain my sanity for the next three hours or so – and also to give the dude’s forearm next to me a break from random grabs every time the plane inexplicably drops 3,000 feet…

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like an annual tradition commences about this time every year when a few of the bonafide writers release a monologue about what makes March Madness so special.  I’ve always had my own perspective on this topic, but now after four straight trips to America’s playground on this very weekend - in which I’ve watched too many of my favorite teams and players be sent home prematurely - it finally hit me in the face why I’m so damn fond of this time of year...  

I know this is going to sound a bit backwards, but I urge you to hear me out: between the  “bitter” and the “sweet” of the aforementioned “bittersweet-ness” of March Madness, it's actually the "bitter" component that occasionally turns my love for college basketball into a weird obsession  - and over the last 48 hours, I received one of the bigger doses of “bitter” I can remember…

I should probably state for the record my background as a college basketball fan in order to prove to you, the reader, that my affection for the Iowa State Cyclones is no way rooted in any family or geographical affiliation with the university.  I grew up in St. Louis, MO as an inexplicable Duke fan, courtesy of my father, who chose to brainwash me before I could walk, crawl or chew gum at any time. Below is yours truly drenched in Blue Devil “swag” on my first birthday party:


Fast forward 17-years later to the summer after my senior year of high school - I made a tough decision not attend the nearby University of Missouri (unlike my two colleagues Ky and Jim), but rather bolted a tad bit east to what many consider to be the heart of basketball: Indiana.  It was in Bloomington, IN where I spent five long years trying to reconcile a heated internal conflict of attending Indiana University while somehow staying true my long-term Duke fandom.  I actually remember Mark Titus providing what may have been the best answer to this conundrum in a random mailbag on Grantland (RIP), which can best be summed up as follows: “How do I choose between two schools as the superior team to root for above all others, one of which is my alma mater, while the other was the squad I’ve rooted for my whole life...”.

The theme to Titus’s response was that nothing can match the personal connection we've all developed over the four most critical years spent at college.  He basically said this should be the trump card, implying that where each of us attended school should reign supreme in your fandom hierarchy, which made me feel even shittier about my opposing stance that being a Blue Devil fan should actually supercede my Hoosier loyalties.  When people find out I've rooted for what is arguably the most hated program in the history of college basketball for now over 25 years (apologies to Kentucky), they crush me with remarks such as “you have no ties to Duke” or “you didn’t even go to Duke”.  I have compared what Titus is saying to a similar predicament I find myself in now living smack dab in the middle of Cubs and Blackhawks country, after growing up my whole life in St. Louis despising both of those teams.  Though I fully admit why this comparison is flawed, I would never in a million years consider rooting for any other MLB or NHL squad not named the Cardinals and Blues.

During those five years at Indiana, I lived on the extreme ends of the IU vs. Duke fan spectrum.  I vividly remember tackling 7 of my friends in the balcony of Assembly Hall after Christian Watford downed the Big Bad Blue Kentucky Wildcats in what felt like the defining moment that marked the Hoosiers return to national relevance at the time.  I also remember just a few months before, sneaking down to the lower concourse section of Lucas Oil Stadium to get a closer look at Coach K and my beloved Devils cutting down the nets after what may have been the best college basketball game I’ve ever seen in person.  Me and my brothers' seats were right in line with Gordon Hayward’s shot, and I almost blacked out when it bounced off the rim as the final horn sounded.  So while these two in-person viewing experiences are debatably the greatest sporting events I may ever attend, I'm finally beginning to realize at 26 years years old is that these "sweet" memories aren't why I love college basketball -  it's the “bitter"ones.  

And what I realized late Saturday evening watching the Iowa State Cyclones come up just short in their round of 32 match against Purdue is that all of the emotional lows I've experienced over the years - many of them involving schools not named Indiana or Duke - seem to have one thing in common: the purity of watching college seniors play their final game.


I’m not here to bash the NCAA for their inexplicable disregard of compensating their most profitable employees, nor am I here to trash the “one-and-done” player for using college basketball as quick layover before taking off to their final destination in the NBA.  Let me be very clear: I’d do the exact same thing as Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz if I could do what they can on the basketball court. All I’m doing is confessing my love for the great upperclassmen in college hoops, many of whom become legends in the eyes of their respective schools' fanbases.  There’s a laundry list of March Madness moments that have been particularly tough to deal with, but I will mention some examples I can recall hitting home for me: 

I remember my appreciation for the senior in college hoops began with the last game of arguably my favorite Blue Devil of all-time, Chris Duhon, who lost to the eventual national champion UCONN Huskies in the Final 4.  In the postgame coverage, I remember JJ Redick, a sophomore at the time, saying the hardest thing about their tournament run being over was that he'd no longer get to play alongside his on-court mentor Duhon ever again in a Duke uniform.  The Indiana fan in me had a similar gut-wrenching experience listening to Yogi Ferrell reflect on his decorated 4-year career after the Hoosiers sweet-16 loss to North Carolina over a decade later.

A few more tough, yet great, moments over the years include watching Doug McDermott check out of his final game and embrace his coach/dad Greg, cringing at Brad Underwood describe his relationship with Thomas Walkup after a tip-in ended SFA's season and holding back the waterworks just last year when Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet reminisced on their careers at Wichita State after falling short to Miami. I guess now I've finally wised up to recognize that this annual brutality of watching college seniors articulate their 4-year experiences after their last game was becoming a trend – this is why the most recent episode, which featured four of the most likable kids I’ve ever watched play basketball, became the inspiration for this piece.  So here is my brief recollection of Saturday evening and why I was consumed by the Round of 32 matchup between the 4-seeded Purdue Boilermakers and 5-seeded Iowa State Cyclones...


After a long day of pool side debauchery that may have involved 1 or 2 [or 10] adult beverages, it’s safe to say Jim and I were in prime form while we shepherded a group of 15 people back to our hotel room at the Mirage.  While most of the gang took this time to resume the shenanigans from the pool party, Jim and I made a conscious decision to be anti-social and fully lock in on the 2nd half of the Iowa St./Purdue game, after gamecasting the 1st half in horror as our beloved Cyclones got off to a flat start.  By the time we were able to find the channel and fend off our friends questioning what the hell we were doing hanging out by ourselves in a vacant bedroom, the Boilermakers had opened up a 19-point lead early in the 2nd half.  

I told some folks earlier this season, there are only a few teams this season capable of erasing a lead this significant with only 15 minutes left in regulation.  It requires a rare DNA that’s composed of dynamic playmaking guards that thrive in the open floor surrounded by lethal perimeter shooters that erase big leads in a hurry with a flurry of 3s – it also typically helps to have an elite home crowd that can juice up the momentum and make an opposing team feel as if the court is being tilted against them.  Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma St. and Iowa St. are the four I believe fall into this category, given I've witnessed all of them close double digit leads in record time in front of their home fans.   So naturally, at the under 16:00 TV timeout, I assured Jim that the four Cyclone seniors, Monte Morris, Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton, were not going anywhere - and holy shit did they make me look like a damn prophet… 

Steve Prohm pulled the genius strategic lever of going with a true small lineup by putting Burton at the 5, giving Iowa St. their most potent offensive attack at the risk of being vulnerable to an interior destruction by the unstoppable forces that are Caleb 'Biggie' Swanigan and Isaac Haas.  And just as I had watched the Clones do on multiple occasions over the past few years (see massive comebacks against Kansas and Oklahoma), they began to play as if they were back home in Ames, in front of the Hilton Coliseum faithful, and replicated the magic they’ve performed time and time again.  

Despite giving up a good five inches to Swanigan, Burton firmly stood his ground defensively as the Boilers routinely looked to pound it inside to their 1st team all American.  And once the enemy's shots finally seemed to stop falling, Mr. Monte Morris – the poster child of everything a point guard should be – began to go to work in transition, while Burton stretched out the slower Swanigan on the perimeter in the half-court.  Just ten minutes, 34 points and two noise complaints later (apologies to our neighbors at the Mirage), the Cardiac Clones had done it again... An improbable 19-point run capped off by two Deonte Burton free-throws gave Iowa State a two point lead with just 3 minutes remaining in regulation...


Unfortunately, this story isn’t a movie – it doesn’t end with our own version of the “protagonist” prevailing at the final buzzer.  It ends with the bitterness that I seem to cope with every year when a group of 22-year olds that I’ve never met in my life loses a stupid game in March.  It ends with those same 22-year olds -  Monte Morris, Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton in this specific case - coming to terms with the fact that they’ll never lace’ up their shoes and step on the floor together with “Iowa State” printed across the front of their jerseys.  And then, it ends with those four seniors articulating the whirlwind [or should I say cyclone] of emotions to a room packed full of reporters just minutes after the last chapter of their collegiate hoop careers have been written – needless to say, they responded just fine (jump ahead to 22:15 for the Iowa State portion of the presser):  

And while I completely admit this may come off as a biased Iowa St. endorsement against my alma-mater’s bitter rival, I can assure you nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, no one sympathized more than I did with the travesty that was Robbie Hummel’s 2nd ACL tear in 2010, even when I was cursing out referees and random Purdue assistants during my younger days as a Hoosier student every time our arch rival came to Assembly Hall.  A similar version of this story could be told by 67 other fans of the 67 other teams that fall short of the ultimate goal in March every single year – I’m just providing this year’s version for Iowa State.

So before the flight attendant yells at me for a 3rd time to put my laptop away as we approach landing, let me conclude my rambling with this: While the "one-and-dones" will continue to be vital to the popularity of college basketball, let’s not forget to take time and salute the seniors along the way.  Because while their financial futures may not be as certain as the 1st round draft picks, what is certain is how much they mean – and always will mean - to our near-perfect game…