Duke, West Virginia, Butler, and Michigan State will take the court in the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend to determine the champion of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
But this year’s tournament and Final Four were shaped two weekends ago on a court in Oklahoma City by a six-foot senior shooting guard from Northern Iowa named Ali Farokhmanesh.
More specifically, this year’s tournament was forever changed by a questionable, but gutsy and fantastic shot he made with 35 seconds left to play in the second half of the Panthers’ second round game against No. 1 overall seed Kansas.
The first week of the NCAA Tournament consistently provides March Madness with some of its most dramatic finishes, most heartwarming stories, and biggest upsets.
After all, 48 of the tournament’s 64 games are played in those first four days. Many of those are feature matchups (or mismatches) between power conference teams with multiple Final Fours and massive athletic budgets, and small conference squads with undersized and unheralded rosters that have never played in an arena so large, or advanced out of the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament in school history.
With so many games between teams with such different backgrounds, it’s hard not to strike entertainment gold and have at least one or two of those mismatches turn into buzzer-beating upsets.
Yet for all the excitement of that first weekend, some see the first two rounds as merely a formality and a prelude to the next two weekends of the tournament, when the top teams in college basketball will finally face off and determine a national champion.
Both of these viewpoints are largely correct—the first weekend of the tournament is often its most exciting and surprising, and what happens then only has a minimal impact in determining a national champion two weeks later.
If one takes a look back at the buzzer-beating shots, early-round upsets, and heartwarming Cinderella stories in this year’s tournament, they for the most part support that point.
This year’s tournament—more so than most—was defined by close games, upsets, and the success of mid-major conference teams in the early rounds.
In the first round alone Washington, Wake Forest, Old Dominion, Villanova, Northern Iowa, Murray State, and BYU all advanced by making buzzer-beating shots or having their opponents miss them.
In the second round of the tournament Northern Iowa, Michigan State, and Purdue all advanced to the Sweet 16 in similar fashion.
The upsets and Cinderella stories were there, too, in greater abundance than normal.
Ohio, Murray State, Cornell, Old Dominion, and St. Mary’s all advanced out of the first round despite being double-digit seeds from mid-major conferences. Cornell, St. Mary’s, and Washington made for three double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16.
All of that excitement provided indelible memories—some of which will be replayed on television and written about in books and magazines for years to come as part of the history of the NCAA Tournament—for fans, schools, coaches, and players.
But at the end of the day, of what relevance were all of the last-second shots and Cinderella stories to this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis?
Of the eight teams that won in the first round with a late game-winning shot or a miss by their opponents, only two, Washington and Northern Iowa, so much as survived another round.
All three double-digit seeds that advanced to the Sweet 16 made it no further.
Ultimately, the paths to Indianapolis of three of the Final Four teams—those of Butler, Duke, and West Virginia—were unaffected by the drama and upsets of the first weekend.
Michigan State, on the other hand, stayed alive and continued onto the Final Four because of one of those last-second shots, coming from substitute Korie Lucious from three-point range in the second round, that gave the Spartans a 85-83 victory over Maryland as time expired.
Unless Michigan State—the team with the longest odds to win the tournament of the Final Four teams—wins the national championship, however, Lucious’ shot will be a distant second in terms of its importance in determining this year’s Final Four and National Championship picture.
Even if Michigan State does pull out two more victories in Indianapolis, Lucious’ shot will only be about as important’s as Farokhmanesh’s of Northern Iowa in getting them there.
Most memorable and critical shots come at the buzzer and change the lead in the game, but Farokhmanesh’s shot merely extended Northern Iowa’s lead.
Nonetheless, it was the shot that shaped this NCAA Tournament.
A seemingly perfect storm of events allowed Northern Iowa to hold a 52-41 lead against the tournament favorites from Kansas with just under 10 minutes to play in their second-round encounter.
Northern Iowa’s hot three-point shooting and turnover-free basketball, coupled with Kansas’ struggles in both shooting and holding onto the ball, were unlikely but conceivable. However, only the notion of destiny could really explain how Northern Iowa’s senior center Jordan Eglseder decided to take two three-point shots in the first half, much less make them, after converting just one three-point basket all season.
It was just that kind of day for Northern Iowa, and it had given them an 11-point lead with under 10 minutes to play.
But then a sense of normalcy and reality set in, and the team that most had pegged to win this entire tournament began to play like it.
Kansas started to make its shots and better exploit its size advantage in rebounding, while Northern Iowa’s star shooter, Farokhmanesh, was unable to find his three-point range.
But worst of all for the Panthers—a team that had been one of the most adept in the nation at not turning the ball over all season—after Kansas turned up their full-court pressure with under four minutes to play, Northern Iowa couldn’t even manage to get the basketball across half court without throwing it to the Jayhawks.
With 45 seconds to play, an 11-point lead had evaporated to just one point. That’s when the Panthers narrowly avoided another turnover in the backcourt against Kansas’ full-court press and got the ball to Farokhmanesh across half court.
Farokhmanesh found himself across midcourt with just one Kansas defender and one teammate. Rather than run the shot clock down or pass to his teammate cutting towards the basket, as typical basketball strategy might have dictated at that time, Farokhmanesh pulled up and launched a shot from behind the three-point line.
Nine times out of 10, the play would have been characterized as a selfish act of bravado or a poor decision.
But in this instance it made sense—at least if a player with a gutsy and confident approach to the game was willing to take it.
The Panthers had found enough trouble getting off shots, much less scoring, over the previous four minutes, and as atypical of a strategy as it may have been, taking a shot that would likely put the game out of reach seemed to make more sense than dribbling down the clock and holding out for a trip to the foul line, or a two-point attempt late in the shot clock that would have still just left the Panthers up by one score against a surging team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
It’s all speculation as to what would have happened had Farokhmanesh missed that shot, but it seems more likely than not that Kansas would have won the game—instead Northern Iowa held on to win, 69-67, for one of the more memorable and surprising upsets in the NCAA Tournament in recent memory.
Most upsets and clutch late-game shots in the first weekend of the tournament provide us with lasting memories, and shining moments for some of the players and schools involved, but have minimal impact on the rest of the tournament.
Farokhmanesh’s shot provided both.
It is not uncommon that a team that some pegged to make a Final Four run or even win a championship falls victim to an early upset.
But in most cases it is not the top-ranked team in the entire tournament. And it can usually be concluded afterwards that the team was overrated and that their defeat to a lesser opponent proved that they didn’t actually have what it took to win it all.
Georgetown, which was wiped off the court by double digits against No. 14 seed Ohio in the first round, provided such an example.
But Kansas still had what it took to make it to the Final Four and still would have been one of the favorites to win the NCAA Tournament had they sneaked out of the Northern Iowa game with a victory.
A perfect storm of events that put the Jayhawks in an early hole when they didn’t expect it against a team that was a bit too good to play with fire against, a too-little-too-late charge that came up just short, and one incredibly gutsy shot by an undersized shooting guard with Iranian parents, conspired to take Kansas out of this tournament and derail their national title hopes.
While Northern Iowa fell to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 the following week, there should be little doubt for most that had Kansas survived its second-round scare, been more ready and experienced in the tournament the following week as a result, and had not fallen to another perfect storm of events, that the Jayhawks would have made it past an undermanned and overachieving Michigan State team.
From there the Jayhawks would have been heavy favorites against the surprising No. 6 seed Tennessee they would have faced in the Elite Eight.
Of course, anything could have happened, and the Jayhawks might have yet fallen to the Spartans or the Volunteers last weekend, but it would have been about as unlikely (perhaps more so) as dropping a game to Northern Iowa in the second round.
Thus, without Farokhmanesh’s shot there is a good chance Michigan State would be sitting at home right now.
Butler would be a heavy underdog in a Final Four clash with Kansas, the No. 1 ranked team in the entire tournament.
West Virginia would be facing the daunting task of potentially having to defeat three consecutive No. 1 seeds (Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas) to win a national championship.
Duke would not be the favorite in Indianapolis to take home its first national championship in almost 10 years.
Instead, the 2010 Final Four is now considered one of the most wide open in recent memory and every team—from shorthanded Michigan State, to mid-major Butler, to red-hot West Virginia, to perennial power Duke—has a reasonable chance of becoming the 2010 National Champion.
All because Ali Farokhmanesh took an unexpected shot, turned into an unexpected hero, and became the unexpected man who shaped the 2010 NCAA Tournament.