The Inexplicably Dramatic NCAA Tournament History Of One Of The NCAA’s Most Unassuming Programs

The Inexplicably Dramatic NCAA Tournament History Of One Of The NCAA’s Most Unassuming Programs

When Paul Jespersen banked in a game-winning, half-court three-point to send the Northern Iowa Panthers past Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night it was the fitting end to a day of upsets by double-digit seeded teams. For Northern Iowa, it was just another inexplicably dramatic moment for a program with but a single Sweet Sixteen in its history.

To understand Northern Iowa’s flair for the dramatic you have to go back more than 25 years to when the magic started.


Northern Iowa’s NCAA history — and its flair for the dramatic — began in 1990. Though it almost didn’t happen.

Head Coach Eldon Miller had been hired by Northern Iowa on February 27, 1986. Miller had been a successful coach at Wittenberg, Western Michigan and Ohio State before the Ohio State administration nudged him out the door. After being told he would not be returning to Ohio State during the season, he took the Buckeyes all the way to the NIT Championship.

Miller wasn’t an instant fix at Northern Iowa. The Panthers finished 13-15 in 1986-87 and 10-18 in 1987-88. The 1988-89 team was 19-9 overall and made it to the second round of the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (AMCU-8) Conference Tournament. That team, heavy with underclassmen, set up high expectations in 1989-90.

The 1989-90 team open the season 5-2 with no impressive wins and a pair of losses at Iowa State and blowout decision to Georgetown. On January 3, 1990, Northern Iowa showed its first flash of the magic to come. Hosting 20th-ranked Iowa in a game where 22,797 fans (a then-State record) filled the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Northern Iowa stunned the visiting Hawkeyes 77-74. Despite the win, Northern Iowa stumbled through the AMCU-8 season, finish in a three-way tie for third in the conference with a 6-6 record.

Northern Iowa hosted the AMCU-8 tournament for the first-time ever that year, and the school was on the hook financially for its success. With the Panthers seeded fourth in the field there was no guarantee the Panthers would even make it out of the first round.

The Northern Iowa magic that began with the win over the Hawkeyes blossomed during the post-season tournament. In the first round, the Panthers outlasted a feisty Illinois-Chicago team 99-94 in triple overtime to reach the semifinals.

The next night, Northern Iowa would face its nemesis in Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). Southwest Missouri State was 11-1 during league play and had already beaten the Panthers by 10 points earlier in the season in Cedar Falls. This game was different. Tied in the final seconds, Northern Iowa tossed a full-court inbounds pass to center Jason Reese, who caught the ball and converted a layup at the buzzer to win 63-61.

That setup a showdown for an NCAA Tourney berth against Wisconsin-Green Bay and star guard Tony Bennett (that same guy that is now the head coach of no. 1 seed Virginia). Hobbled by a badly-swollen ankle he had suffered in the semifinals, Bennett was less than his normal stellar self, as Northern Iowa prevailed 53-45 to gain an automatic bid into the 1990 NCAA Tournament.

Northern Iowa earned a no. 14 seed and faced no. 3 seeded Missouri in the first round. This was the Missouri team of Doug Smith, Anthony Peeler and Travis Ford (who would later transfer to Kentucky). Coach Norm Stewart (a former Northern Iowa Head Coach), had his team ranked no. 1 in the country late in the season. But the Tigers had stumbled into the NCAA Tournament. A regular season finale loss to Notre Dame on national TV was followed by an overtime loss to Colorado in the first-round of the Big 8 Tournament.

Still it was a 23-5 Tigers team facing a Northern Iowa school that was getting its first taste of NCAA Tournament play. The Panthers came to play and took the game to Missouri from the opening tip. Northern Iowa controlled the game throughout, leading 42-31 at the half. But the Tigers kept clawing back and the game was tied in the final minute. Then Maurice Newby happened. The man affectionately known as Mo sent the Panthers to the second round against Minnesota. The Panthers would fall 81-78 to a Golden Gophers team that advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, but Northern Iowa’s NCAA Tournament magic was just beginning.


Northern Iowa would make the NCAA Tournament field in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009 as a double-digit seed. Each time, the Panthers went one and done.

The 2009-10 team was different. This Panther’s team went 15-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference, winning the league title. After winning the MVC Tournament, as well, the Panthers would enter the NCAA Tournament with a 28-4 record and a no. 9 seed. It was magic time.

Facing no. 8 seed UNLV in Oklahoma City, the Panther were tied with the Rebels 66-all with less than 30 seconds to play. Scrambling for a last-second shot the Panthers found Ali Farokhmanesh for a long-three pointer and a 69-66 victory.

The victory pushed Northern Iowa into a second-round matchup against overall no. 1 seed Kansas. Despite the matchup looking so lopsided that Northern Iowa was a +700 underdog to win, the Panthers never feared the Jayhawks. Northern Iowa led 63-62 with 42 seconds left as Kansas was furiously trying to rally. That set up the shot of the 2010 NCAA Tourney. Ali Farokmanesh’s three-point dagger sent the Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen for the only time in school history. A week later, the Panthers had no. 5 seed Michigan State on the ropes for one half in the Sweet Sixteen before falling 59-52.


The 2014-15 Northern Iowa Panthers were arguably the greatest team assembled in school history. The Panthers opened the season 9-0 before losing in double overtime at Virginia Commonwealth (then coached by Shaka Smart. Remember him for later.). The Panthers would win 18 of their next 19 games before falling at no. 11 ranked Wichita State in the regular season finale. The Panthers were ranked as high as no. 10 the AP Poll during the regular season.

There wasn’t as much magic in the NCAA Tourney. The Panthers, thought by many to be a three-seed, instead were seeded fifth. Northern Iowa dispatched Wyoming 71-54 in the first round before falling 66-53 to a hot-shooting Louisville team two days later.


Northern Iowa’s season took a promising start as the Panthers beat Stephen F. Austin (that team that upset West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament) then beat no. 1 ranked North Carolina after coming back from a 16-point deficit. The team struggled in November and December and was just 10-11 overall on January 23. Northern Iowa finished the regular season winning nine of its final 10 games.

The Panthers beat regular-season league champion Wichita State in overtime in the MVC Tournament semifinals to face Evansville in the title game. This time it was Northern Iowa that blew a big lead, and the game was tied with 20 seconds left. That’s just enough time for Northern Iowa magic. Wes Washpun’s jumper falling through at the buzzer sent a Northern Iowa team that would not have received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament as an automatic selection.

Northern Iowa earned an 11-seed and the Panthers were sent back to Oklahoma City. The same Oklahoma City where Northern Iowa stunned UNLV and Kansas six years earlier. That set up Friday night’s win over Texas. Now coached by Shaka Smart (remember?). The Northern Iowa magic lives on.

Northern Iowa will face Texas A&M Sunday in the NCAA Tournament Second Round.


Editor’s Note: I am a 1993 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. In 1990, I was courtside for all three games of the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament as the Sports Editor of The Northern Iowan, the school’s newspaper.

The Kansas City Basketball Myth

The Kansas City Basketball Myth

In the 17 years I spent in Kansas City, most of which I worked in the fields of NCAA Division I sports, sportscasting and as a radio personality, I was brainwashed into the myth that Kansas City is THE basketball mecca.

Kansas City’s basketball resume is impressive:

Future NBA Coach and former Kansas City-Omaha Kings player Mike D'Antoni
Future NBA Coach and former Kansas City-Omaha Kings player Mike D’Antoni

Home to the NBA’s Kings from 1972-85.

Downtown’s Municipal Auditorium has hosted 9 Final Fours, while Kemper Arena in the West Bottoms hosted the 1988 Final Four.

The Big 8/Big 12 Conference Tournament has been played in Kansas City more times than any other city.

The NAIA National Tournament is played in Kansas City.


Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden and then future LSU and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal.


The 1989 McDonald’s All-America game, featuring Kenny Anderson, Allan Houston, Bobby Hurley and some guy named Shaquille O’Neal was played at Kemper Arena.

In fact, Kansas City BELIEVES it is the home of basketball so much, there is this nugget on the website:


Each March, Kansas City hosts more college basketball tournament games than anywhere else in the country. In 2015, the whopping total comes to four tournaments, 58 teams and 54 games stretched across 14 days.

The above statement is a lie, but I will get to that in a minute.

Kansas City wants you to forget a few things about it’s basketball pedigree:

In the Kings’ final season in KC, and in the era of the NBA featuring “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, Dr. J and the rookie season of Michael Jordan, the Kings averaged less than 4,000 fans per game and moved to…Sacramento. The California capital is only marginally bigger population-wise than Kansas City.

The main reason the Final Four was hosted in Kansas City so often was the NCAA National Office was located in Kansas City from 1952-99. All nine Municipal Auditorium Final Fours happened before 1964. The Final Four wouldn’t return to KC for 24 years.

The NCAA office left for greener pastures in Indianapolis.

The Big 8 became the Big 12 and moved from Kansas City to Irvine, Texas.

Kansas City was practically the last major U.S. city to have a Division I basketball team. Kansas City, the 37th biggest city in America didn’t have a Division I basketball team until 1985. That doesn’t compare very favorably to no. 41 Omaha (Creighton, 1917), no. 49 Wichita (Wichita State, 1906), no. 58 St. Louis (Saint Louis U, 1914) or no. 148 Springfield, Mo. (Missouri State, Division I since 1981).

Kansas City basketball history of departure and mediocrity. Kansas Citians will try to deflect this by saying that the University of Kansas is Kansas City’s basketball team. The University of Kansas is located in Lawrence, Kan., a short drive from the Kansas City metro area. In addition, the Jayhawks won the 1988 Final Four in Kansas City. Those same people not only have never looked at a map (Kansas City is in Missouri, Lawrence in Kansas) nor have a sense of history (the two States were on opposite sides of the American Civil War and still hold ill feelings toward one another 150 years after the last battle was fought).

Now to that erroneous statement from above. Kansas City is referring to:

The Division II MIAA Conference will have eight men’s teams and eight women’s team play seven games each March 5-8. The Big 12 men’s basketball tournament is next, where 10 teams will play nine games from March 11-14. Then 32 NAIA teams will play 31 games to determine their champion from March 18-24.

To sum up:

MIAA – 8 men’s teams/7 games

MIAA – 8 women’s teams/7 games

Big 12 – 10 men’s teams/9 games

NAIA – 32 men’s teams/31 games 

Total – 58 teams/54 games.

At least Kansas City’s math was correct. It’s the first sentence of the statement that is a bald-faced lie borne of Kansas City’s arrogance and ignorance.

Enter Las Vegas. One of the world’s most visited cities also happens to be a bigger March basketball draw than Kansas City.

Las Vegas’ basketball resume:

UNLV star Larry Johnson.
UNLV won the 1990 National Championship.

The University of Nevada-Las Vegas has been a Division I basketball team since 1970. The UNLV Rebels have been to the Final Four four times and won National Championship in 1990.

The NBA All-Star Game was held in Las Vegas in 2007. The bigger of the two NBA Summer League’s is held annually in Las Vegas.

USA Basketball hosts its camp and a showcase in Las Vegas.

And the clincher, Each March, LAS VEGAS hosts more college basketball tournament games than anywhere else in the country. In 2015, the whopping total comes to seven tournaments, 67 teams and 60 games stretched across 14 days.

The West Coast Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament features 10 teams playing nine games at The Orleans Arena March 5-10. The West Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament features 10 teams playing nine games at The Orleans Arena March 5-10. The WAC (the conference that includes Kansas City’s own UMKC) Men’s Basketball Tournament features seven schools playing six games at The Orleans Arena March 11-14. The WAC Women’s Basketball Tournament features seven schools playing six games at The Orleans Arena March 11-14. The Mountain West Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament features 11 teams playing 10 games March 9-13 at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV Campus. The Mountain West Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament features 10 teams playing 9 games March 11-14 at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV Campus. The Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament features 12 teams playing 11 games at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on The Las Vegas Strip March 11-14.

To sum up:

WCC – 10 women’s teams/9 games

WCC – 10 men’s teams/9 games

WAC – 7 women’s teams/6 games

WAC – 7 men’s teams/6 games

Mountain West – 11 women’s teams/10 games

Mountain West – 10 men’s teams/9 games

Pac 12 – 12 men’s teams/11 games

Total – 67 teams/60 games.

Las Vegas has nine more teams and six more games than Kansas City.

Myth busted.




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