As a basketball fan growing up in Algonquin, Johnny Moran loved filling out NCAA brackets.
Moran and his brothers would jot down their picks, head outside and pretend to play the matchups. It turned out that their outdoor game was a lot better than their prediction skills.
“The tournament was by far my favorite thing, but I was never good at filling out brackets,” Moran said this week. “I was always the guy that was trying to pick the upsets.”
Moran, a 2008 graduate of Jacobs, was a sharp-shooting guard on a Northern Iowa team that toppled No. 1 overall seed Kansas in 2010. The No. 9 seed Panthers’ 69-67 win against the heavily favored Jayhawks was exactly what makes March so special – and so unpredictable – in college basketball.
It also busted 1 million brackets across the country. Maybe 5 million. Maybe 10 million.
“It was a lot,” Moran, 22, said with a chuckle.
Another Cinderella team will emerge in the next few days. For now, its identity is anyone’s guess.
The NCAA tournament will tip off in full force before lunch and maintain a wild pace until finally pausing Sunday evening. Work productivity will plummet today and Friday as dozens of games take place in a wild span that will narrow the field from 64 to 32 to 16.
Take a typical week. Now equip it with the world’s most powerful turbo engines. That’s how fast those crazy days in mid-March passed for Moran and his teammates in 2010.
Moran remembers practicing Sunday, practicing Monday, traveling Tuesday, practicing Wednesday, playing Thursday, practicing Friday and playing Saturday.
What hotel did the Panthers stay at? Not sure.
Did the team take a break to enjoy any sightseeing? No way.
“It’s crazy,” Moran said. “The main thing that’s different is leading up to the game, and trying to get your head right and not think about everything too much.
“But once the ball is tipped, I think it’s just like another game. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is.”
The ball was tipped, and Northern Iowa basketball never was the same.
The Panthers narrowly knocked off No. 8 seed UNLV in their tournament opener. That fueled Moran and his teammates with more confidence, of which they already had plenty.
Because while most college basketball fans were focused on the heavyweight teams, Northern Iowa had compiled a terrific résumé. They went 28-4 and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, but they mostly had played against mid-major opponents, and they were tagged with a lower seed.
Meanwhile, Kansas had roared to a 32-2 record and boasted several NBA-caliber players.
“That year, we had such great confidence in what we were doing,” Moran said. “Every time we stepped on the court, we felt like we could win that game.”
OK, fine, but no one outside of the Northern Iowa locker room would have picked the Panthers.
Correction: No one except for Tim Moran, Johnny’s younger brother.
“I watched every single [Panthers] game that year,” said Tim, who is one year younger than Johnny. “They were just such a well-rounded team that was able to match up with pretty much anybody.”
As happens so often in March, the Northern Iowa-Kansas game came down to the final minute.
Northern Iowa led by one point when Moran and Ali Farokhmanesh sprinted down the court on a delayed two-on-one break. Moran headed toward the left wing while Farokhmanesh dribbled down the right side and pulled up for a 3-pointer.
The defender gave Farokhmanesh an open look. He didn’t want to give Moran a path to the basket.
Farokhmanesh calmly drilled the shot from beyond the arc, stunning the Jayhawks and the nation.
“It was the best feeling,” Moran said. “I can’t even describe it.”
This is what you do when you become the first team in school history to advance to the Sweet 16: You go to an Applebee’s in Oklahoma City.
While Farokhmanesh conducted a phone interview with ESPN in the restaurant, Moran and the rest of his teammates huddled around a nearby TV to watch the interview.
Talk about surreal.
The spotlight only intensified after the shocking win. A group of Panthers fans met the team at the airport when they returned home. Media members crowded the team’s practices. A CBS-2 TV crew visited Moran’s house in Algonquin to interview his family.
Several days later, Northern Iowa’s dream run ended with a loss against No. 5 seed Michigan State. The Duke Blue Devils went on to win the NCAA title, knocking off another mid-major surprise, Butler.
After graduating a year ago, Moran joined the Northern Iowa staff this season as a graduate assistant. It’s a path that eventually could lead to a coaching position, which is something he would embrace.
Maybe one day Moran will lead a new group of players into the middle of the madness.
“That would be awesome,” Moran said. “If I ever do become a coach, that’s obviously the main goal: to get to that tournament.”
And to bust 10 million brackets.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.