The Iowa State men’s basketball team is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in school history. It has been to the Elite Eight once in the modern era, and Final Four once ever. Yet that only merits third place in Sports on Earth’s list of “tortured fans” of the 2014 Sweet 16, behind Wisconsin and Virginia. Looking back at the Cyclones’ basketball performances at this level, there is a strong case to top both of them.
1944 Final Four. Only eight teams participated in the tournament. Big Six Conference champion Iowa State beat Pepperdine in Kansas City and would play Utah next in Madison Square Garden. Tom Hager wrote in The Ultimate Book of March Madness that Utah was given “little chance against the Cyclones” and was even asked to have luggage ready for departure after the game. “After dumping their belongings in what was meant to be Iowa State’s room, Utah pulled off another shocker to give Iowa State an early return home.” Utah won the championship.
1986 Sweet 16. Johnny Orr took the Cyclones to their second appearance in the tournament in a row and the second since 1944. Iowa State, a 7 seed, beat Miami of Ohio in overtime and then Michigan. The run ended against a sixth-seeded, Jim Valvano-coached North Carolina State team, 70-66.
1997 Sweet 16. The sixth-seeded Cyclones blew a 16-point early-second-half lead to 2-seed UCLA. The Bruins forced overtime and with 1.9 seconds left, Cameron Dollar went coast to coast. UCLA 74, Iowa State 73. When the seed numbers were reversed in the 2000 Sweet 16, ISU crushed UCLA by 24 points (80-56), which led to …
2000 Elite Eight. The game that decided that year’s NCAA Tournament can be summed up in one word: BLARGE.
The 2000 tournament didn’t go according to form. Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament champion Michigan State was the last 1 seed remaining. Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament champion Iowa State was the last 2 seed. Unfortunately, they were both in the same bracket quadrant.
The game went back and forth, but then Iowa State built a small lead. With just under five minutes remaining, ISU led 61-55 and Marcus Fizer was at the free-throw line, only to have his shot negated by a Paul Shirley lane violation. The Spartans followed with a 3-point shot, Fizer was whistled for an offensive foul away from the ball that led to two more Michigan State points, and at the 3:43 mark everything changed.
The event itself occurred in less time than it takes to describe it: Fizer passed the ball to Shirley in the lane, who went up against MSU’s Charlie Bell, and two whistles were blown. One official called a block, the other a charge, and the calls wouldn’t be matched. It was Shirley’s fifth foul. Shirley wrote about the incident in 2007:
We did quickly realize the following: Blocking foul, good for us. Charging foul, bad for us. Double foul, bad for us . . . and bad for the referees. Public admissions of ineptitude are rarely looked upon fondly by 18,000 basketball fans.
(Unless those fans are overwhelmingly in support of the team that stands to benefit from the call. Like if the game is played in Auburn Hills, Mich. and one of the teams’ campuses is in East Lansing, Michigan. Not that we found that 10:1 green-to-red advantage daunting. Or that I’m the least bitter about the logistics.)
The Spartans outscored the Cyclones 20-3 in the last 4:50 of the game, including multiple free throws after two technical fouls on coach Larry Eustachy with 9.9 seconds left. At the end of the 75-64 game, CBS broadcasting stalwart Verne Lundquist said the Spartans “will be favored to win the national championship,” which they did. It’s the Big Ten’s only NCAA men’s tournament title since 1989.
That season was the first of three in five NCAA tournament appearances where Iowa State would go home with a loss to the eventual national champion. The other two are to a 15 seed and Aaron Craft — the latter also hinging on a block-charge call late in the game.
For the 2014 Sweet 16, ISU will be in the modern Madison Square Garden, a callback to the 1944 Final Four (played in a different building) and the 2004 NIT semifinal. Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery will be the broadcast team, as they were in the 2000 Elite Eight (sideline reporter Allie LaForce was 11 years old at the time!). If Iowa State beats UConn — a callback to 2012 — it may once again be Cy vs. Sparty with the Final Four on the line.
UPDATE: Lundquist and Raftery say the ISU-MSU game is one of their favorites, right along with a moment Iowa would rather forget.