OKLAHOMA CITY – Ali Farokhmanesh was all alone Friday ‘round midnight in a hotel bar, not unlike thousands watching their brackets melt down before their eyes.
The celebrity that once dripped off him was gone.
“Me, by myself, kind of watching the game,” said perhaps the one person in the joint who could relate to what was unfolding 650 miles south of the Marriott in Corralville, Iowa.
Northern Iowa is the toast of the NCAA Tournament these days. Farokhmanesh is a famous alum. But anonymity is what suits all of them.
That’s what happens when you’re the pride of Cedar Falls, Iowa sharing a state with two high-major Power Fives (Iowa, Iowa State). That’s also the result when one of the biggest shots in tournament – and Northern Iowa -- are partnered for another historic moment.
Six years ago Farokhmanesh’s 3-point dagger sealed an upset of Kansas in this exact spot – Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The former Panthers’ guard isn’t worried about being overshadowed by Paul Jesperson’s half-court buzzer-beater Friday that knocked off Texas.
“I don’t get tired of it,” Farokhmanesh said, “just because I think it’s always a good memory. It brings me back to that day.”
That day now has a competitor thanks to Jesperson’s heave. It is just beginning to sink in that the shot is one of the most significant of all time in the tournament.
Think about the list of half-court tournament buzzer beaters and it pretty much begins and ends with U.S. Reed’s shot for Arkansas that beat defending champion Louisville in 1981.
This time, there was no strategy, virtually no time to react and only some slim experience for Jesperson to draw on.
“We had a little bit of a driveway at our house,” said the junior who grew up an hour north of Madison in Merrill, Wis. “I remember playing horse with my brothers. We were always doing crazy shots, shooting over cars. I don’t know if that can contribute to the [winning] shot but, maybe.
“That one will stay with me forever.”
The junior forward’s story continues to be revealed in layers as the nation is forced to once again consider the Panthers. They are in the second round for only the third time in their history. The last was with Farokhmanesh, now a graduate assistant at Nebraska.
“My wife was asking me that,” he said. “I wonder how Paul feels right now?’ Yeah, I can understand that feeling. Everyone is texting you. I’m sure he’s gotten 1,000 text messages, 1,000 Twitter notifications – everything possible.
“Everybody he hasn’t talked to in 10 years is hitting him up right now.”
What is ol’ Paullie up to? At least temporary stardom. He came downstairs Saturday morning to speak to a reporter in the hotel lobby sporting a “Nothing But Purple” T-shirt.
No one mobbed him. Really, no one even looked up. Would you if an unassuming, sort of skinny 6-foot-6 buzz-cut 23-year old was the highlight of a Marriott Courtyard lobby?
“Myself and [teammate] Matt Bohannon, we always tell each other we’re two of the best shooters in the country,” Jesperson said. “We really believe that. We put in a crazy amount of time.”
Before practice, after practice, late at night. Before players were issued magnetic key cards to get in the gym, the pair would hit up Meta, the janitor, for her keys.
That qualifies for bravado for a career 39 percent shooter who is the Panthers’ second-best 3-point shooter. Jesperson is like a lot of his teammates. He’s good enough to go for a career-high eight 3s against Bradley and inconsistent enough to go into a midseason slump.
His four 3s and 14 points Friday were his highest totals in a month.
Put it all together and a roster that includes nine native Iowans can shock the world. They just happen to do most everything fairly well. Not great, just OK. Almost … anonymously.
The Panthers are 105th in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, 51st in that defensive category. On Friday, they rallied back in the second half against Texas to win their seventh in a row.
“They’re loose,” said Doug Jacobson, father of Panthers’ coach Ben Jacobson. Doug is a part-time superintendent in a North Dakota school district and always an official member of the Panthers’ traveling party.
“They’re just so tuned. They know exactly what the hell they’re supposed to do.”
That anonymity is almost sure to continue. No Northern Iowa player has ever made an NBA roster. Farokhmanesh went from college to a four-year career in Europe. While teammates knew of his college accomplishments, Ali couldn’t read food labels in foreign languages.
“If I saw a banana,” he said, “I knew that was a banana so I was going to get it.”
Jesperson’s brother David is redshirting at Green Bay which lost to Texas A&M Friday before Northern Iowa took the court against Texas.
Wisconsin was sort of on Paul in high school before he signed with Virginia and coach Tony Bennett, a Wisconsin native. The best thing to come out of two mostly unproductive years in Charlottesville was a friendship with Virginia All-American Malcolm Brogdon.
“One of my best friends,” Jesperson said. “I’ve been to see him in Atlanta twice. He’s been to Wisconsin twice.”
Friday’s result wasn’t a true upset. A No. 11 seed beating a No. 6 seed almost never is. It’s more about what it represented.
The tournament reminds us each year basketball is the great equalizer. Northern Iowa finished fourth in the Missouri Valley, won on a buzzer-beater in the conference tournament and then just hung around long enough to beat Texas.
“There will always be people who see it as an upset because Texas has a name,” Doug Jacobson said. “At the same time we feel like we have a program that can compete with anybody.”
Certainly not in dollars. Texas has the nation’s largest athletic budget ($179 million). Northern Iowa is at $13 million.
“I don’t know [what I’d do with that budget],” incoming AD David Harris said. “but I’d like to try to figure it out.”
Some sort of basketball torch, then, has been passed. Paulie J. and these Panthers are new school. Farokhmanesh had no choice but to reminisce watching TV in that Marriott bar with a bunch of strangers.
His wife had already gone to bed, getting ready for a friend’s wedding the next day.
“There were a bunch of people around I didn’t know,” Farokhmanesh said. “When Texas made that [tying] layup everyone kind of dropped their heads. I’m sure I dropped a few cuss words.”
“Then everyone started jumping up and down. I started high-fiving people I didn’t know.”