For na­tion’s smaller schools, March Mad­ness starts early

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - CHUCK CULPEP­PER

kansas city, mo. — If you let ac­tual mad­ness hang around long enough, even let it be­come an an­nual tra­di­tion, peo­ple will think it nor­mal and ac­cept­able even though it’s ac­tual mad­ness. The mad­ness we Yanks cel­e­brate this week is not the buzzer-beater kind; it’s the warped-logic kind.

It’s the com­mon­place, sense­less, rou­tine and bizarre idea that the vast ma­jor­ity of col­lege bas­ket­ball’s mid-ma­jor pro­grams play for four months, record their wins and losses, use those wins and losses to cre­ate stand­ings, let those stand­ings jos­tle and then fer­ment over the win­ter days . . . then de­cide their NCAA tour­na­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive dur­ing a fleet­ing-few-days con­fer­ence tour­na­ment.

That method usu­ally trips up some­body who just

dom­i­nated a win­ter. It just did it to, for one, Bel­mont, the Nashville school that went 15-1 in an Ohio Val­ley Con­fer­ence in which no­body else lost fewer than six. Yet it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to the NCAA tour­na­ment after its 65-59 loss to Jack­sonville State in the tour­na­ment semi­fi­nals, and we all know this, even as it’s surely more mer­i­to­ri­ous to let the reg­u­lar sea­son win­ners ad­vance.

The whole loony sys­tem went the happy way for a player here at the Big 12 tour­na­ment. He is a Cana­dian se­nior guard for Iowa State with one of the best names in sports, Nazareth Jersey Mitrou-Long. He used to play by Naz Long, then aug­mented the sur­name two sum­mers back to honor his mother.

He also felt ner­vous Tues­day night, after his NCAA tour­na­ment-bound team ar­rived here, be­cause of a game go­ing on in Em­mits­burg, Md., in Knott Arena, which could have felt like the cen­ter of the so­lar sys­tem for a night. The pa­trons there wound up storm­ing the floor after Mount St. Mary’s, the top seed in the North­east Con­fer­ence, up­held its seed­ing by best­ing Saint Fran­cis (Pa.), 71-61. Along the way, it got 24 points and a hardy nine re­bounds from 6-foot guard Eli­jah Long, the younger brother Mitrou-Long has known since Eli­jah was “4-foot-noth­ing,” Mitrou-Long said.

“That put a lit­tle golf ball in my throat, man,” the el­der brother said, hav­ing watched with team­mates from a Kansas City res­tau­rant and hav­ing seen his brother hug his mother on TV. “You know, he’s worked so hard in his whole life, been over­looked his whole life, had barely any of­fers, used to cry to me about say­ing, man, he wishes that one day he could play D-I. Lit­er­ally cry. And to see him be the MVP of the NEC tour­na­ment and av­er­age 20-some­thing and lead his team to the Big Dance and his mes­sages that he’s been send­ing me, that’s more than a big brother could ask for. Man, I’m proud of that kid. I love him to death.”

Mean­while, Mitrou-Long’s team ar­rived at this Big 12 with a 20-10 record. It won twice to reach 22-10 en­ter­ing Satur­day night’s cham­pi­onship game. On Fri­day night it made an 84-63 rout of it against TCU, which had ousted No. 1 Kansas, and it looked fairly gor­geous in do­ing so (56 per­cent shoot­ing, 12 of 25 three-point shots). Had it looked un­sightly, how­ever, that wouldn’t have mat­tered. Ei­ther way, it would spend Se­lec­tion Sun­day with be­calmed nerve end­ings. It was in.

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween coach­ing in that and coach­ing in the ac­tual mad­ness of the mid­tour­na­ment ma­jors, and wouldn’t you know, Iowa State has a coach who knows that dif­fer­ence as in­tri­cately as any­one.

Just be­fore Steve Prohm came to the Cy­clones in 2015, he coached a soar­ing Mur­ray State team for a fourth sea­son. Those Rac­ers be­gan 2-4, then won 25 games in a row from Nov. 30 to March 6, win­ning all seven games through the wilds of De­cem­ber, all nine through the hard­ness of Jan­uary, all seven through the fa­tigue of Fe­bru­ary, win­ning and win­ning and win­ning. They reached the Ohio Val­ley Con­fer­ence fi­nal, and they had an 87-85 lead and the ball with 10 sec­onds to go. They hap­pened to throw that ball away.

“Sick for our guys,” Prohm be­gan after the 88-87 loss — to Bel­mont — that hurled Mur­ray State to­ward the NIT.

From the Fri­day night Big 12 hall­way here, Prohm could say: “It’s a lot dif­fer­ent than coach­ing here, I tell you that. A lot dif­fer­ent.”

He looked like he might still feel the pain. His sen­tences tended to trail off.

“The pres­sure, the pos­ses­sionto-pos­ses­sion there, there’s noth­ing that I’ve . . . ” That has gone from his life. “This is, you’re just coach­ing, coach­ing, you know,” he said. “That is just ev­ery pos­ses­sion be­cause that’s it. And so it’s dif­fer­ent.”

Even from here, Mitrou-Long had a keen sense of what that meant, from his daily com­mu­ni­ca­tion with his brother. “He eats healthy,” Mitrou-Long said. “He doesn’t BS around. He’s se­ri­ous in his school­work. He’s a typ­i­cal stu­dent-ath­lete that you’d want in your pro­gram. He would never hurt your pro­gram, be­cause he’s so locked in on every­thing he does, and that’s why ev­ery­body loves him. He’s like our lit­tle golden child. He’s the youngest out of all of my four core sib­lings, so you know, he’s as spe­cial as they get, man, and he’s earned every­thing that he’s got­ten.”

As the NEC tour­na­ment ap­proached, then: “He wanted it so bad. He was talk­ing to me days and weeks be­fore, like, I just want it so bad. He just wanted to win so bad. I was [ner­vous] be­cause I know that the way he takes things, the way he takes losses, if he didn’t win, he would have been crushed. His sea­son would have been done.”

Then it all worked out, even though it shouldn’t have had to.

JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES

Nazareth Mitrou-Long and Iowa State didn’t face the chal­lenge his brother did at Mount St. Mary’s.

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