By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Marty Simmons, towel around his neck after getting doused with water in the locker room moments earlier, had to catch his breath.
The Eastern Illinois coach had just finished coaching 40 minutes he and his players won’t soon forget, and had just finished getting doused with water in celebration of one of the biggest wins of his coaching career, so he could be forgiven for being exhausted.
The Panthers’ 92-83 win over Iowa on Wednesday was one of those shocking wins that happen when you least expect them in December, so I had to ask Simmons what the victory meant for his program.
“I’m not sure,” he said, laughing at his own answer. “I mean, we have so much respect for (Iowa coach Fran McCaffery) and this program. I played at Indiana a long time ago, so it goes way back…”
“I’m not sure,” Simmons said again.
It was a shocker, indeed. Iowa was favored by more than 30 points, Eastern Illinois had just three wins coming into the game and only one was against an NCAA Division I team.
The immediate aftermath could be seen on Iowa’s resumé. It’s a Quad 4 loss in the NCAA’s NET — the Hawkeyes were 58th in the NET on Sunday — and KenPom.com now forecasts Iowa to finish 18-13 overall, 10-10 in the Big Ten.
But let’s not wring hands over the Hawkeyes at this point. They played that game without leading scorer and rebounder Kris Murray and starting guard Connor McCaffery, and both figure to be back soon as Iowa gets back into Big Ten play this week. There are 19 conference games and the Big Ten tournament left for the Hawkeyes, so there’s plenty of time to mask the blemish of the defeat to the Panthers.
Instead, let’s talk about what Eastern Illinois did, and what we sometimes forget about college basketball. The best stories can be about the teams you don’t think about.
I’ve seen a lot in 30 full seasons of college basketball, and the great players and matchups aren’t always in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and Hilton Coliseum. You can find them in the gyms of the smaller Division I schools.
That’s why November and December can be fun. Sure, there are those resumé-building games that the major networks love. But there are also the guarantee games, the games where Power 5 programs pay the mid-majors and small D-Is to come in for that one night. They come from the Ohio Valley Conference, or the Summit League, to cash a check in the high five figures, and play a game they’re likely going to lose.
But sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t have the power of a 14 seed knocking off a 3 seed in an NCAA tournament first-round game, but it can mean a lot for the program pulling off the win.
Eastern Illinois had nothing to lose last Wednesday, and the Panthers played like it.
“They have hoopers,” Iowa forward Filip Rebraca said. “They have Division I players. They have really, really good athletes. They give scholarships, like we do, too. You know, you’ve got to respect them.”
Rebraca understands that, because he was on the other side of these games before, back when he played three seasons at North Dakota.
These teams don’t fly on chartered jets — if they do fly, it’s catching an early-morning commercial flight. Most of the time, it’s a bus trip of several hours — it’s a 4 ½-hour bus trip from Eastern Illinois’ campus in Charleston, Ill., to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Go to a Summit League game, and you’ll see players who could easily be in the Big Ten. What Power 5 team wouldn’t want Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas? Western Illinois’ Trenton Massner would be a nice backcourt piece for someone. Sam Griesel, who played four seasons at North Dakota State, is averaging 10.6 points at Nebraska this season.
It’s not just the players, it’s the coaches. Simmons had three seasons of 20 or more wins at Evansville, not an easy place to coach and the Missouri Valley Conference is not an easy conference to build a program.
He’s now tasked with rebuilding Eastern Illinois. His first team last season went 5-26 with a roster that included nine new players to the program.
His team is 4-9 this season heading into the start of Ohio Valley Conference play on Thursday against Lindenwood.
“It hadn’t been hadn’t been easy for us last year and a half,” Simmons said. And this group that we have this year, even though we haven’t got the results all the time they’ve been a good group to come and practice and grow, and I’m just happy for those guys.”
He thought more about the question I asked him.
“I mean, in the real near future right here, I think it just gives our guys a lot of confidence,” Simmons said. “That if we play well, then anything can happen. Our dauber’s been down for a lot of the first part of the season, just because we’ve lost so many games. But something like this, I think, can be a real shot in the arm for us as we get ready to go into league play.”
It may become easy to forget about the teams like Eastern Illinois when the calendar turns to January, and conference play reaches full steam.
But the Panthers will board a bus headed to some cold Ohio Valley Conference gym remembering what they did on one night in Iowa City.
And that’s the side of college basketball that we forget to embrace, and enjoy.
Photo: Eastern Illinois guards Kinyon Hodges (10) and Yaakema Rose Jr. (4) celebrate Wednesday’s win at Iowa. (Keith Gillett/Icon SportsWire)