The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Big 12 player watches his brother and knows: March Madness hits harder for mid-majors

Mount St. Mary’s guard Elijah Long, center, kisses the Northeast Conference Tournament championship. (Steve Ruark/ Associated Press)

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 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.

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The whole loony system went the happy way for a player here at the Big 12 tournament. He’s the 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 on 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 “four-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 tournament with a 20-10 record. It has won twice to reach 22-10. 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.

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There’s a difference between coaching in that and coaching in the actual madness of the mid-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 through 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 possession-to-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 [worried] 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.