What’s in a Number?

                This is the time of the year that numbers develop adjectives, especially in basketball.  The NCAA I men’s and women’s tournaments begin with 68 teams.  The rest of the NCAA basketball, divisions two and three, begins with 64 teams.  There are no adjectives with these teams.  Maybe we could call it the sexy sixty, but that hardly refers to basketball.  When these teams are selected, a verb is associated with these teams; it’s called, “Let’s go dancing!”  All 392 men’s and women’s NCAA teams have made the “Dance” (a noun) and they can’t wait to go dancing. 

                The first round of the NCAA Tournament is just like the junior-senior high school prom; the starch wears out of the tuxes and wrinkles replace the glitter on the prom dresses.  Two days into the dance, it’s all over for 196 of the teams.  It’s a good thing they had a week to bask in the glory of the “Dance.”

 I can relate to the experience of these 196 teams from my high school days.  I might have the nerve to ask a good looking girl to the dance, but when we arrive at the prom, my partner disappears into a group of the “pretty people.”  I wasn’t a date, I was a chauffeur.  That’s what it feels like to get to the Dance and lose the first round.  It’s like getting the cold shoulder from your date.

                In NAIA basketball, the tournament begins at 32 teams.  That means another 128 teams are added to the 196 NCAA teams left at the round of 32.  The round of 32 has to be the most ignored number in the tournament.  The poor losers of the NAIA’s first round not only are shafted by their date (like I was at the prom), but they’re ignored, too.  Take Norfolk State and Leigh from the men’s NCAA Tournament.  As 15 seeds, they upset number two seeds, and then lose their next game.  By the time the next weekend arrives, they’re just footnotes on the dance floor. 

                However, at 16 the numbers begin to gain adjectives.  Being a former elementary teacher and having an aunt who is a former English teacher, I know that adjectives are “describing words that are associated with nouns or pronouns.”  In basketball, the “Sweet 16” is when the tournament gets serious. 

                Getting “sweet” is fantastic.  That means you have survived until the second weekend.  You are better than the nerds that got to the “Dance” and then were dumped (like me).  If you have ever had a daughter, you know that you better dig into your wallet for a special present on her “Sweet 16” birthday.  They even made a movie based on that birthday called Sixteen Candles.  In that movie, a sister’s wedding caused the family to forget the sixteenth birthday of a younger daughter.  The only thing more tragic for a 16 year old is to not get your driver’s license.

                My driver’s license when I turned 16 proved a little elusive for me.  I went to the Saline County Court House in Wilber, NE the moment I turned 16.  That’s not entirely true since the examiner only showed up once every two weeks.  When that day arrived, I first took the written test and hopefully it’s on to the driving test.  The unthinkable happened; I failed my written test.  I was so nervous, when a true-false question read, “You can park within 15 feet of a fire hydrant,” I thought it said CAN NOT.  It went that way the whole test.  The only thing worse than your prom date dumping you is to fail the driver’s exam at age 16.

                It got worse from there.  I waited two weeks, studied like I was getting ready for my college comps, and aced the written test.  The driving test was a nightmare.  I should let you know that the examiner had no sense of humor and apparently riding with teenagers gave him gas.  I was driving a stick shift.  At one stop sign, I thought I had shifted into low, but it was really the third gear.  I staggered out of the stop sign, but didn’t kill the engine.  I was so flustered, I changed lanes without signaling.  My little town of Clatonia didn’t have lanes, so who knew?

                I had to hang my head in shame again when the jerk failed me again.  Was I ever going to pass?  I convinced my parents I couldn’t wait two weeks.  So five days later, we headed to the Gage County Court House in Beatrice, NE where the exam was given every week.  As I entered the exam area, I almost had a heart attack.  The same grumpy, gassy, examiner was sitting behind the desk.  There was no going back.  He didn’t even look up when he gave me the exam.  So far I was safe.  Again, I swept through the written exam.  I guess practice makes perfect. 

                As we headed for the car for the driver’s test, the examiner asked if I had taken the test recently.  Busted!  With a straight face, I told him a couple of weeks ago in Wilber.  He gave me a skeptical look, but didn’t ask any more questions.  The sweat was now forming under my arms.  Did I use deodorant?

 I convinced my parents to let me use their car, which had an automatic transmission.  I flew through the driver’s test, even signaling by hand when I changed lanes.  The final hurdle was parallel parking.  I bombed it.  The grumpy officer got so angry, he grabbed the wheel and parked the car himself.  I was embarrassed and devastated.  I had failed again.  To my total surprise, the examiner miraculously signed the form and I was a legal driver at last.  I guess he got tired of my failures.

                I have strayed from basketball.  The next significant number is 8.  The Elite 8 is a little like a red-headed step child.  It’s exciting to get into the Sweet 16, but if you don’t win the Elite 8, you and your team are chokers.  I noticed before the Elite 8 game between Kansas and North Carolina this weekend, the Kansas City Star had statistics about the coaches’ success in the Elite 8 game.  It implied that Roy Williams was better in this game than Bill Self.  Kansas won; I guess Bill’s not as big of choker as the Star implied.  Now, Roy is labeled as a poor in-game adjuster when his team struggled against Kansas’s triangle and two.  It’s amazing how fast a coach can get stupid.

                Eight is also a big number in the life of a child.  It’s about at this point when you start shopping in the boys section instead of the toddler section.  Of course, there are exceptions.  I can think of only one more embarrassing thing in the life of a child; getting dumped at your prom.

                Cut the field of eight in half and you have the Final Four.  This is the pinnacle of the basketball world.  For almost a full week, division one teams will be examined and dissected by every sports network.  Investigative reporters will dig through the garbage for any human interest story on a player from one of the four teams.  I have been lucky enough to have five teams into the Final Four.  One in high school, three at Doane College and one at Northwest, but my record in those games is only 1 – 4.  I hope the papers don’t find out. 

                The NCAA must like that number four.  Only four players are allowed to work-out together in post season drills.  I’m a little baffled by that rule.  The number is five on a team or ten in a game of two teams.  I’m not sure how the rules makers came up with the number four.  I’m sure there’s a good reason.

                Then it’s down to the final two teams; the National Championship.  I have only got to experience that final game once, but it was the best day I had in coaching.  You see, we won the game.  I don’t think it was quite as nice for the losing team.  Just getting to that final game is a big deal.  If you lose, you might kick the cat, throw something at the dog, ignore your wife and kid(s), and pout on the couch for a couple of days.  After 48 hours being the loser of the championship game starts to feel like a great accomplishment.

                You know what they say, “It takes two to tango.”  I don’t even know one person who knows how to tango, but it does take two to tango in a championship game.

                Being that final team, the number one is special.  However, just like Three Dog Night sang back in my youth, “One is the Loneliest Number.”  That’s a good theme song for head coaches.  Making the “Dance” is great, but stumbling anywhere along the way buts coaching in its loneliest form.  I have been very lucky to have been a head coach for 33 years, but getting stupid like it did for Roy Williams this weekend, makes it a lonely position.  All coaches get stupid. 

                Monday, the new Northwest women’s basketball coach was named.  Randy Gibson, the coach at Northeastern State, will take over the coaching reigns at Northwest the first part of April.  Randy is a great hire for the Bearcats.  He is a coaching friend of mine who I respect a great deal.  He is a great coach that has had success everywhere he has coached. 

                I will be Randy’s biggest supporter and booster.  I am absolutely sure he will bring success to the women’s program like it has never seen.  I know everyone will enjoy Randy and love the teams he puts on the floor.  Welcome and good luck, Randy!

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.