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CEDAR FALLS - If Saturday was the most surreal date in the University of Northern Iowa's sports history, then Monday was a close second.

ESPN's Rick Reilly essentially wrote a love letter to the UNI cagers in e-mail correspondence with The Courier - "It's not Chaminade over Ralph Sampson and Virginia, but it's close," Reilly noted of the Panthers' upset of No. 1 Kansas.

National sports-talk host Jim Rome referred to UNI's top sharpshooter simply as "Ali" ... right before Rome interviewed Farokhmanesh's head coach, Ben Jacobson, on the air.

"Ali was on (ESPN Radio's) Scott Van Pelt Show!" Panther teammate Johnny Moran said incredulously. "Hearing him talk, it was crazy. ... It's just been totally fun this week - pretty much everybody walking around says, ‘Congrats.'"

The question now is: How do the 30-4 Panthers keep their feet on the ground? Because Monday, quite simply, was insanity.

"I heard Ali walked into one of his classes and got a standing ovation," said forward Jake Koch, shaking his head slightly.

Other Panther players got high fives and handshakes - even from professors.

The usually restrained Jacobson simply laughed at the absurdity of it all, because he's quite confident his largely veteran squad will soon be focused for its next opponent, perennial Big Ten power Michigan State (26-8).

"We just came out of a weekend where it was something like these guys had never seen before," the coach noted prior to practice. "And I thought they handled it very well and did a very good job of taking care of obligations to the media and then really getting ready for UNLV and Kansas. So that was good practice for what's going on right now."

Yes, the media horde descended on Cedar Falls Monday. Or, it blew up Jacobson's BlackBerry. There was nowhere to run and hide, so Jacobson threw his hands up and enjoyed the moment.

So yes, believe it or not, that was Ben Jacobson speaking on the radio at midafternoon with Jim Rome - perhaps the most the polarizing, overly caffeinated sports commentator in the country.

"Obviously, I've watched his show," said Jacobson, "and I watch (ESPN's) ‘Mike and Mike in the Morning - and I had a chance to be on with (Mike) Golic and (Doug) Gottlieb (Monday). I love watching all those shows and listening to those guys talk, and the interviews."

This wasn't sheer self-indulgence. The fourth-year UNI coach knew Monday's media blitz was a rare opportunity to market his school.

"The opportunity to talk about our basketball program, and for people nationally to learn about our program and our community and our university, it's great for all of us right now to be able to do that," Jacobson noted.

But Jacobson insisted his players will soon put on the blinders, concentrating solely on how to slow a physical Michigan State squad in Friday's Sweet 16 contest.

After all, these Panthers don't play basketball for fame or adulation. ... Though, impressing female classmates is never a bad thing.

"I'm sure Ali's probably getting tons of second glances right now," Moran said, laughing.

Speaking of Ali ... "That dude - Ali StrokeTheNet - will never have to buy a drink in the state of Iowa as long as he lives," wrote ESPN's Reilly in his email.

RETURN TO UNI-DOME? With the Panthers set to invade downtown St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome on Friday, Jacobson was asked if his squad might practice in the UNI-Dome this week to acclimate itself to the vast, airy expanses of playing in a facility that will seat approximately 38,000 for the NCAA Sweet 16 this weekend.

In short, Jacobson said, "No. ... We'll be able to get in the (Edward Jones Dome) on Thursday and work out in there.

"Obviously the spacing's a lot different (playing in a dome), but it's like that for both teams."

Said guard Anthony James, a St. Louis native: "I've seen what type of atmosphere it is - it's a big atmosphere. But we've played in some hostile environments before, so I think we're prepared to play in any type of stadium or arena."

SPRING BLOOM: These days, the grass is turning greener, spring has essentially sprung and ... Lucas O'Rear's sideburns are in full-bloom.

The Panther fan-favorite already had the most easily identifiable facial hair in the Cedar Valley before this month. Now, as April nears, O'Rear's mutton-chop sideburns are starting to sprout in all different directions.

But O'Rear, a junior with Irish roots, seems to think his sideburns are good luck.

"I'm not gonna touch ‘em until we lose," he said Monday, smiling.

PARTING SHOT: Jacobson was asked Sunday night what his thoughts had been roughly 24 hours earlier, while walking off the court after beating No. 1 Kansas.

"Two things ... " the coach noted. "One, that we had just beaten the number one team in the country. And two ... I was just so proud of the fact the guys were able to execute in so many areas."

 

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