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Northwestern Basketball Just Wants One Dance

The pain and guarded optimism of rooting for the Wildcats to end their NCAA tournament drought

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The saddest thing I’ve ever read about Northwestern basketball was published just one month into my experience as a Wildcats fan. It’s a quote from Shon Morris, who played for Northwestern in the 1980s and now works for the Big Ten Network, from this article that no longer appears anywhere on Yahoo’s website. Morris explains that he doesn’t actually need to watch Northwestern play in the NCAA tournament, because “if I see the name ‘Northwestern’ come across the screen on Selection Sunday, I can get hit by a bus on Monday morning.”

Scottie Lindsey (Getty Images)
Scottie Lindsey (Getty Images)

More than eight years later, Morris is still alive and unhappy. I can whine about my sorrows, but having rooted for this team for under a decade, I’m a newbie; I missed out on generations of 2–16 conference records. (This is not an exaggeration: The Wildcats went 2–16 every year from 1984–85 to 1991–92, with one 0–18 season mixed in.) Northwestern fans will pretend to be upset if you bring up the program’s tournament drought — don’t you think we hear about it enough? — but we’re not. It is our obsession, a nagging, permanent itch, and while talking about it makes it worse, it satisfies our desire to scratch. Morris’s quote may be the saddest thing I’ve ever read about Northwestern basketball, but I’ve written tons of sadder things, notably a drunken 4 a.m. post on my old blog clumsily comparing the team’s fourth and final tournament near-miss while I attended the school to getting dumped a few weeks earlier. By the time I had the sense to take it offline, it had gotten more hits than Northwestern has students. Be glad you didn’t have a semi-popular sports blog when you were in college.

Some people spend their lifetimes waiting to see their beloved team win a championship. We all heard of the faithful Cubs fans who yearned, loved, and hurt over the franchise’s 108-year World Series title drought, and we saw their jubilation when Chicago won in November. Northwestern fandom is a lot like that, only more pathetic. At least Cubs fans spent those decades seeking the pinnacle of their sport. We just want the Wildcats to make a tournament with 67 other teams, one that typically includes around eight from Northwestern’s own conference. For as long as we have loved the Wildcats, we have merely wanted them to be decent. We don’t need to have kids, get married, or even go on a second date. Just give us one dance, and we’ll happily remember it for the rest of our lives.

Don’t listen to me when I say that this could be the year for Northwestern basketball. I am an idiot, and I’ve said “this could be the year” in virtually all the seasons I have been a Northwestern basketball fan. Listen to people who aren’t idiots: All 105 of the 105 brackets included in bracketology survey The 2017 Bracket Matrix include Northwestern in their NCAA tournament projections, and most suggest that the 18–6 Wildcats should make the field rather comfortably. Some have Northwestern as high as a no. 6 seed; even the lowest projections feature the Wildcats as a no. 10 seed, with six to 10 teams of cushion between them and the NIT.

Bryant McIntosh (Getty Images)
Bryant McIntosh (Getty Images)

I wish I could tell you there was some subtle, critical switch that flipped and suddenly made the Wildcats acceptable at basketball, but it’s simpler than that. Northwestern used to have bad players with a few exceptions; now it has good ones with a couple of outliers. Forward Vic Law is one of the best players Northwestern has ever had, a 6-foot-7 playmaker at both ends of the floor who can drill 3s and dunk like this. But he’s not even the leading scorer — that’s sweet-shooting guard Scottie Lindsey. The center, Dererk Pardon, is indisputably the best Northwestern center I’ve ever seen; the point guard, Bryant McIntosh, is probably the best Northwestern point guard I’ve ever seen. There’s a backup power forward named Nathan Taphorn who is only good as a jump shooter. A player of his exact talent level and skill set would’ve been the focus of many past Northwestern offenses; in 2016–17, he plays about a quarter of the team’s minutes.

The upgrade in talent is thanks largely to a 2013 coaching switch. For 13 years, Northwestern was led by head coach Bill Carmody, and it managed a winning Big Ten record a grand total of zero times over those 13 years. And he was unquestionably the best coach in school history, getting the team to the NIT four times in a row (from 2008–09 to 2011–12) after it had gone only three times for the rest of its existence.

Carmody’s teams operated under the presumption that with masterful execution of the Princeton offense and a spirited, extended 1–3–1 zone, they could make up the talent gap between them and their competition. Sometimes Carmody found diamonds in the rough, like forward John Shurna, a scrawny goof with a hideous jumper who ended up setting the school’s career records for points and blocks. (In four years, Shurna had fewer blocks than Anthony Davis did in his one college season at Kentucky. Still a school record!) Other times, Carmody passed on them: He notably no-showed a meeting with Frank Kaminsky, the future Naismith Player of the Year for Wisconsin who at the time was strongly considering Northwestern, his mother’s alma mater.

Now the school is coached by longtime Mike Krzyzewski assistant Chris Collins, who actually seeks to outrecruit opponents instead of devising schemes to win with inferior talent. For three years, this strategy looked awful. In 2013–14, Collins’s team lost seven straight down the stretch; in 2014–15, it went all of January without a win; in 2015–16, it turned a 13–1 start into a 20–12 finish. Carmody made NIT trips seem routine; Collins still hasn’t reached one.

Right now, though, it seems like the Wildcats might make March Madness. But the weird thing about the NCAA tournament is that unless you win your conference tournament, you have to make it based on a selection committee’s opinions. Every team’s schedule is different, so there’s no magic number of wins you have to hit, and there’s no one opponent you’re definitively supposed to root against. You just have to hope that your team looks good. It’s an inherently subjective system, but honestly, it works. We quibble about the seedings and the last few schools included, but the college basketball community reaches a general consensus about most of the teams in the field.

Living on the bubble is gut-wrenching: In professional sports, every game counts evenly. In college hoops, games against vaunted opponents provide the chance to get the upset that makes your tourney case, while games against trash squads could be the ones that drop you out of the field.

Northwestern currently feels “safe,” but of course that’s not the case. Two weeks ago, the team earned a top-25 ranking in the AP poll for only the second time since 1970, and the stories about Northwestern being a tournament lock began to sprout. Then news broke that leading scorer Lindsey has mono, and without him the Wildcats have gotten crushed by Purdue and lost at home to a dreadful Illinois team. Their next opponents are Wisconsin and Maryland. A pair of losses is possible, and could give Northwestern a four-game losing streak right after it hit the highest point the program has reached in years.

I would like this season much better if my team could calmly coast into the tournament, forever ending this stupid drought. But I know in my heart of hearts this is how it’s supposed to be. Each game can push Northwestern closer to the place I want it so desperately to go. And each can also make this year’s bracket as Northwestern-less as the previous 77. Either way, I’m going to urge Chicago’s bus drivers to stay on the lookout for 6-foot-10 Big Ten Network commentators.