It is a little-known fact the first Final four was hosted at Northwestern, at a place called Patten Gymnasium, since torn down and rebuilt elsewhere on campus. In its place now is a science building, the biggest on any campus in America, simply known as Tech. This says a lot about Northwestern, focus on academics (which is good, of course) but a general disregard of sports, especially basketball, for a Big Ten School.
Prior to this year Northwestern’s best finish in the Big Ten was tied for second, way back in 1958-59, when the conference was actually ten teams (I’m looking at you, Rutgers and Maryland). Since 1960, however, they have not finished in the top three and since 1970 they have not finished inside the top 5, except one time in 2003-04 when they finished tied for 5th but went 14-15. Just to prove my point here are their finishes in the big 10 for the last 20 years going back from last year; 9th, 10th, 11th, 11th, 7th, 8th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 10th, 8th, 8th, 5th, 10th, 7th, 11th, 11th, 8th, 9th, and 11th. Point is, the Wildcats are bad, and this is epitomized by the fact that they are only one of five original D1 teams to never make the NCAA tournament. The other four are The Citadel, St. Francis (NY), William and Mary, and Army. Not great company. In fact, NU’s best finish to date was a quarterfinal appearance in the NIT in 2011.
But things are looking up. Last year, 3rd year coach, and potential program savior Chris Collins, led the Cats to a 20-12 record, their first winning record since 2010-2011 and only their 4th since the turn of the century. A strong returning class of PG Bryant McIntosh, SG Scottie Lindsey, Forwards Sanjay Lumpkin and Vic Law, and Center Dererk Pardon got people excited coming into the year. Every Northwestern student wondered, in a year when tiny Iceland made it to the Euro Cup quarterfinals, and the Cubs ended a 109 year drought, could the Wildcats finally go dancing?
The year started like any other, a couple of wins over mid majors, but in game three Northwestern faced a Big East contender Butler, at Butler for their first real test of the year. They lost at the buzzer to a Butler team now ranked 16th in the country. It seemed like all other years, just toying with the heart strings, a classic game that bad teams lose. But then, Northwestern came out and stomped then #22 Texas 77-25 before losing another heartbreaker to Notre Dame, again reaffirming the cynical belief of many fans, that it simply couldn’t happen.
Then, it started to click, nine straight wins including the Big Ten opener at Penn State, before losing to Michigan State on the Road, and another four-point Heartbreaker at home to Minnesota. This left Northwestern at 12-4, 1-2 in the Big Ten and certainly a fringe team to make the tourney. A couple big ten wins against Nebraska, Rutgers, and Iowa had people dreaming again just in time for a huge duel at Columbus, vs Ohio State. A back and forth affair had fans tensely watching a team that so clearly had a little bit of magic of them, until at 0.0 it was Ohio State 72- Northwestern 74. A statement. A win to hang your hat on. An easy win vs a sub .500 Nebraska team set up a huge home game vs perennial powerhouse, Indiana. Even though the Hoosier had seven loses coming into the game, they are a good team, formerly number three this year, and a historically dominant program. Not since I’ve been at Northwestern has a game had so much hype. It sold out (which I’m pretty sure none of our events do), people on campus were talking about it all day, bookworms took time off studtying to flock to Welsh-Ryan Arena, but most of all, people really cared. I couldn’t go to the game because I had two midterms the next day, but I did see nearly every single one of my friends screaming and yelling on the TV screen.
Indiana started the game on a 10-1 run and Northwestern missed its first 7 shots. But then, they started falling, and falling, and falling and the cats took a 13-point lead into the half and never looked back. 18-4, 7-2 in the Big Ten (good for 3rd) and best of all ranked. #25 in the country, for the first time since 2009, ranked. This is the year if ever there were one. Northwestern has 9 games left and one must figure if they go 4-5 and finish 22-9 in the big ten that would be good enough to make the tournament. A huge game at #23 Purdue looms large on the first of February, perhaps the biggest in the school’s history. Maybe, every game from here on out is the biggest in school history, and that’s pretty damn cool.