Long-suffering Northwesterners still waiting for Cats to make NCAAs

Publish date:

Two in particular, ESPN's Michael Wilbon and CNBC's Darren Rovell, aren't shy about their passion for all things purple. Both have chronicled their tortured existence during the Wildcats' nerve-racking quest to end their 73-year NCAA drought this year. "Surely, somebody will call and tell me about it because I cannot watch ... It's too excruciating," Wilbon, the PTI co-host, wrote recently. "When I die, the cause of death might be Northwestern basketball," Rovell tweeted after yet-another heartbreaking Big Ten defeat.

In theory, I should be right there with them. As an undergrad, my sports-obsessed friends and I had many a conversation about how awesome that distant day would be when we finally saw "Northwestern" pop up during CBS' selection show. Mind you, this was around the same time the football team made its improbable run to the 1996 Rose Bowl. However, the basketball program could not have been more hopeless. My sophomore year I covered a team that went 2-16 in the Big Ten -- and that was a one-game improvement from the year before.

Yet here we are, days away from Selection Sunday, with Northwestern still teetering on the bubble, and I find myself ... conflicted. As an alum, it would be indescribably gratifying to see my school's name on that bracket, but as a sportswriter who covers the tournament annually, I don't feel they actually deserve it.

Northwestern finished 18-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, good for seventh place in a 12-team conference. The Wildcats held serve, going 7-2 against the five teams beneath them and 1-8 against the six above them. Their one signature win came back on Jan. 14 against conference co-champion Michigan State.

The selection committee places much emphasis on schedule strength, and to its credit, Northwestern has played the nation's 14th-toughest schedule, according to CollegeRPI.com. But playing a team and beating a team are two different things. Northwestern finished the regular season 1-10 against RPI Top 50 opponents. Let me repeat that: 1-10. That includes losses to their two best nonconference foes, Baylor and Creighton.

The most flattering thing the bracketologists have to say about the Wildcats is that they have no bad losses. Kind of like a dog whose most distinguishing characteristic is he sits still.

Like all bubble teams, Northwestern has a chance to beef up its resume this week with a strong performance in its conference tournament. SI.com's bracket expert, Andy Glockner, and others believe Bill Carmody's team needs to win two games in Indianapolis -- first against 10th seed Minnesota on Thursday, then against second seed Michigan on Friday -- to punch its ticket. It's a seemingly modest goal except that Northwestern has never won two games in the Big Ten tournament.

If the Wildcats lose to the 18-13 Gophers -- with whom they split two meetings during the regular season -- they'll almost certainly be NIT-bound for the fourth straight season. But if they beat Minnesota, then fall to the conference co-champion Wolverines -- whom they've lost to twice, both in overtime -- they will sweat out Sunday night's show more than any bubble team in the history of bubble teams. Any advice for my guys, Seth Greenberg?

Making the tournament should be a triumphal moment signaling the program's ascension to basketball greatness. Instead, the fact they've managed to keep hanging on for this long is mostly a byproduct of the NCAA's bloated 68-team field. It's not like their resume is notably uglier than that of fellow bubble aspirants like Texas (3-9 vs. the Top 50) or USF (1-9 vs. the Top 50). Having authored SI.com's Bubble Watch from 2000-08, I can say with near certainty the committee holds Northwestern in higher regard than Drexel (27-6) due to the Dragons' horrific schedule strength in the 200s.

Personally, I'd give the bid to Drexel, but the committee prefers to reward teams that play a bunch of tougher foes -- even if they lose to almost every one of them.

I've emailed with several of my Northwestern friends about this subject, and while a couple feel the same way I do, most hold no such misgivings. "I will absolutely, under no circumstances, feel conflicted about getting into the tournament," said one. "Making the tourney is not a mediocre accomplishment," said another. "Ask fans of Iowa, or N.C. State or any other number of schools that used to think that it was a given to go to the tourney but haven't been in a while."

One made an interesting point, that perhaps my expectations were unrealistically tainted by the football program's breakout '95 season, in which it ended a 47-year bowl drought by going 8-0 in the Big Ten and reaching the Rose Bowl. The basketball equivalent would be making an NCAA tourney debut as a No. 1 seed. Unless John Calipari comes to Evanston next year, that's never going to happen.

John Shurna and Co. can render my whole dilemma moot by making a prolonged run in Indianapolis, at which point I'll be able to reasonably say they earned their trip to the Dance. I know I'm supposed to stay objective about these things, but I won't lie: My neighbors will hear a rather loud scream if, at about 6:27 p.m. EST on Sunday, Greg Gumbel utters the word "Northwestern" while unveiling the pairings in Omaha, Albuquerque or Nashville.

My biggest fear is not that they'll be left out. I've long since conditioned myself to expect it, thus sparing any of that Rovell/Wilbon-described agony along the way. No, the far worse possibility is that Northwestern will finally achieve what 307 other universities did before it by qualifying for the NCAA tournament -- and get placed in Dayton.

I covered the inaugural First Four last year, and while organizers made it look in every way like a regular NCAA tournament site, and while First Four participant VCU's subsequent run to the Final Four seemingly validated its existence, let's not kid ourselves -- the real NCAA tournament starts on Thursday, not Tuesday. If Northwestern makes the field but loses in Dayton would it still count?

The official record book would say yes, but Northwestern would merely go from being the school that's never made the tourney to having never made the field of 64. Personally, I'm setting my expectations accordingly to pre-emptively ward off potential suffering, but someone will probably have to check Mike and Darren for a pulse.