Friday, March 24, 2017

NCAA Tournament Review: Five Stars, Would Dance Again


The lingering image of Northwestern's second NCAA Tournament game will forever be a hand reaching up from below the basket in a swashbuckling act of goaltending, Chris Collins's berserker rage and then series of press conference De Niro faces. 

These are silent film-caliber facial expressions

The controversy, though, followed a spirited second-half comeback after the Wildcats had been completely outclassed to begin the game. The first half started as all analysts had predicted: Northwestern couldn't stop Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, and the Gonzaga defense stifled Northwestern as the Bulldogs brought all of their KenPoms to bear against an overmatched Northwestern team.  Northwestern had managed to keep Gonzaga's enormous center Przmek Karnowski from rampaging against them, although he seemed primed to take over at any time with an array of nineteenth-century weightlifting maneuvers.

Karnowski's landmark case against the NCAA to allow him to wear a 
single-strap basketball jersey enters its fifth year

Northwestern's run had appeared to come to an end. The parade of ridiculous finishes and good feelings that began with Dererk Pardon's game-winning layup, continued through the NCAA selection show broadcast and the twitter feeds of approximately 75% of ESPN's Department of Sports Yelling, and climaxed with an insane and emotional win over Vanderbilt that hinged on an avant-garde dance piece subverting our hidebound, bourgeois notions of late-game fouling situations, finally ran into a top-tier opponent, effortlessly clobbering the Wildcats en route to the Sweet Sixteen. 
But then, as the game deepened into the second half, Gonzaga's lead began to shrink. The threes that bounced off the rim in the first half began going down, Gonzaga possessions ended on bricks and turnovers, Vic Law threw down a putback dunk, and all of a sudden the Wildcats found themselves in striking distance. 
I don't know enough about Gonzaga to know if its fans have developed insane curses and instinctive senses warning of impending catastrophe, but Northwestern's comeback began to take on that feeling. For all of Gonzaga's basketball heroics in the twenty-first century, they could never manage to break through and make a Final Four, and this team, touted as their best yet, and in a seemingly insurmountable position against a team that had spent the past week telling every single media outlet on the face of the Earth that they were happy to be there began to feel pressure. The contorted, grief-ridden face of Adam Morrison began hovering over Spokane. 
You all know what happened next. 
Dererk Pardon rebounded a Bryant McIntosh floater and a Gonzaga player reached through the basket like a reanimated hand bursting forth from a grave. Chris Collins lost his mind and assailed the referees with a series of misguided vertical karate chops, got a technical foul, and saw the Gonzaga lead balloon to seven.

Collins busts out his signature move, the Muppet Ruiner, where he terrorizes toddlers with
the terrible truth about Elmo

The NCAA Tournament is designed for this: for a team to desperately survive a seemingly endless regular season, endure various bracket-related prediction sorceries, play in a conference tournament for which I have yet to determine a point, and then play in a series of high-stakes win or go home games that all end in errant fouls and missed calls and everyone yelling about them for two weeks until one of the four teams that everyone assumed would win the national championship in October wins the championship. How did we live for so many years without this?

WOW, NICE TOURNAMENT DROUGHT, RUTGERS

For decades, the single distinguishing fact about Northwestern's basketball team was that it had not made the NCAA Tournament. Every single announcer at every game mentioned it.  Every year, the newspapers printed the same article about how they hadn't made it, to the point where I speculated that the same article got republished over and over again and years after the original author's death.  Every time the Wildcats gained some momentum, the single overarching question about whether it was The Year seemed to hang in the arena, just short of the Athletic Department hanging an "Is This The Year?" banner after a strong round of non-conference games. 

For Northwestern, One More Year (That's [obscene number] Straight) Without a Bid
By [Change to Guy Who's Alive]

The pressure on the team must have been enormous.  Collins and the Athletic Department leaned into it by adopting the slogan "it's time", a message that for normal people signaled the goal of reaching the Tournament, but to my mind, poisoned by unfathomable wasted hours caring about college sports on the internet, will forever be linked to a video entitled "BigVOLdaddy pisses on kiffin shirt." Collins also adopted the hashtaggable homily "pound the rock" about Northwestern's slow and steady attempt to make the Tournament in contrast to its previous slogan "push the rock up the hill for dozens and dozens of years only to have Jared Sullinger grab it and roll it right down upon you and your loved ones."

The qualification procedure for the NCAA Tournament in the Big Ten remains an arduous and impossible slog.  There are top-tier teams waiting to clobber all opposition, and the seemingly easier games against weaker opponents only provide opportunities for devastating, bracket-killing losses, and it seems like there are fifteen of these games a week. Every time Northwestern stepped up with a big win over a top opponent, the University of Illinois would crawl up from the bottom of the standings to drag Northwestern back to the NIT in a grotesque, carnivalesque parody of the relationship between the Northwestern and Illinois basketball programs. It makes sense that it took an absurd miracle play to finally convince me that they would make it; it wasn't until the Wildcats were in the middle of their 31-0 rampage against Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament that I had fully convinced myself that they were safe, that a tough Rutgers team wouldn't bludgeon them in the tournament and then hack their own computers to add in fictional losses to dental colleges and New York-area improv comedy schools to destroy their own RPI ratings and keep Northwestern out of the tournament, thus preventing the Scarlet Knights from owning the longest power conference tourney drought.

Rutgers AD Patrick Hobbs chugs a beer and announces that Rutgers is 
forfeiting all of its wins out of spite and then puts an incredulous Jim Delany 
in a series of wrestling holds

Northwestern's basketball season came wrapped in novelty.  The quest for the first tournament bid brought out a rare, raucous atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan-- the arena sold out and the team played primarily for home fans.  No one knows whether they'll be able to carry that energy over to the Allstate Arena next season which, as Wikipedia notes "was featured in many music videos, including the 1985 music video 'Big City Nights' by Scorpions" but "has yet to host a Royal Rumble."

Northwestern's success also brought out scandal and backlash.  The entire season played out over a lawsuit by a former player alleging he was forced off the team.  Northwestern's large and loud network of media alums, particularly in sports, took to the airwaves and began going door-to-door yelling at people about the tournament.  CBS's cameras focused so much on Doug Collins and Julia Louis-Dreyfus that I'm not sure that Louis-Dreyfus didn't start closing out Vanderbilt shooters in the second half.  The Wildcats learned that if they want to do the the hire the Duke coach and Duke up the program dance they are going to have to pay the piper.

NORTHWESTERN PLAYED IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT FOR REAL

The excitement and relief of Northwestern's actual qualification for the tournament took the terror out of most of the games.  The team played in actual NCAA tournament games with the patches on the uniforms and everything.  So it didn't bother me much when Vanderbilt fought back from a large deficit and Northwestern needed a complete breakdown of communication between the Vanderbilt coach and player and an unprecedented bonehead foul to win their first game.
When I tap my belt not once, not twice, but thrice, I mean do not foul him under any 
circumstances 

Similarly, the Gonzaga game registers much less rancor than I'd normally attach to an atrocious referee debacle in the biggest game in the history of Northwestern basketball.  It would have been great to see them in the Sweet 16 or even to lose a game that didn't hinge on a terrible call and the coach sealing their fate by going completely berserk and then making hilarious mime faces after the game.  But it's also hard to get upset that the greatest Northwestern team we've ever seen that did the one thing we all wanted them to do while in the midst of a cacophony of news reporters and TV and alumni and ridiculous blogspot.com bloggers that chronicled their every move for months didn't become slightly greater.    

Northwestern sports are in their golden age.  It is a silly golden age, a pinnacle of winning two mid-tier bowl games and qualifying for a 68-team tournament like literally every single major-conference team in the entirety of college sports, but it is also a golden age of throwing off the last vestiges of Northwestern's sports history of unfathomable acts of futility.  It comes with a price-- the vast and obscene monies that Northwestern will spend on athletic facilities in the coming years to compete in the Big Ten that are large enough to quantify by using the word monies, the questions about how Collins runs the program, and the queasy expectations that come with any sort of success.  For now, though, whenever some announcer wants to dig out some grim statistic about some gruesome Northwestern streak, the answer is probably one year. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

UNDFEATED ALL TIME IN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

Every other year, that ludicrous 35-foot Vanderbilt three would have gone in.  Or that last second halfcourt heave would have banked high off the backboard and through in a grotesque parody of Northwestern's tournament-saving pass, and the Wildcats' first-ever NCAA Tournament game would go into the giant pile of gut-wrenching blown leads, buzzer-beaters, complete bamboozlement in the face of a press, or times when the games seemed to end with the court itself snaring Northwestern players and dragging them into underground service areas and zamboni antechambers.  Instead, the Wildcats held on, took advantage of the most delightfully ill-conceived foul in the history of college basketball, and booked themselves into a clash with top-seeded Gonzaga because it is 2017 and Northwestern basketball has become immune to even the most obvious and inopportune Northwesterning situations.

There was no panic in this one.  Even as Vanderbilt rained threes upon the Wildcats and the NBA Jam announcer guy elbowed his way through dozens of security guards to try to seize the mic and scream HE'S ON FIRE at America, the comeback didn't hit the impending Northwestern sports catastrophe area of my brain because they had already made the tournament.  The never-ending and at times impossible attempt for them just to get there had already wrung everything out-- a blown tournament game lead has nothing on sweating out a home win against Rutgers under the ever-watchful eye of the Selection Committee. 

The Wildcats welcomed a national audience of people who had never been subjected to Northwestern sports with a traditional game where nothing makes sense and the play-by-play can be just as easily replaced with maniacal cackling; Northwestern games are not watched much as they happen to people.  In the last minute and a half, the two teams swapped leads half a dozen times.  Dererk Pardon iced clutch free throw after clutch free throw.  Then, just as the Commodores managed to grab another lead and Northwestern prepared to set up the inevitable Bryant McIntosh isolation play, Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis, possibly subliminally programmed by years of Northwestern alums screaming at him about sports through his television and then activated by seeing Doug Collins's face turn a particular strain of magenta, inexplicably lunged at McIntosh and sent him to the line.

This is the most Dorothea Lange sports photo since the miserable woman clutching her child 
bravely in the face of Browns football

What an absolute bummer for Fisher-Davis, who had heroically shot Vanderbilt back into contention and picked the absolute worst time to blunder-- on the first day of the Tournament, in front of a national TV audience, against a school whose alumni are allowed to crash like an army of Kool-Aid men and women through the walls of ESPN studio shows and bloviate about the Wildcats, and in a situation that features the largest percentage of dudes watching the game who are alarmingly eager to explain to a neophyte why actually it is a bad strategy to foul there.

Northwestern fans showed up at the tournament.  A school that has played the vast majority of its home games in front of jeering visiting fans in their variegated Big Ten hoodies managed to take over Salt Lake City's arena with a raucous purple mob.

I can't see the Salt Lake City arena without immediately humming the bridge for Roundball 
Rock and waiting for Marv Albert to futilely ask whether or not Karl Malone would be able to 
come through in the clutch

The Wildcats' reward for their first win in the NCAA tournament is a dragon from the end of the map.  Tournament mainstay Gonzaga has its own tournament burden because the team has repeatedly fallen victim to disappointing tournament exits.  This year, expectations are at their loftiest.  They've only lost a single game the entire season and they've spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation.  Northwestern managed its top rank of 25 for one week where a panicking Associated Press graphics department was unable to locate a Wildcat logo for their poll.  Gonzaga will be heavily favored and motivated to break their own, much more ambitious barrier and qualify for their first Final Four. 

JAY CUTLER AND THE FACES OF SPORTS

There's that scene in Moneyball where all the crusty old scouts are sitting around chewing tobacco and they start evaluating talent based on whether a baseball player is handsome.  This is held up as the acme of Old Scout luddism, old leathery men whose decades spent squatting behind radar guns in the sun and shriveling up in budget hotel rooms can be obliterated at once by knowledge of onbase percentage.  Their methods are primitive, outmoded, and absurd and we're supposed to laugh at them and their inability to number-munch. Who thinks like that anymore?  Every day, as I sit around descending into the muck of sports takes on the internet and occasionally get dumb enough to listen to the angry, nasal men of Chicago sports radio it becomes clearer and clearer that the majority of NFL fans judge quarterback play almost exclusively by their face.

Football fans demand square-jawed quarterbacks.  The steely-eyed guy who can look at the huddle and tell his team they are winning the game and also do the same to issue non-answers about getting caught texting pictures of their penis to people.  Sure there are exceptions, but some-- like the Manning Brothers with their grotesque interception faces and Andrew Luck who looks like a spittle-flecked forest troll-- carried such a high pedigree that they were able to blunt criticism immediately. Otherwise, the freak shows like a bloated, waddling JaMarcus Russell or the Super Mario Koopa Troopa lookalike Jimmy Clausen always lead to fans despising them.

Jimmy Clausen takes questions at Halas Hall 

That is, I think, the central problem with Jay Cutler.  Cutler will go down as the Bears' best quarterback they will likely ever have, which honestly says more about the Bears and their moribund quarterback death-spiral than anything about him.  I don't know if I will ever see a more locally despised athlete and it all comes down to his face. Cutler has a leering, scoffing, face, a mug that is so openly contemptuous of everyone and everything around it that he doesn't even seem to have the energy to bother bullying people.  The most popular and possibly apocryphal story about Cutler is that he dealt with a fawning fan in a bathroom by leaning his head back and braying DOOOOOOOOOOOON'T CARE to the ceiling and for most Bears fans, that is how he spent his time in Chicago, leaning his head back in indifference and urinating more or less continuously for eight years.

Bears fans would have been able to forgive Cutler, or at the least watch him while suppressing the apparently universal human urge to strangle him, if he had managed to lead them to a championship. And there were glimmers!  His greatest run to the 2010 NFC Championship Game ended with an injury.  He spend most of his time dealing with incompetent offensive lines and eventually desiccated defenses.  At the same time, Cutler was never good enough to rise beyond the Bears' general, inbred incompetence enabled by a swarm of coaches, coordinators, and nincompoop front office personnel. He threw a ton of interceptions so profoundly dumb that they seemed spiteful.  It didn't help that the Cutler era paired with the rise of Aaron Rodgers, his opposite in every way, who is so infuriatingly good at playing quarterback that he demands only ten functioning human beings to score a zillion touchdowns.

There have been a ton of really shitty Bears quarterbacks, all of whom were way worse than Cutler but are far more fondly remembered because they were scrappy try-hards.  The irony of Cutler is that he was that way on the field, a guy who threw linebackers around with his throwing shoulder, a guy whose greatest weakness came from trying desperately to squeeze a throw into vanishingly tight windows, a guy who got pummeled more or less continuously to the point where the phrase "nine sacks in the fist half" became a reliable Chicago accent shibboleth, yet remains despised because 99 percent of humans who see a picture of his face immediately want to see him karate kicked in the scrotum.

Cutler was also, beyond his face, probably not a pleasant dude.  He constantly feuded with teammates and coaches (my favorite story was an assistant coach under Trestman anonymously shit all over him in the media and then tearfully apologized-- imagine tearfully apologizing to Jay Cutler).  Maybe if he won enough, all that would be forgiven, the way NFL explains away Tom Brady's infantile flag-begging tantrums or the way the Colts allowed Peyton Manning to summon the energy of the sun and blast it into his teammates' skulls through his gigantic, ray-gathering forehead.

The Bears have a new GM and a new coach and the only reason why they didn't build a catapult and fire Cutler into the lake is because of his onerous contract.  Now, they can finally be rid of him and hop back on the never-ending Treadmill of Bears Quarterback Mediocrity.  At his age, and with the completely barren team around him, there was no point in keeping him around.  But I hope, for the Bears' sake, that my theory of quarterback faces isn't true because look what just rolled into town.


The pre-Moneyball face scouting extends beyond quarterbacks.  Cutler's coach for several seasons was Marc Trestman, a guy who looked at all times like he was desperately sprinting after a bus.  In college sports, there's no better example than Tom Crean, who I am convinced could have wathered another down year at Indiana except that fans could not handle his uncanny valley face and weird and unsettling body postures that make him look like an incompetently programmed video game character.

ZAGGING 

Northwestern is in its golden age of sports.  In a single calendar year, they've won a bowl game and qualified for the NCAA Tournament; these are incredible feats for a school with sports teams unknown except for their prodigious and unfathomable losing streaks.  The Wildcats have even begun to attract a backlash built because sports media alumni have now begun breaking into people's homes and screaming about Northwestern basketball at them in the middle of the night, and the inability of a middle-aged sports reporters to refrain from dropping Seinfeld references.  

Gonzaga will be Northwestern's toughest opponent this season.  They're favored by double-digits and all of the analysts have KenPommed the Wildcats out of the tournament by Saturday night.  But in a year when the Wildcats have already shattered every expectation in the history of the program, why not add in an insane and improbable upset run to the Sweet Sixteen?  After a game when an opponent brutally northwesterned itself in front of a sea of purple, the laws of the universe no longer apply.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

NCAA TOURNAMENT PARTICIPANTS


Just a day before the Gumbel Brother put Northwestern on the bracket, Welsh-Ryan exploded in a paroxysm of basketball-related screaming, and the Sports Media Personalities unleashed their unholy torrent of purple-clad selfies, the Wildcats paid tribute to their basketball heritage by getting absolutely waxed by Wisconsin in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament.  Most years, that kind of game capped off a losing season in the Big Ten, snuffing the tiniest ember of hope for a miracle Big Ten Tournament run to the dance.  This time, it didn't really matter.  Northwestern had already beaten Wisconsin in Madison without Scottie Lindsey.  They had made it further than any other Wildcat team had ever gone in the Big Ten Tournament by shithousing Rutgers with a record 31-0 first-half run and then silencing a rowdy, mother-booing, pro-Maryland D.C. crowd, and they had, by all accounts from even the most eccentric, apostate Bracketologists, qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

They can't stop it now; it was on television

There is no doubt about it now.  Wildcat fans can finally slam that Northwestern button on their internet NCAA brackets.  They can send off a glorious, stone-bleachered Welsh-Ryan Arena into Stadium Valhalla after it finally transformed from an empty house of basketball horrors into a venue capable of drowning out Jim Nantz.  They can surreptitiously watch the Wildcats at work on a Tournament Thursday while nervously toggling the "boss button" link that activates spreadsheets so profoundly fraudulent that they could only work on Kruger Industrial Smoothing-caliber management.

The "boss button" spreadsheets are a perfectly grotesque satire of 
whatever it is people do in offices

Chris Collins referred to the tournament berth as "the beginning of Northwestern basketball." It is not.  There has been more than a century of Northwestern basketball, most of which involved losing. More often than not, Northwestern basketball games meant trekking in subzero temperatures to a home arena full of opposing fans cocksure in their teams' victory and, more often than not, a loss. WGN had a great interview with Vic Law (Law comes on around the 1:45 mark) where he talks about wanting to change the atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan. "When we get good," Law remembers telling a reporter when he first committed, "we're going to blow the roof off the place."  This was a bold prediction about an arena where the Wildcats traditionally played home games only in scare quotes as rival chants echoed through the rafters.  Purdue-Northwestern games traditionally involved Wildcat fans surrounded by train costumes and Gene Keady combovers; whatever Purdue fans came gallivanting into the arena this year got completely drowned out on the television broadcast.

The consignment of Northwestern basketball to a pre-tournament dark age, though, obscures some really good players and teams, some of which could have even gotten to the Tournament if not for a truly beguiling series of separate misfortunes.  Northwestern may have lost games, but fans got to see Davor Duvancic take down Illinois, Michael Jenkins sink Iowa, Tre Demps buzzerbeat upon Michigan, and John Shurna break the scoring record with a jumpshot that could only exist at Northwestern.

Someone hoisted a Shurnahead at the Selection Sunday celebration 
because Shurnaheads should remain a Northwestern tradition even 
far into the future, when Welsh-Ryan is renovated again to have 
automated grape dispensers for high-dollar donors and basketball 
devolves into Bill Laimbeer's prophesied "combat" phase, a yellowed 
Shunahead stands watch over the severed heads of the Big Ten's weakest 
basketball robots

Northwestern could compete with and beat other Big Ten schools in basketball, but it had always felt outside the rest of the college basketball world.  The Carmody era partly fueled this-- almost no other team in the country played like Northwestern with its intricate offense and zone defenses, Carmody sought out international players that arrived with intriguing nicknames like "The Moroccan Michael Jordan," and he unleashed a masked Luka Mirkovic upon the Big Ten.  More than that, though, Northwestern usually hovered nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble with its attendant bracketologies and complaints about seeds and everything else.  The NCAA Tournament sucks up 99% of discussion about college basketball and Northwestern existed in a strange basketball Siberia, only affecting the tournament by occasionally ruining someone's RPI.

There is something that is ludicrous about Northwestern's Selection Sunday gathering. More than a thousand people gathered to celebrate a committee's decision that they were one of the 68 best teams in the country, promised nothing but an extra game-- should Vanderbilt clobber them in the first round, the hullabaloo over their bid would be as ridiculous as a silent film about a dandy dressing up in his finest tails and spats only to walk out his door and get sprayed by carriage puddles.  But more than 1,000 people in Welsh-Ryan didn't care about the sanity of sitting for hours for the chance to scream at a jumbotron showing promos for Kevin Can Wait.  Northwestern came in from the cold.

A HIGHLY TECHNICAL ANALYSIS OF VANDERBILT

The tournament has spoken and, after sending a bunch of Big Ten teams to some extremely Big Ten cities, the Wildcats will meet Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City.  The location is disappointing to Chicago-area fans, but on the other hand, I am pretty sure they could put Northwestern in a regional so remote that it involves a rickety, slat-dropping rope bridge and we'd still be thrilled.

Northwestern will play Vanderbilt, a team that spent much of the season on the bubble because of its fifteen losses.  Their inclusion as a nine seed has stirred some controversy over on the Bracket Justice Internet where fans for whom inclusion in a 68-team tournament is not a once-a-century occurrence squabble about regions and paths and sound exactly like the Tom Hardy character from The Revenant replacing his endless pelt monologues.

MY SEEDS

The two schools have little basketball history-- they've played just five times, last in 1992, and have essentially no basketball animus.  But anyone who can't dredge up some dumb, sports grievance has no place writing a lightly-trafficked blogspot blog, so let's remember that the schools had a nascent football rivalry before Vanderbilt abruptly canceled a home-and-home series in 2013-2014 without warning.  The Chicago Tribune described the cancellation as done in "the coldest possible way--with a letter sent via U.S. mail," a schedule adjustment so callous that it inspired a major metropolitan newspaper to traffic in Dan LaFontaine sentences.  You might not think that this passes muster by even the flimsiest of margins, but as we speak BYCTOM rivalry-mongering intern Tim Beckman is hard at work drafting CANCEL THIS, VANDERBILT! (IN REFERENCE TO YOUR 2013-14 FOOTBALL SCHEDULING) signs to distribute in Salt Lake City but he keeps running out of room.

Vanderbilt's coach Bryce Drew made a name for himself in March Madness by leading Valparaiso on a magical run in 1998 most known for hitting a shot from a full-court pass eerily similar to Northwestern's own play against Michigan.  As his Wikipedia entry says: "Drew secured his place as a Valparaiso, Indiana, celebrity along with popcorn guru Orville Redenbacher."  Like Collins, Drew is the son of a coach, Valparaiso's Homer Drew. Chicagoans, however, may be more familiar with him as a brief member of the post-Jordan Shitty Bulls, where he teamed with Fred Hoiberg in an inadvertent Cradle of College Basketball Coaches.

Drew on the Bulls in the Dragan Tarlac Era

Both teams face a tough path out of the region.  The winner of Thursday's game will like face Gonzaga, lurking in the bracket like a Morrison-haired monster.  Almost no brackets have Northwestern getting past them to the Sweet 16, except for mine, where I will just keep writing down Northwestern's name because they're finally in the dang bracket and absolutely no one can stop me.



Friday, March 3, 2017

THE PASS

There was a risk that it could have all gone disastrously wrong, that Nate Taphorn's overhand, full-court baseball heave could have sailed over Dererk Pardon's outstretched arms into the face of a costumed, bodypainted student and given Michigan the opportunity to win the game with the ball under their basket because that's almost always how these games have ended.  There are few  basketball indignities that Northwestern has not yet experienced until they put in drastic rule changes that turn college basketball into the inevitable future death sport promised by every science fiction movie, which will give Wildcat fans the opportunity to leave disappointed because a Northwestern player accidentally activated the robotic basketball spider that devours key recruits.

Instead, Taphorn threw his pass, Pardon caught it, twisted, and converted a buzzer-beating layup to beat Michigan, win a school-record twenty-first game, and, in all likelihood, qualify for Northwestern's first NCAA Tournament.


The students swarmed the court, Chris Collins ran around like a video game character controlled by a Baby Boomer, Welsh-Ryan exploded, and the entire Chicago area went berzerk for its Big Ten Team including the enormous number of Michigan fans and alumni in the city who were forced to abandon their school and fall under the sway of Northwestern sports because of those billboards on I-94.  No doubt America celebrated as well, spurred on by Northwestern's endless supply of insufferable sports media personalities, with warm feelings for Collins's association with the universally-beloved Duke basketball team.

The win followed a brutal stretch where Northwestern lost nearly every game, squandered leads, ran out of gas, and threatened to turn ESPN's ubiquitous Doug Collins Cam into a horrifying snuff film as he disintegrated before our eyes like the guy who drank from the wrong grail in the Last Crusade.

Northwestern was only days removed from its most painful loss on the road to Indiana.  The Wildcats took a late lead against a spiraling Indiana team in a building full of angry Hoosiers more interested in jeering demented hobbit-coach Tom Crean than stopping Northwestern.  With less than ten seconds left, Northwestern clung to a two-point advantage before Thomas Bryant muscled in a tying layup with a foul.  Bryant's free throw hit the back iron and bounced what seemed to be seven feet in the air before plunging down like a Basketball of Damocles on the Wildcats' tourney hopes.  McIntosh's desperation half-court heave clanged off the rim, a play that was probably less ridiculous and improbable than the actual ending to the Michigan game.

Crean in the process of molting before growing a new layer of pants

Sure, Northwestern has not yet qualified for the tournament.  Nothing is official until the Selection Committee emerges from its cave, flies the bracket by sparrow to Bristol, Connecticut, has an ESPN guy read out out Northwestern, and I immediately start to complain about seeding and how the Selection Committee HAS IT OUT FOR THE WILDCATS DAMMIT even though as a Northwestern fan I don't really understand what any of that means and am just trying to fit in.  Between now and then all sorts of things can happen.  They can cancel the tournament immediately because of excessive Northwestern participation.  They can get locked in the MCI Center during the Big Ten Tournament and watch the tournament start without them while Northwestern State fills in.  They can get in the bus on the way to the first tournament hame and get crushed by a giant Monty Python foot.

Northwestern's greatest men's basketball achievement since the 1930s comes with no guarantees.  All they get is an invitation.  The Wildcats' first tournament appearance could involve them drawing a Final Four-caliber opponent loaded with NBA players that spends the entire game floating above them on air currents and raining baskets from the rafters.  They could draw an obscure mid-major that throttles them.  Northwestern players could fall into a giant pie and collapsing tower of unicycles on the sideline or activate a contraption that plucks Chris Collins from the bench mid-tirade and flings him into a rub-a-dub tub.  No one will mind much because the closest thing we've had to that so far was to take hallucinogens, turn on last year's Holy Cross games, and squint.

Northwestern fans took desert spirit quests that allowed 
themselves to believe, for several hours, that a player 
named Rados Ň†ampion had led the Wildcats to Patriot 
League glory

Northwestern plays Purdue on Sunday on Senior Day in front of a national television audience.  I have no idea if they will flourish, free from the suffocating tournament pressure, or will allow Caleb Swanigan, the Purdue sharpshooters who shot 255 threes in West Layfeyette, and the twelve-foot tall buzzcut guy to once again hammer them while Northwestern fans jubilantly don't care.  Northwestern will be honoring defensive stopper Sanjay Lumpkin, who will allow the first 3,000 fans to barrel into his chest while he draws a charge, and newly-minted hero Nate Taphorn.  Both players remain the last vestiges of the Carmody era, and it's only fitting that they both had crucial roles in getting the team over the hump.

Northwestern will play its final home game at Welsh-Ryan as we know it, just as the arena finally cultivated a genuinely nuts, loud atmosphere.  In previous years, the primary noise in the arena came from Widlcat fans' DE-FENSE cheers overpowered by visiting fans' muttered complaints that Welsh-Ryan was a high school facility.  Next year, the Wildcats will move to the gigantic, empty Allstate Arena to play games in between Whitesnake reunion concerts and Monster Jams.  As anyone who has gone to a DePaul game in recent years can attest, the arena will easily swallow even a sellout Welsh-Ryan crowd and render the games a sea of empty blue seats and Chicago Rush Arena Bowl XX championship banners. The refurbished Welsh-Ryan will have fancier seats and glowing screens and probably won't allow you to be inadvertently bowled over by a visiting team while trying to wait in line for a hotdog, but it's fantastic that Northwestern got to likely clinch their tournament berth in their ridiculous basketball barn instead of the Grave Digger Sedan Cemetery.

Wildcat fans look forward to their season 
at the home of ArenaBowl '88

After decades of broken ankles, dunk victimhood, and general Washington Generalsmanship and even some heart-breaklingly close calls, Northwestern has almost certainly made the tournament on a play so absurd that I still can't quite believe it.  Selection Sunday is March 12, and I'll be watching for the first time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Deadlines

For the past week, the Bulls have sat on a detonator as the potential catalysts for a blockbuster trade that could have blown a dent in the inevitable LeBron James romp to the NBA Finals.  They could have sent Jimmy Butler to Boston for a mix of players and draft picks that everyone decided to start referring to as "assets" awhile back when basketball executives all became spreadsheet-monger MBAs that speak in TED Talk dialects instead of grizzled scouts and former players who based personnel decisions on phrenology.

The Celtics could have used Butler to join scoring dynamo Isaiah Thomas and an armada of interchangeable Glue Guy wing players to try to finally stop a hobbled Cavs team.  The Bulls would then begin to rebuild, fortified by at least one of the Brooklyn Nets draft picks ceded to the Celtics for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett after a vomiting Nate Robinson had heroically vanquished them from the playoffs.  The trade did not take place.  The Bulls were not satisfied with the offer, and Butler will remain a Bull, heroically attempting to drag the carcass of this shambling basketball wreck to the playoffs.

In the end, the Bulls made a trade.  They sent stalwart Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and their 2018 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne. 

I don't know anything about Taj Gibson even though he had been on the Bulls longer than anyone on the team.  Gibson came in off the bench for most of his career, played excellent defense, sank some baseline jumpers, and stayed upright through the endless maelstrom of Bulls bullshit; he was there when John Paxson allegedly throttled Vinny Del Negro, when Rose blew out his knee and then kept returning as a faded, ghoulish specter of himself, when the front office waged an insane war against Tom Thibodeau of such beguiling complexity that it climaxed in accusations of office bugging, when the entire team turned against each other in an elaborate Instagram-fueled civil war, when the Bulls went from an exciting contender to a bizarre wasteland of bricked shots where everyone yells at each other all of the time.  Gibson remained a staid, steady presence, only occasionally breaking out to dunk someone into a coffin and then unhinge his jaw and bellow into the United Center rafters to the approval of a roaring crowd and a roaring Carlos Boozer who spent five years on the Bulls screaming more or less continuously.

This Gibson dunk on Wade from 2011 was 
so vicious that Wade plotted to leave the Heat 
under acrimonious circumstances five years 
later, inexplicably join the Bulls, and begin a 
devious sabotage campaign that only looks 
like a hall-of-famer marooned on a mediocre, 
dysfunctional team coached by a Dairy Queen 
night manager

The trade marks the end of the Doug McDermott Era of Chicago Bulls basketball.  The Bulls gave up an absurd haul of picks to move up and select him even though he had some red flags: poor combine numbers, the inability to play basketball without a t-shirt.   McDermott never justified the price, and played at times like a fringe rotation player; nevertheless he was the Bulls' most important player as Gar Forman seemed to want to remake the team in his image.  They cast McDermott as the solution to their offensive woes under Tom Thibodeau, where the Bulls attempted to move the ball on the air currents generated by Thibodeau's horase hollering.  They fired Thibodeau and brought in Fred Hoiberg to run an Iowa Offense. Everything McDermott did was at least interesting, whether it was inexplicably catching fire to continue the Bulls' hilarious winning streak against the Raptors or defending by chasing opposing shooters down like Clint Eastwood attempting to stop his partner from being shot in a haunting flashback.  We will miss McDermott, who will flourish standing in a corner while four opponents swarm Russell Westbrook while futilely calling for the ball.

The centerpiece of the Bulls-Thunder trade is Cameron Payne.  Payne is only 22, but coming off a broken foot and one of the statistically worst seasons of any NBA player this season. The acquisition of Payne, who joins a bloated backcourt of identically flawed young guards remains a mystery; the Bulls now exist as a mystical, ten-armed guard that cannot shoot with any of them.  Perhaps Payne, a former lottery pick, can flourish outside of the shadow of Russell Westbrook.  Perhaps they favored him because his former college coach Steve Prohm happens to be the man who took Fred Hoiberg's old job at Iowa State, which seems like a dumb theory until you remember that Iowa State now exists as a shadowy Pynchonian institution in the minds of a certain species of internet Bulls fans that keeps popping up in everything surrounding the team until a conspiracy either reveals itself or drives them to madness.

After several letters to Iowa State returned unopened, Stan 
from Glen Ellyn came home to a ransacked apartment. 
The giant, red bird sat on his stained recliner, feet-claws 
propped on the ottoman, smoking a pipe from a tiny hole 
bored into the middle of its fabric teeth. He handed me a 
card. It said "Dr. Splad Halfnelson, Iowa State Department 
of Basketball Conspiracy." "The first thing you need to know 
is that this whole thing is because of the perversity. The 
freaks," he said.

Both Morrow and Lauvergne are expiring contracts and likely have no future with the Bulls or American organized basketball.  Morrow's three point shooting has fallen below 30%, which makes him as effective as a kickboxer coming off a leg amputation.  Lauvergne, a sweet-shooting French big man, has the rebounding and shotblocking prowess of a muzzled Tyrannosaurus.

The trade raises more questions that it answers.  The Bulls currently exist as Jimmy Butler and a scaffolding of declining veterans and young players that seem headed to the Adriatic League without some sort of holy revelation about jumpshooting.  They may eventually decide to deal Butler this summer, sell off any player with some value, and plunge the team into the inevitable morass of basketball misery in hopes of landing another star in the draft. But this trade, and the multifarious draft misses, inept trades, and constant atmosphere of intrigue that surrounds the front office leaves little hope for the future no matter what path they take.

POSSESSED

Russian literature is filled with madmen, half-understood outbursts at receptions, and enigmatic grudges, and that is just the academic literature conventions.  That impression comes from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman's celebration of Russian writers coupled with a memoir of travel to Moscow and Uzbekistan interwoven with digressions on ice palaces and Tolstoy murder conspiracy.    
The largest chunk of the book involves a summer spent in an intense Uzbek-language course in Samarkand.  She has two instructors: a philosophy graduate student who teaches from a Soviet textbook "exclusively through the lens of cotton production: a valuable lesson in monomania" and an Old Uzbek literature professor who disseminated poems, fables, and history.  "Shaking her head sorrowfully, she told me that Genghis Khan did not only ride a bull, but he didn't wear any pants.  She said that God should forgive her for mentioning such things to me, 'but he didn't wear any pants.'"

In another chapter, Batuman travels to Moscow to write an article on the reconstruction of the House of Ice as part of a St. Petersburg's White Days.  Empress Ioannova had ordered the construction of the ice palace in 1740 as part of a festival that would culminate with the forced wedding of two jesters in her court.  Armed guards compelled the couple to spend the night in the frozen palace, dancing and running around in order to stay warm.  The House of Ice featured functioning ice cannons, ice furniture, ice logs in an ice fireplace, and a water-spouting ice elephant, a dedication to ice so elaborate that even Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze character would suggest that they maybe cool it with the ice before sadly realizing that the ice puns had so colonized his thoughts that he had no choice but to surrender to his greatest enemy, room temperature.

Reproduction of the House of Ice in St. Petersburg in 2006.  
Why did the Russian government decide to pay tribute to 
a former monarch's insanely elaborate lark to freeze her 
subjects?  According to Batuman, "[Valery] Gromov, a 
former army management official, and [Svetlana] 
Mikheyeyeva, a former doctor and healthcare manager, 
had conceived of this dream during an international 
management training program in Tokyo in 1999, where 
they ended up stuck in a broken elevator with the chairman 
of the Association of Russian Snow, Ice, and Sand Sculptors."

The Possessed on its surface is a hard sell: come for the exploration of Girardian memetic theory in Dostoevksy and stay for negotiations about artifact captions at an academic Isaac Babel conference, but it all works because Batuman is a wonderful writer and brilliantly funny.  Batuman depicts the academic world of literature as absurd and even grotesque while never dampening her own underlying argument about the resonance and vitality of the books and authors she loves.

DEADLINE TO SELECTION

Northwestern followed a panicky home win against Rutgers with a demoralizing loss to Illinois. The Chicago Tribune consulted some Certified Bracketologists who tell us that they are still ok, that one more win should finally put them in the dang Tournament, that the State Farm Center ceiling has not caved in and brought ruin to the season, but my default setting remains tournament-related panic. Still, there is nothing to do but hope they can beat a reeling Hoosier squad, that all the other bubble teams shamefully collapse on their home courts in front of wailing fans, and that the Wildcats won't be exiled to the NIT or an exotic alternative tournament in an ice palace.        

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Golden Age of Sports Gimmickry

Welsh-Ryan Arena is an ear-splitting thunderdome filled with 8,000 Icaruses flying headlong into the sun.  The Northwestern Wildcats are poised to make the NCAA Tournament and end the streak that follows their every dribble and appears in the night sky over Evanston after "The Northwestern Wildcats Have Never Made The NCAA Tournament" had been carved into the moon on the final Apollo mission.

Northwestern's quest to achieve its finest hour in men's basketball by qualifying for a 68-team tournament appeared to end at the hands of blood-rivals Illinois. The Illini, driven to hatless misery in football, had decided to exact their revenge on Northwestern by taking their historically great basketball program and driving it to the unfathomable depths of being markedly worse than Northwestern and then waiting for the Wildcats' star guard to become ill, beating them in Evanston, and sending them flying back into the bubble and prophesies of basketball doom.

Northwestern's Tournament hopes faded after the Illinois game

Instead, Northwestern rallied to its greatest victory in the modern era, an upset of Wisconsin, without Scottie Lindsey, in the Badgers' impregnable basketball fortress.  The Wildcats' big men neutralized Wisconsin's star Ethan Happ by enmeshing him in double teams, and Bryant McIntosh went off for 25 points.  The game even had a Meaningless Dunk Controversy, with Greg Gard appearing furious because Sanjay Lumpkin went for a cathartic breakaway dunk instead of dribbling out the clock. This type of thing only happens in college sports, which have evolved a late-game etiquette as complex as the rules governing the Court at Versailles and devolve into duels where angry coaches meet with their seconds in deserted fields and do disrespectful handshakes to each other at fifteen paces.

It is possible that Gard was less upset about the dunk than Chris Collins's 
psychotic Rambo Scream calisthenics

The win against Wisconsin erased the creeping desperation that kicked in after the Illinois loss. They got the Signature Win that the selection committee demands like an overbearing wizard in a text-based adventure game.  The bracketmancers and tournament gurus seem to indicate that they've still got an excellent shot to make it, even after a tough home loss to Maryland.  From what I understand, they still need a few more wins to secure their bid. They await the return of Scottie Lindsey and a visit from the a Rutgers team whose main offensive play appears to pouring quicksand onto the court and sinking into it.  The only thing stopping Northwestern from escaping The Drought is to avoid a ludicrous, Northwestern-like collapse.  

NORTHWESTERN'S AGE OF SPORTS GIMMICKS

Northwestern's greatest successes earlier this century relied on any attempt to find a strategic edge. Randy Walker's 2000 football team became one of the first in the Big Ten to embrace the spread offense, and they used to to win a Big Ten championship.  Football analyst Chris Brown called Northwestern's 54-51 victory over Michigan the "most important game in the history of the spread offense" that presaged a revolution of shotgun snaps and zone reads, and flinty quarterbacks darting around all over the place and hucking the ball through the Football Brand schools and their elite guard of hulking linebackers. 

The Wildcats still run a spread offense, but its novelty has been diluted as even the most lumbering midwestern football traditionalists have adopted it.  Still, the 'Cats managed to break their endless streak of bowl losses in part with a satisfyingly gimmicky two quarterback system designed to break the brains of defensive coordinators forced to figure out if Northwestern would run with the passing quarterback while the offense held up placards featuring pictures of a cat-stroking Ernest Blofeld, Professor Moriarty, and one of those comic book villains with a giant head that shows they're good at thinking of diabolical plots, that's why they have a bulbous, pulsing head.

He is the Napoleon of offense. He is a genius, a 
philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain 
of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider 
in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand 
radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each 
of them and that is why he had Trevor Siemian 
slowly clomp over towards the sideline because he 
is the "passing quarterback" and no one will ever see 
it coming

The recent vintages of the football team have reversed course from insane video game offenses desperately attempting to outscore the other team to smashmouth defenses trying to score a point and then run time off the clock.  The ten-win 2015 team clobbered opposing offenses and then spent offensive possessions building an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels and trenches until the game ended.    

At the same time, Northwestern basketball had its own unique system. Bill Carmody brought over the Princeton Offense and a 1-3-1 zone defense.  The Princeton offense was based on patiently probing the perimeter, waiting for a backcut, and taking all 35 seconds of the shot clock while everyone in the arena inched closer to death.  The 2004 team beat Purdue 40-39, and no international agency intervened. Carmody's teams were bizarre and mismatched, and he pulled players from all corners of the globe.  Jitim Young, a do-it-all 6'2" All Big Ten guard, led the team in rebounding.  There was always a 6'8" guy who could shoot. They arrived, as a collection of spindly limbs and plastic facemasks and undersized players at every position with their rumpled coach who looked at all times like he had been sentenced to coach basketball and they won enough games to qualify for the NIT four years in a row and come within about 20 combined seconds of making the Tournament.

Bill Carmody always seemed about three 
seconds away from lighting up a cigarette

The central appeal of these teams was not only that they won, but that they also appeared to be getting away with something.  Carmody and Walker won games partially by bamboozling other staid coaches in the most staid athletic conference. The Big Ten, especially in the early 2000s, was known both in basketball and football for bruising, punishing physicality.  Northwestern didn't merely beat a highly-ranked Michigan team, they used a then-novel offense to beat Lloyd Carr, the gold standard of Big Ten stodgery.  They nearly made the NCAA Tournament behind a jumpshot so ludicrous that it appears to have been designed by Jim Henson.  

This was before Shurna's moved to Spain to play in the 
Licanthropic Basketball League (Liga de Baloncesto 
Licantrópico)

Northwestern fans would take this recent run of relative sports success any way they can-- perhaps the most shocking novelty is that Northwestern teams are winning bowl games and getting to postseason tournaments whether it turns out to be the Elusive NCAA Tournament, the NIT, or the College Basketball Tournament/Underground Splinter Group Chess Boxing Championship that the Athletic Department has refused to participate in despite invitations sent by sparrow in dead of night. But if this marks the end of the teams winning through exotic zone defense or taking powder out of their shorts and blowing it into opponents' eyes, it's worth remembering Northwestern's run as a laboratory of desperate, effective Rube Goldberg strategies.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Historical Gas Prices

Here they come.  The reporters with their feature stories, the announcers with their anecdotes, the Lunardis and the KenPoms and the retinues of seeders and bracketmancers, all bivouacked in Evanston because the Northwestern Wildcats inch ever closer to the NCAA Tournament. 

Before, the fresh-faced, short-straw reporters for ESPNRequiredByContract covering a Northwestern basketball game would wait until up to several seconds of game clock had expired to mention the Wildcats' woeful tourey drought.  Now, they all live in the Chicagoland Metropolitan Area and spring from elevated train platforms and Italian beef wholesalers to proclaim to passersby that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament.
 
Did you know Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament

The Wildcats are 17-4 and rising through a delightfully mediocre Big Ten.  This could be the best Northwestern team in modern history, albeit a history of opponents metaphorically dunking on Northwestern for decades at a time, even in decades where the scandalous dunk shot was banned from college basketball and opposing players had to subject them to vicious layups followed by strongly-worded letters to the college newspaper.  

Northwestern's historical basketball futility means that every single time they do something, the broadcasters need to break out their historical gas prices.  Their latest feat involved downing Ohio State in Columbus for the first time since 1977, as announcers gleefully changed into their disco pants and haircuts.  Ohio State plans to change the historical sign from the site of their Big Ear telescope that previously noted that in 1977, scientists discovered a potential extraterrestrial signal with an unknown origin and also the Buckeyes lost to Northwestern in basketball.

BRACKETOLOGY

Northwestern's unending Sisyphean attempts to qualify for the NCAA tournament always bring to the fore the experts in seeding and strength of schedule and all of the statistical models and bracket hokum that usually serve the purpose of telling us that the Wildcats will not make the tournament. While some teams that always make the tournament seem to cruise through losses to non-conference Washington Generals and tournament-tainting RPI infections like Northwestern most years, they seem unaffected, materializing as a seven seed in a far-flung regional.  On the rare occasions when Northwestern seems poised to qualify, any loss to any team seems to knock them off the bubble, consigned to the dustbin of the NIT.  People who pay attention to and understand NCAA Tournament seeding have logical, iron-clad, and data-supported reasons why this happens, but as a person who wastes enough of my own life immersing myself in dumb sports arcana, I cannot bring myself to learn about this process and get angry over seeding; I prefer to give myself over to the numbers sorcerers and the Selection Committee and watch every Wildcat game in a preventive flinch.

The creation of the latest Mock Bracket

The annual desperate charge towards the NCAA Tournament remains the all-consuming goal for Northwestern basketball despite its meaninglessness.  A recent ESPN article compared the tourney drought to the Cubs' historical win in November, but while the Cubs threw off more than a century of thwarted attempts to become the champions of the entire sport, Northwestern desperately hopes to qualify for a tournament that continually expands to more and more rounds to the point where you or I may actually be in the NCAA Tournament right now and not even know it.  It's not even a conference championship; at best, it represents a Certificate of Basketball Competence, and a way to end the sole defining feature of the program in January and February where the name of the school for all intents and purposes becomes Northwesternwhichhasnevermadethetournament.  

A streak like the Cubs' championship drought tortures Cubs fans but also accumulates folklore and fanciful legends and generational yearning.  Northwestern has accumulated droughts in athletic feats so prosaic that they have no meaning at all to anyone.  They nurtured a bowl loss streak for more than sixty years, even as the number of bowls proliferated to the point where teams can declare bowl eligibility by filling out a notarized form.  Bowl wins have become devalued and instantly forgotten and yet the Wildcats' inability to win one of the crappy bowls they qualified for became an unbearable albatross that inspired nothing other than a plush monkey purchase by Pat Fitzgerald.  Their inability to qualify for the NCAA Tournament even as it keeps doubling in size remains an achievement in and of itself.  Northwestern's loftiest sports goals of winning crappy bowl games and getting to the NCAA Tournament often serve as fireable offenses at other schools.

These modest goals represent the larger goal for Northwestern's programs, which is to exist in the Big Ten as sports teams and not a traveling museum of historical athletic catastrophe. See the team that once lost a bunch of football games and threw the goalposts in a Great Lake.  See the team that has never made the NCAA Tournament.  See the stadium so filled with opposing fans that they have to go to a silent snap count or endure free throw taunts echoing from the rafters of their basketball barn, which the opposing fans taunting Northwestern players find inadequate. There are few things in sports more fun than a historically downtrodden team making its run.  Let's hope we have a reason to watch the first Selection Sunday I would ever care about.

THANK GOODNESS THE BULLS ARE IN THE THROES OF A COMPLETE MELTDOWN

The Per Synergy Sports basketblogging set have argued that the worst place for an NBA team is on a treadmill of mediocrity, where teams have no chance to compete nor have they been shitty enough to be rewarded with a high lottery pick that could blossom into a superstar.  They are wrong.  The best thing an non-contending team could do is to throw off the yoke of basketball decorum and descend into a shit-flinging soap opera of madness. 

Virtually everyone who pays the slightest attention to the National Basketball Association looked at the Bulls adding an aging Dwyane Wade and combustible brick artist Rajon Rondo to a front office that hires an organist to follow Gar Forman and John Paxson around to play foreboding diminished chords and a head coach who looks like he spends the off-season getting swindled in carnival games had the look of a disaster.  Even me, a dullard who knows next to nothing about basketball, described the crowning of the Three Alphas as a nickname that hilariously summed up the exact way that the team was destined to fall apart.

Wednesday night, after the Bulls blew their 400th consecutive loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the entire thing exploded in a glorious cacophony of recriminations.  Wade complained to reporters that his teammates suck.  Jimmy Butler, the Bulls' All-Star who made a miraculous transformation from a role-playing defensive specialist to one of the best players in basketball, agreed with Wade that his teammates suck.  Wade invoked Michelle Obama to complain that his teammates suck.

Rondo, already disgruntled about his descent from major free agent acquisition to a space on Fred Hoiberg's point guard minutes roulette wheel, could not sit on the sidelines without wading in.  That's Rondo's nature.  He appears to have a reputation so toxic that NBA GMs seem to be only interested in acquiring him to put in a sealed train and send to rivals like how Germany sent Lenin to St. Petersburg.  Rondo's innovation in the art of the destructive meltdown involved chastising Wade and Butler through a free verse poem called "My Vets."

(Borat Voice) My Vets

Bulls hero Nate Robinson has been closely monitoring the situation and has put out his own social media postings of angry Wade and Butler quotes with a plea to rejoin the Bulls, where he is only four years removed from his vomit-strewn takedown of the Brooklyn Nets.  I think that the Bulls should bring him in and should conduct all personnel business via Instagram.

So it begins.  Wade and Butler are marching down Madison Street.  Rondo is massing his forces from the East, preparing to siege the Advocare Center.  The rest of the Bulls' crappy players are hiding in Hoffman Estates.  Paxson has retired to his goblet-hurling arena while Fred Hoiberg wanders the country looking for a Blockbuster Video so he can find some inspirational movies to splice into his game film of the Bulls advancing upon each other in testudo formation.  Doug McDermott is having extreme plastic surgery to disguise himself as Creighton's Maurice Watson and claim he has miraculously returned from injury. 

Doug McDermott undergoes a Recreightioning Procedure

Thank goodness the Bulls are rotting, dysfunctional mess.  They enter the doldrums of the NBA season as an unwatchable mediocrity that relies almost entirely on two players to make contested jumpshots.  They will either fade into the late lottery or cling by their fingernails to an eight seed in the putrid east where they will be more or less instantaneously annihilated in the first round.  Fortunately, they have decided not to quietly limp to the finish in a parade of missed 75-foot Mirotic jumpers but to implode into a ridiculous black hole of infighting and social media sniping that has filled the void of spending these months wondering if Derrick Rose is Back.

BASKETBALL IS HAPPENING

Northwestern's glorious run hits its most precarious stretch as it faces Big Ten powers Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  They could continue to hang on or they can make a convincing case for themselves with a major upset.  This team has come back, it has hung with some excellent teams on the road, and it has closed out games at the line and with defense.  The players say they are focusing on one game at a time as required by law, but fans know that every dribble, pass, and shot is weighted with tournament implications.  It's nerve-wracking in the service of a modest achievement, but the best basketball in the Chicago area is happening at Welsh-Ryan while the Bulls destroy themselves through poisoned letters and sword duels.  Maybe this is the year we don't need to bask in the reflected funhouse glory of Bill Carmody.