Sunday, March 11, 2012

Northwestern has assembled its greatest NIT team ever

Another Selection Sunday has passed and Northwestern is still not in the NCAA tournament. This is a tradition. No Northwestern fan has ever filled out an optimistic NCAA bracket, no camera crew has ever shown the Northwestern team happily leaping about after their name was called, no one has ever been delighted to see the Wildcats sneaking in or upset at a snub. Northwestern's absence from the tournament is a unifying constant throughout human history-- even some plague-speckled, scurvy-ridden peasant painfully scything his way through unending rows of crops, before the invention of the NCAA or basketball or Northwestern or the United States or a heliocentric universe, shared with everyone before and after a world bereft of Wildcat appearances in the Big Dance.

Norwegian painter Christian Krohg depicts Viking explorer Leif
Erikson's journey to North America, where Northwestern will
still not be in the NCAA Tournament

The end of Northwestern's bubble hopes came at the hands of a short-handed Minnesota team with nothing to lose. This loss avenged the 2003 Big Ten Tournament, when a tenth-seeded Northwestern team knocked the Gophers off the bubble. Somewhere, Rick Rickert is laughing through an unruly beard as he splits logs because I'd like to think that Rick Rickert is now living as a nineteenth century lumberjack near the violently contested Canadian border, away from the pressure of professional basketball and safely out of Kevin Garnett's face-punching radius.

The Minnesota game has become emblematic of every crushing Northwestern defeat this decade as the basketball and football teams seem to get closer and closer to winning something only to get flung back by some sort of unseen manifestation of the schools' unrelenting historical futility. This year's basketball team missed making the tournament with ease by a difference of maybe ten total points over the course of the season. And these losses pile up in decidedly modest pursuits. Other teams ruefully recall painful championship losses; Northwestern teams have come up short trying to be the 35th best football team or qualify for a 68-team basketball bracket.

Watching a favorite team lose a significant game always raises some troubling questions about the nature of sports fandom. On the one hand, sharing the teams' triumphs and failures without contributing beyond maybe showing up and yelling is the reason why we bother to care about a team-- there are few opportunities to exult in victory or failure within tidy three hour windows. On the other hand, the performance of the Northwestern basketball team has essentially no effect on anything meaningful in my life other than causing me to question why I actually care that they didn't make some goofy tournament which then causes me to question why I waste time worrying about sports at all which then causes the whole ridiculous edifice of sports fandom to come crashing down around me as I curse the hours thrown away watching men I don't know chase balls around and then I end up kneeling in a pile of accumulated sports apparel screaming towards the heavens at the meaninglessness of everything.

Why did I purchase that Kosuke Fukudome t-shirt jersey?

Some day, a Northwestern team will break through that seemingly impenetrable barrier and hoist up the garish potato-shaped trophy of a godforsaken bowl game, will hear its name called on Selection Sunday, will bask in the glory of achievements so miniscule that most college sports fans accept them sheepishly. It just won't be this year. For the Northwestern Wildcat Basketball men have not finished their toil as they prepare to shake off their disappointment to compete for the ultimate prize in college hoops that is not the one anyone cares about.


This time in recent years, the Wildcats had to scrape and scratch and claw their way into the NIT with crucial Big Ten Tournament wins. They had to watch as their short-lived NCAA tournament hopes fell away into hoping for a group of top-hatted, diamond-caned, NIT bigwigs toyed with them, threatening to end their post-season dreams or leave them to the dust-bin of any number of sub-NIT tournaments and net-ball championships.

"The NIT is prepared to offer you a
home game," the NIT official said,
as he lit his pipe with one hand and
throttled an insolent man-servant
with the other. "What my friends
and I would like to know is what you
are prepared to offer the NIT"

This year, Northwestern's inevitable NIT berth is not a slightly embarrassing triumph, but the result of the most disappointing loss in program history. It is time to put away the NCAA bubble angst and prepare to watch the Wildcats destroy all comers in the NIT. Yes, the continued failure to make it to the NCAA tournament stings, but why not embrace an alternative form of March Madness? The NIT is not a booby prize, but an opportunity to win a post-season tournament and hold the most obnoxious NIT victory celebration ever dreamed up by man which will also be the only NIT championship celebration ever attempted.

For all of the hand-wringing about the NCAA Tourney drought, Northwestern has also never won the NIT. It is not too late for John Shurna to go out without a trophy. It is not too late for Bill Carmody to try to salvage the season. It is not too late for Pat Fitzgerald to get on the horn with his plush monkey man to provide diverting sideline props as the Wildcats attempt to smash a barrier that absolutely no one cares about. Instead, it is time to embrace the NIT for what it is: a legitimate basketball tournament without the shine of the NCAA but also at least not one of those other tournaments that I suspect is cover for an illegal badger-baiting operation. Should Northwestern make it all the way to the Garden, fans should parade that banner down Sheridan Road, mocking all of the other programs that has never won an NIT crown although it is worth mentioning that that is because they were probably good enough to never be in the NIT in the first place.

A Northwestern NIT Championship may even elicit a rare smile from the
perpetually sour-faced Bill Carmody, although according to this simulation a
Carmody smile may render him a grotesque abomination

Northwestern fans can celebrate the fact that they get to see this team at Welsh-Ryan arena one more time and, for the very last time, fill it with a terrifying array of gigantic reproductions of John Shurna's head to intimidate and cow the opposition.

I expect to see Shurna head balloons floating
above Evanston before the opening round of the

And should the 'Cats fail to hoist the NIT hardware, then we should just fake it. No one would ever know.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The NCAA Tournament is a Dumb Tournament for Jerks Anyway

The Northwestern basketball team is close, tantalizingly close, an overly-long fingernail's grip close to the very outer edge of the possibility of making it to the NCAA tournament. Northwestern fans have gone into NCAA Bubble Crisis mode, hanging their faith on RPI numerology and the false bracketology shamans making a living rearranging the names on a bracket like the map of Europe at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Negotiating the status of Fiume and the seed number
of Siena

The Wildcats are on the bubble longer than they've ever been on the bubble and because of this they want you to die. That is hyperbole. There are few things of less overall cosmic significance than which post-season basketball tournament deigns to accept the Northwestern Wildcats because in the long run you will die, and all of humanity will wilt (potentially destroyed at the hands of a race of super-intelligent apes, let's just lay all of our cards on the table), and the sun will eventually explode and destroy the entire galaxy in a brilliant conflagration leaving an eternal void unmoved by the consequences of a goal-bound chest jumper.

Then again, another loss like this past one to Ohio State may cause Bill Carmody to literally explode on the court-- you can just see it now, as he makes that how could this possibly happen to me expression that he makes for an unjust foul call or a careless turnover or a poorly selected shot or (presumably) a spontaneous combustion upon the floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The sound of a whistle causes Bill Carmody to contemplate the
Big Bang, the billions of years it took for simple one-celled
creatures to evolve slowly into plant and animal life and
dinosaurs and mammals and the beginnings of man as a tree
dwelling creature and the thousands of years of mankind
spreading across the globe, creating complex cultures and
civilizations, and his own ancestors that brought him to this
very spot, where he can't believe that Curletti committed a foul
with five fucking seconds left on the shot clock are you kidding me?

This evening's game was yet another close, heart-breaking and possibly bracket-breaking loss for the Wildcats, who I think may yet remain alive. As far as I can tell, a final Big Ten win and a decent showing in the conference tourney may convince some NCAA honcho to look upon the Wildcats and rotate his thumb up. Then again, I will leave the bracket prognostications to others with the patience to follow the hectic NCAA Tournament stock market, shouting frantically into a telephone with every bubble team basket. Come March 11, the only important prediction is whether I foolishly fill out a hundred brackets putting NU in the Final Four or the city of Evanston starts loading up on ticker tape for an NIT championship parade.


The NCAA tournament is designed to use complex formulas, rankings, and no small amount of intrigue to determine an approximation of the 68 best college basketball teams in the country to play each other for our amusement and to swell the coffers of illegal gambling operations. Northwestern has never been one of those teams. Every year, Northwestern fans sit down to watch March Madness like other college basketball fans, dutifully filling out a bracket, cheering on upsets, rooting for the implosion of hated Big Ten rivals, seeing a guy play two or three games and then forming strong opinions on him before the NBA draft, enjoying the spectacle but not really having a horse in the race. It's sort of like being Jewish on Christmas Day.

Northwestern itself is sort of an athletic program on the bubble of college sports. The football team may shed its reputation as the worst in the history of the sport, win some Big Ten games, maybe even a conference championship, but never win a bowl game outside some sepia tinged Rose Bowl during the Truman administration. The basketball team may win some preseason tournament, knock a Big Ten team out of the tourney, make some noise in the NIT, but remain completely irrelevant away from the NCAA promised land. Casual college basketball fans will not get to turn on CBS and hear commentators yammer about the Princeton Offense; a horrified nation will not be exposed to John Shurna's hideously effective jump shot.

John Shuna's shooting form continues to baffle opponents

Making the NCAA tournament gives fans a chance to see the program in the rarefied air of March Madness, a spotlight that eludes the Wildcats no matter how well they do in the NIT or how many times they claw their way to the Pizza City Bowl and command the fleeting attention of people sort of watching the game while they wait for the takeout guy to fetch their order of cheesy bread. Admittedly, this is sort of a stupid thing for college sports fans to get hung up about. Then again, caring about the outcomes of sporting events at any level is pretty stupid to begin with, though understandable considering this country's draconian laws on bear-baiting. Nevertheless, it explains why making the NCAA tournament means far more to Northwestern than any other team in the country, except for maybe fans of Army, St. Francis, William and Mary, The Citadel, the Washington Generals, and every man who has attempted to punch Steven Seagal in a Steven Seagal movie.

No henchperson has ever connected with Seagal's face
in a classic Seagal film, I'm guessing his assailants
punch him in order to give him more time to squint
quizzically an offscreen pun cue card before
breaking their elbows


Northwestern rides into Iowa pushed by the collective angst of desperate fans, a snakebitten coach, and players determined to cement their legacy as the team that brought the 'Cats to the Dance. A loss essentially ends the their already gossamer tourney hopes in front of a taunting Iowa crowd. This will be one of Northwestern's most important games, although let's refrain from calling it that because every time Northwestern has a must-win game, they've managed to fall short by the most painfully narrow of margins.

Shurna's loading up his fine-point pens, his blue books, his TI-83
graphing calculator, maybe a protractor, got a mechanical pencil
with a couple of extra lead inserts, he's going to war

And should the Wildcats falter, should the dream season of snaring an at-large bid and low seed in a basketball tournament that they can't possibly win evaporate in Iowa City, Northwestern fans can at least look forward to wreaking havoc in the NIT. For there is nothing more Northwestern than winning the NIT and hoisting that banner to the rafters of the drafty old Welsh-Ryan Arena, dispatching the also-rans, kings of the afterthought.

If Northwestern does not get into the NCAA tournament this year, Northwestern basketball won't end. There will be another stream of eager Wildcats pursuing that elusive tourney berth next year and the year after until the NCAA tournament no longer exists, or college basketball no longer exists and is replaced by something more exciting like a worldwide university slamball challenge with a 10,000 team tournament that Northwestern fans can desperately hope to make or some sort of sport using genetically modified apes that inadvertently leads to an inevitable ape-led apocalypse. But that is for the future. Northwestern can make the tournament right now, they can fulfill fans' wild hopes of transforming from a historically bad program that has never made the tournament to a historically bad program that has made the tournament once, they can taunt alumni of certain liberal arts colleges and army officers about basketball with impunity. Which is important because I'm pretty sure there's no way Northwestern would not have the world's shittiest slamball team.