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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Magnificent. From an NU fan of 30+ yrs, you get it on all levels...