Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Requiem For The NIT Berth: An Extremely Northwestern Blog Post

There is no more Northwestern basketball.  The Wildcats compiled their greatest regular-season record in school history with twenty wins.  That record, bolstered by a string of non-conference victories against school with programs so woeful that they host workshops on getting dunked on and attempting to stay in a defensive stance while being showered in buckets of glitter, combined with an inability to score major upsets in Big Ten play has left Northwestern out of the NCAA tournament and the NIT.

While watching Northwestern in action on television this year, you may have heard announcers mention that the Wildcat men's team has never appeared in the NCAA tournament.  I've spent many long hours at the university archives researching this and it turns out to be true.  We can look forward to reading the "Northwestern Continues to Have Not Made Tournament" articles in local publications originally written in 1955 by a person who is no longer alive.
The original Northwestern has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament 
article was originally printed next to an ad for teething cigarettes

Northwestern's season has ended.  The school will not play in the CBI, the Vegas 16, nor any other downmarket basketball tournament taking place in a ship's hull or in the background of a Street Fighter video game.  Northwestern will also not form a swing band called Mr. Cat and the Vegas Sixteen to barnstorm across the county fairs and pomade sales conventions.


NIT bracketologists are like hazmat suits or Jeff Goldblum characters in a science fiction movie: you only need them when things have already gone disastrously wrong.  After a tough loss to Michigan on February 24 after leading for most of the game, the path to the NIT was clear: win out and steal a Big Ten tournament game or spend Selection Sunday researching the various Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Dune Buggy Decathlon and College Basketball Tournaments.  Northwestern obliged.  They obliterated Rutgers in front of a packed Welsh-Ryan arena filled with Wildcat fans braying for blood against a team so profoundly hopeless that it was possible for Northwestern fans to bray for blood against them.  They dispatched Penn State and Nebraska.  And they set themselves up against Michigan in a do-or-die struggle for an NIT tournament berth, this is a sentence that can only exist on a Northwestern basketball blog.

The Big Ten Tournament crushes Northwestern.  Northwestern has never won more than one game.  In 2012, when the 'Cats were about as close as they have been to tourney qualification in recent memory, they fell in overtime to Minnesota as a trap door opened in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse and immediately deposited them in the NIT.  This year, an NIT berth itself was potentially on the line; it was not for a chance to shed the weight of an eternity of basketball ineptitude but would at least ease the pain of putting up the school's best record in history only to fail to qualify for the postseason.

They came so close.  Michigan pummeled the Wildcats in the opening minutes, seemingly unable to miss.  But, Northwestern hung around within striking distance.  In the second half, Northwestern came back.  Alex Olah and Tre Demps, playing in what we now know was their final game, bravely battled to subject America to more Northwestern basketball.  Olah drilled a three with 17 seconds left.  Then, with Michigan ahead two in the final seconds, he put up the most memorable shot in his career.
It was not quite enough.  With six-tenths of a second left in overtime, Nathan Taphorn's shot fell short and the Wildcats went home, dejected.  Collins spent much of the end of the game apoplectic at a blatant missed travel.  He accused the officials of favoring Michigan as a sports brand.  Tre Demps fit officiating into the broader spectrum of American injustice:
Tre Demps, who scored 21 points on 8-for-21 shooting and played all 45 minutes, put it more boldly.
Speaking to the Tribune and one other reporter, the fifth-year senior said: "There's this thing called politics. They want the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. That's just the reality. You have to stand up and keep fighting. Eventually this program will get to a place where we get those benefit calls.
"That's the reality of the world we live in, in all aspects ... basketball, economics, race. You can't blame the basketball world because that's the way the world works, period."
I am hesitant to dismiss Collins's insinuations of a vast officiating conspiracy against Northwestern because it is incredibly funny; imagine Jim Delany meeting with a cabal of Big Ten referees in the ancient Society of the Inconsistent Whistle.  It is far more likely that the Wildcats, like all college sports teams, are subject to universally crappy college sports officiating. Northwestern like a target because any win against a decent team involves a tense, close game where missed calls are brought into sharp relief during the games' traditional 35 minute foul and timeout-riddled denouement.  

But let's not delude ourselves, that Michigan guy took like 45 steps are you 
kidding me


Northwestern's big game against Michigan took place in the shadow of Holy Cross's triumph.  The Crusaders, who managed only ten wins the entire season, qualified for the NCAA Tournament with a miracle run through the Patriot League Tournament.  Holy Cross is led by Bill Carmody, fired by Northwestern for failing to bring Northwestern to the Dance.  Carmody had used the Princeton offense and 1-3-1 zone defense to get the 'Cats to four consecutive NIT berths and the edge of the NCAA bubble.  With the same purple and white color scheme, each Holy Cross tournament game is like watching Don Draper's wheel speech, every slide a melancholy backcut or sourfaced Carmody grimace.

It is a small tragedy that Carmody could never get Northwestern into the Tournament because his teams were gleefully odd.  They were, especially in the early years, excruciating to watch, grinding all 35 seconds off the shot clock and scoring fewer points than the football team.  He sent against the Big Ten bizarre squads of mismatched basketball parts: a 6'2" guard that led the team in rebounding, a United Nations of 6'8" guys who could shoot, a lanky scoring machine with a shooting motion modeled on a malfunctioning oil derrick, a guy named "Juice."  Not only did Northwestern often seem like it did not belong in the Big Ten because of a lack of NBA players and behemoth big men, the Carmody teams seemed like they played an entirely different sport, like a handball team that somehow found itself in Assembly Hall.

Moreover, Carmody had the right demeanor.  He coached with the fatalism of a man who, in the back of his mind, realized the Sisyphean futility of Northwestern's quest to qualify for the NCAA tournament.  You half expected him to finish a tirade to a referee by yelling "ah, the hell with it" and then collapse into an easy chair at the end of the bench before realizing it was time to start exhorting the team to backcut again.
Carmody triumphantly brings his "will you just ah dammit" coaching 
style to bear against Lehigh in the Patriot League Tournament 
championship game

Holy Cross's unlikely run to the Tournament coincides with the last vestiges of the Carmody era at Northwestern.  Olah and Demps, who played for Carmody, have finished their Northwestern careers (Sanjay Lumpkin, a Carmody recruit, took a medical redshirt during Carmody's final year and remains on the roster).  Since then, Northwestern has new uniforms, a new court (after flirting with a purple court design that would have turned Welsh-Ryan arena into the site of a Willy Wonka factory disaster), and a new offensive scheme.  The only thing that has not changed is the lack of appearances in the NCAA tournament, a fate that dooms every Northwestern basketball team to an endless cycle of heartbreak regardless of player, coach, scheme, or venue as we all rot away on our bodies unable to watch the 'Cats even crack the bullshit play-in games that we are all pretending are part of the tournament.
 This is a Werner Herzog sentence


The Greatest Rivalry in College Football is heating up.  New Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman wasted no time dispatching Bill Cubit not even a single game into his newly-signed two-year extension.  Cubit never seemed to have the full endorsement of the university; his extension seemed designed to relieve the athletic department of the burden of conducting an actual search.  Interim Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk described the Cubit contract as unlikely to "put a dagger in the heart of the program," a turn of phrase that sounds like it was crafted in a committee meeting by torchlight in a windswept Champaign-area castle.  It invited intrigue.  Sure enough, the only dagger in Illinois's program was quickly embedded in Cubit's back.

Fittingly, Cubit's last act as Illinois coach was to remove a Hat

Cubit's ouster was not the act of a new athletic director feeling his oats, but a designed coup.  Whitman, quickly enough to suggest behind-the-scenes machinations, replaced him with NFL veteran Lovie Smith, late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Smith, whose greatest football accomplishments include taking the Bears to a Super Bowl and unleashing Kyle Orton upon the world, hopes to bring the Illini back to relevance and stem the unrest generated by three years under Tim Beckman's football performance artistry.  More importantly, Smith offers a new chapter in the eternal quest for Lincoln's Hat, the greatest spectacle in amateur athletics.

Josh Whitman heralds Smith as a transformational hire; that is why he broke out the color

Smith will have an enormous impact on the Hat rivalry.  Just think of the three Illini head football coaches from the past nine months on a sliding scale of dignity: Lovie, calmly repeating the "Rex Grossman is our quarterback" mantra in the face of triple-coverage interceptions; Cubit, an avuncular man who probably refers to pancakes as flapjacks; and Tim Beckman, who has spent the last four months trying to get his head freed from a stairway railing.  Smith also represents a direct shot at Northwestern's undisputed claim as Chicago's Big Ten Team by bringing in a successful and respected coach from a team that people in Chicago actually care about.  The last time the Illini hired a former Bears coach, Ron Turner led them to a Big Ten championship. No matter what Illinois does, though, Northwestern has an unstoppable plan to maintain its reign as Chicago's Big Ten team by continuing to buy those billboards.

The Smith signing has redefined the rivalry.  Lovie Smith will never be able to top the operatic heights of the Beck Man era.  I like Smith and enjoyed his time with the Bears.  I want to see the man succeed despite the instinctive need to protect the Hat at all costs.  With Smith in charge, the Beckman era will retreat further into memory.  Though it has somehow been less than a year since the Beck Man stalked the sidelines, he already seems like a surreal collective delusion-- it seems almost impossible that an unhinged, incompetent maniac who dedicated himself to destroying an equally moribund program with the zeal of a parody comic book villain undone by a refusal to believe in hamstring injuries actually existed.  The only threat to Smith is the possibility that the Hat exudes some sort of power over Illinois coaches causing them to go insane like the Treasure of Sierra Madre until he succumbs to his hat-greed and incurs a sideline penalty.

The most indelible image of the Treasure of Sierra Madre is a gold-crazed 
Bogart referring to everyone as "mugs"

Lovie Smith is great coach and an encouraging hire for the embattled Illini.  I hope he can bring Illinois out of program's malaise brought about by turmoil and literally allowing Tim Beckman to be in charge of things for an extended period of time.  But that does not change anything.  The stakes for the Hat remain the highest in college football and Smith will discover that on Big Ten Network regional action.

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