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.


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.


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.


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.  

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