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 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 

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.

1 comment:

Staniel said...

Necessity is the mother of invention and we needed some way to win, I suppose.

Great animated gif, that was perfect.

Not all stodgy midwestern teams have adopted the spread, I think at this point the Hawkeyes just enjoy being different.

Among the vast panoply of references in all of your posts I never once thought I would see a casual throwaway reference to Bloodsport. Well done.