Just a day before the Gumbel Brother put Northwestern on the bracket, Welsh-Ryan exploded in a paroxysm of basketball-related screaming, and the Sports Media Personalities unleashed their unholy torrent of purple-clad selfies, the Wildcats paid tribute to their basketball heritage by getting absolutely waxed by Wisconsin in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament. Most years, that kind of game capped off a losing season in the Big Ten, snuffing the tiniest ember of hope for a miracle Big Ten Tournament run to the dance. This time, it didn't really matter. Northwestern had already beaten Wisconsin in Madison without Scottie Lindsey. They had made it further than any other Wildcat team had ever gone in the Big Ten Tournament by shithousing Rutgers with a record 31-0 first-half run and then silencing a rowdy, mother-booing, pro-Maryland D.C. crowd, and they had, by all accounts from even the most eccentric, apostate Bracketologists, qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
They can't stop it now; it was on television
There is no doubt about it now. Wildcat fans can finally slam that Northwestern button on their internet NCAA brackets. They can send off a glorious, stone-bleachered Welsh-Ryan Arena into Stadium Valhalla after it finally transformed from an empty house of basketball horrors into a venue capable of drowning out Jim Nantz. They can surreptitiously watch the Wildcats at work on a Tournament Thursday while nervously toggling the "boss button" link that activates spreadsheets so profoundly fraudulent that they could only work on Kruger Industrial Smoothing-caliber management.
The "boss button" spreadsheets are a perfectly grotesque satire of
whatever it is people do in offices
Chris Collins referred to the tournament berth as "the beginning of Northwestern basketball." It is not. There has been more than a century of Northwestern basketball, most of which involved losing. More often than not, Northwestern basketball games meant trekking in subzero temperatures to a home arena full of opposing fans cocksure in their teams' victory and, more often than not, a loss. WGN had a great interview with Vic Law (Law comes on around the 1:45 mark) where he talks about wanting to change the atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan. "When we get good," Law remembers telling a reporter when he first committed, "we're going to blow the roof off the place." This was a bold prediction about an arena where the Wildcats traditionally played home games only in scare quotes as rival chants echoed through the rafters. Purdue-Northwestern games traditionally involved Wildcat fans surrounded by train costumes and Gene Keady combovers; whatever Purdue fans came gallivanting into the arena this year got completely drowned out on the television broadcast.
The consignment of Northwestern basketball to a pre-tournament dark age, though, obscures some really good players and teams, some of which could have even gotten to the Tournament if not for a truly beguiling series of separate misfortunes. Northwestern may have lost games, but fans got to see Davor Duvancic take down Illinois, Michael Jenkins sink Iowa, Tre Demps buzzerbeat upon Michigan, and John Shurna break the scoring record with a jumpshot that could only exist at Northwestern.
Someone hoisted a Shurnahead at the Selection Sunday celebration
because Shurnaheads should remain a Northwestern tradition even
far into the future, when Welsh-Ryan is renovated again to have
automated grape dispensers for high-dollar donors and basketball
devolves into Bill Laimbeer's prophesied "combat" phase, a yellowed
Shunahead stands watch over the severed heads of the Big Ten's weakest
Northwestern could compete with and beat other Big Ten schools in basketball, but it had always felt outside the rest of the college basketball world. The Carmody era partly fueled this-- almost no other team in the country played like Northwestern with its intricate offense and zone defenses, Carmody sought out international players that arrived with intriguing nicknames like "The Moroccan Michael Jordan," and he unleashed a masked Luka Mirkovic upon the Big Ten. More than that, though, Northwestern usually hovered nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble with its attendant bracketologies and complaints about seeds and everything else. The NCAA Tournament sucks up 99% of discussion about college basketball and Northwestern existed in a strange basketball Siberia, only affecting the tournament by occasionally ruining someone's RPI.
There is something that is ludicrous about Northwestern's Selection Sunday gathering. More than a thousand people gathered to celebrate a committee's decision that they were one of the 68 best teams in the country, promised nothing but an extra game-- should Vanderbilt clobber them in the first round, the hullabaloo over their bid would be as ridiculous as a silent film about a dandy dressing up in his finest tails and spats only to walk out his door and get sprayed by carriage puddles. But more than 1,000 people in Welsh-Ryan didn't care about the sanity of sitting for hours for the chance to scream at a jumbotron showing promos for Kevin Can Wait. Northwestern came in from the cold.
A HIGHLY TECHNICAL ANALYSIS OF VANDERBILT
The tournament has spoken and, after sending a bunch of Big Ten teams to some extremely Big Ten cities, the Wildcats will meet Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City. The location is disappointing to Chicago-area fans, but on the other hand, I am pretty sure they could put Northwestern in a regional so remote that it involves a rickety, slat-dropping rope bridge and we'd still be thrilled.
Northwestern will play Vanderbilt, a team that spent much of the season on the bubble because of its fifteen losses. Their inclusion as a nine seed has stirred some controversy over on the Bracket Justice Internet where fans for whom inclusion in a 68-team tournament is not a once-a-century occurrence squabble about regions and paths and sound exactly like the Tom Hardy character from The Revenant replacing his endless pelt monologues.
The two schools have little basketball history-- they've played just five times, last in 1992, and have essentially no basketball animus. But anyone who can't dredge up some dumb, sports grievance has no place writing a lightly-trafficked blogspot blog, so let's remember that the schools had a nascent football rivalry before Vanderbilt abruptly canceled a home-and-home series in 2013-2014 without warning. The Chicago Tribune described the cancellation as done in "the coldest possible way--with a letter sent via U.S. mail," a schedule adjustment so callous that it inspired a major metropolitan newspaper to traffic in Dan LaFontaine sentences. You might not think that this passes muster by even the flimsiest of margins, but as we speak BYCTOM rivalry-mongering intern Tim Beckman is hard at work drafting CANCEL THIS, VANDERBILT! (IN REFERENCE TO YOUR 2013-14 FOOTBALL SCHEDULING) signs to distribute in Salt Lake City but he keeps running out of room.
Vanderbilt's coach Bryce Drew made a name for himself in March Madness by leading Valparaiso on a magical run in 1998 most known for hitting a shot from a full-court pass eerily similar to Northwestern's own play against Michigan. As his Wikipedia entry says: "Drew secured his place as a Valparaiso, Indiana, celebrity along with popcorn guru Orville Redenbacher." Like Collins, Drew is the son of a coach, Valparaiso's Homer Drew. Chicagoans, however, may be more familiar with him as a brief member of the post-Jordan Shitty Bulls, where he teamed with Fred Hoiberg in an inadvertent Cradle of College Basketball Coaches.
Drew on the Bulls in the Dragan Tarlac Era
Both teams face a tough path out of the region. The winner of Thursday's game will like face Gonzaga, lurking in the bracket like a Morrison-haired monster. Almost no brackets have Northwestern getting past them to the Sweet 16, except for mine, where I will just keep writing down Northwestern's name because they're finally in the dang bracket and absolutely no one can stop me.