Friday, March 24, 2017

NCAA Tournament Review: Five Stars, Would Dance Again

The lingering image of Northwestern's second NCAA Tournament game will forever be a hand reaching up from below the basket in a swashbuckling act of goaltending, Chris Collins's berserker rage and then series of press conference De Niro faces. 

These are silent film-caliber facial expressions

The controversy, though, followed a spirited second-half comeback after the Wildcats had been completely outclassed to begin the game. The first half started as all analysts had predicted: Northwestern couldn't stop Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, and the Gonzaga defense stifled Northwestern as the Bulldogs brought all of their KenPoms to bear against an overmatched Northwestern team.  Northwestern had managed to keep Gonzaga's enormous center Przmek Karnowski from rampaging against them, although he seemed primed to take over at any time with an array of nineteenth-century weightlifting maneuvers.

Karnowski's landmark case against the NCAA to allow him to wear a 
single-strap basketball jersey enters its fifth year

Northwestern's run had appeared to come to an end. The parade of ridiculous finishes and good feelings that began with Dererk Pardon's game-winning layup, continued through the NCAA selection show broadcast and the twitter feeds of approximately 75% of ESPN's Department of Sports Yelling, and climaxed with an insane and emotional win over Vanderbilt that hinged on an avant-garde dance piece subverting our hidebound, bourgeois notions of late-game fouling situations, finally ran into a top-tier opponent, effortlessly clobbering the Wildcats en route to the Sweet Sixteen. 
But then, as the game deepened into the second half, Gonzaga's lead began to shrink. The threes that bounced off the rim in the first half began going down, Gonzaga possessions ended on bricks and turnovers, Vic Law threw down a putback dunk, and all of a sudden the Wildcats found themselves in striking distance. 
I don't know enough about Gonzaga to know if its fans have developed insane curses and instinctive senses warning of impending catastrophe, but Northwestern's comeback began to take on that feeling. For all of Gonzaga's basketball heroics in the twenty-first century, they could never manage to break through and make a Final Four, and this team, touted as their best yet, and in a seemingly insurmountable position against a team that had spent the past week telling every single media outlet on the face of the Earth that they were happy to be there began to feel pressure. The contorted, grief-ridden face of Adam Morrison began hovering over Spokane. 
You all know what happened next. 
Dererk Pardon rebounded a Bryant McIntosh floater and a Gonzaga player reached through the basket like a reanimated hand bursting forth from a grave. Chris Collins lost his mind and assailed the referees with a series of misguided vertical karate chops, got a technical foul, and saw the Gonzaga lead balloon to seven.

Collins busts out his signature move, the Muppet Ruiner, where he terrorizes toddlers with
the terrible truth about Elmo

The NCAA Tournament is designed for this: for a team to desperately survive a seemingly endless regular season, endure various bracket-related prediction sorceries, play in a conference tournament for which I have yet to determine a point, and then play in a series of high-stakes win or go home games that all end in errant fouls and missed calls and everyone yelling about them for two weeks until one of the four teams that everyone assumed would win the national championship in October wins the championship. How did we live for so many years without this?


For decades, the single distinguishing fact about Northwestern's basketball team was that it had not made the NCAA Tournament. Every single announcer at every game mentioned it.  Every year, the newspapers printed the same article about how they hadn't made it, to the point where I speculated that the same article got republished over and over again and years after the original author's death.  Every time the Wildcats gained some momentum, the single overarching question about whether it was The Year seemed to hang in the arena, just short of the Athletic Department hanging an "Is This The Year?" banner after a strong round of non-conference games. 

For Northwestern, One More Year (That's [obscene number] Straight) Without a Bid
By [Change to Guy Who's Alive]

The pressure on the team must have been enormous.  Collins and the Athletic Department leaned into it by adopting the slogan "it's time", a message that for normal people signaled the goal of reaching the Tournament, but to my mind, poisoned by unfathomable wasted hours caring about college sports on the internet, will forever be linked to a video entitled "BigVOLdaddy pisses on kiffin shirt." Collins also adopted the hashtaggable homily "pound the rock" about Northwestern's slow and steady attempt to make the Tournament in contrast to its previous slogan "push the rock up the hill for dozens and dozens of years only to have Jared Sullinger grab it and roll it right down upon you and your loved ones."

The qualification procedure for the NCAA Tournament in the Big Ten remains an arduous and impossible slog.  There are top-tier teams waiting to clobber all opposition, and the seemingly easier games against weaker opponents only provide opportunities for devastating, bracket-killing losses, and it seems like there are fifteen of these games a week. Every time Northwestern stepped up with a big win over a top opponent, the University of Illinois would crawl up from the bottom of the standings to drag Northwestern back to the NIT in a grotesque, carnivalesque parody of the relationship between the Northwestern and Illinois basketball programs. It makes sense that it took an absurd miracle play to finally convince me that they would make it; it wasn't until the Wildcats were in the middle of their 31-0 rampage against Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament that I had fully convinced myself that they were safe, that a tough Rutgers team wouldn't bludgeon them in the tournament and then hack their own computers to add in fictional losses to dental colleges and New York-area improv comedy schools to destroy their own RPI ratings and keep Northwestern out of the tournament, thus preventing the Scarlet Knights from owning the longest power conference tourney drought.

Rutgers AD Patrick Hobbs chugs a beer and announces that Rutgers is 
forfeiting all of its wins out of spite and then puts an incredulous Jim Delany 
in a series of wrestling holds

Northwestern's basketball season came wrapped in novelty.  The quest for the first tournament bid brought out a rare, raucous atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan-- the arena sold out and the team played primarily for home fans.  No one knows whether they'll be able to carry that energy over to the Allstate Arena next season which, as Wikipedia notes "was featured in many music videos, including the 1985 music video 'Big City Nights' by Scorpions" but "has yet to host a Royal Rumble."

Northwestern's success also brought out scandal and backlash.  The entire season played out over a lawsuit by a former player alleging he was forced off the team.  Northwestern's large and loud network of media alums, particularly in sports, took to the airwaves and began going door-to-door yelling at people about the tournament.  CBS's cameras focused so much on Doug Collins and Julia Louis-Dreyfus that I'm not sure that Louis-Dreyfus didn't start closing out Vanderbilt shooters in the second half.  The Wildcats learned that if they want to do the the hire the Duke coach and Duke up the program dance they are going to have to pay the piper.


The excitement and relief of Northwestern's actual qualification for the tournament took the terror out of most of the games.  The team played in actual NCAA tournament games with the patches on the uniforms and everything.  So it didn't bother me much when Vanderbilt fought back from a large deficit and Northwestern needed a complete breakdown of communication between the Vanderbilt coach and player and an unprecedented bonehead foul to win their first game.
When I tap my belt not once, not twice, but thrice, I mean do not foul him under any 

Similarly, the Gonzaga game registers much less rancor than I'd normally attach to an atrocious referee debacle in the biggest game in the history of Northwestern basketball.  It would have been great to see them in the Sweet 16 or even to lose a game that didn't hinge on a terrible call and the coach sealing their fate by going completely berserk and then making hilarious mime faces after the game.  But it's also hard to get upset that the greatest Northwestern team we've ever seen that did the one thing we all wanted them to do while in the midst of a cacophony of news reporters and TV and alumni and ridiculous bloggers that chronicled their every move for months didn't become slightly greater.    

Northwestern sports are in their golden age.  It is a silly golden age, a pinnacle of winning two mid-tier bowl games and qualifying for a 68-team tournament like literally every single major-conference team in the entirety of college sports, but it is also a golden age of throwing off the last vestiges of Northwestern's sports history of unfathomable acts of futility.  It comes with a price-- the vast and obscene monies that Northwestern will spend on athletic facilities in the coming years to compete in the Big Ten that are large enough to quantify by using the word monies, the questions about how Collins runs the program, and the queasy expectations that come with any sort of success.  For now, though, whenever some announcer wants to dig out some grim statistic about some gruesome Northwestern streak, the answer is probably one year. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The pictures and gifs in this post are some of the best ever. The Elmo ruiner ? That's gold jerry!