Friday, March 3, 2017


There was a risk that it could have all gone disastrously wrong, that Nate Taphorn's overhand, full-court baseball heave could have sailed over Dererk Pardon's outstretched arms into the face of a costumed, bodypainted student and given Michigan the opportunity to win the game with the ball under their basket because that's almost always how these games have ended.  There are few  basketball indignities that Northwestern has not yet experienced until they put in drastic rule changes that turn college basketball into the inevitable future death sport promised by every science fiction movie, which will give Wildcat fans the opportunity to leave disappointed because a Northwestern player accidentally activated the robotic basketball spider that devours key recruits.

Instead, Taphorn threw his pass, Pardon caught it, twisted, and converted a buzzer-beating layup to beat Michigan, win a school-record twenty-first game, and, in all likelihood, qualify for Northwestern's first NCAA Tournament.

The students swarmed the court, Chris Collins ran around like a video game character controlled by a Baby Boomer, Welsh-Ryan exploded, and the entire Chicago area went berzerk for its Big Ten Team including the enormous number of Michigan fans and alumni in the city who were forced to abandon their school and fall under the sway of Northwestern sports because of those billboards on I-94.  No doubt America celebrated as well, spurred on by Northwestern's endless supply of insufferable sports media personalities, with warm feelings for Collins's association with the universally-beloved Duke basketball team.

The win followed a brutal stretch where Northwestern lost nearly every game, squandered leads, ran out of gas, and threatened to turn ESPN's ubiquitous Doug Collins Cam into a horrifying snuff film as he disintegrated before our eyes like the guy who drank from the wrong grail in the Last Crusade.

Northwestern was only days removed from its most painful loss on the road to Indiana.  The Wildcats took a late lead against a spiraling Indiana team in a building full of angry Hoosiers more interested in jeering demented hobbit-coach Tom Crean than stopping Northwestern.  With less than ten seconds left, Northwestern clung to a two-point advantage before Thomas Bryant muscled in a tying layup with a foul.  Bryant's free throw hit the back iron and bounced what seemed to be seven feet in the air before plunging down like a Basketball of Damocles on the Wildcats' tourney hopes.  McIntosh's desperation half-court heave clanged off the rim, a play that was probably less ridiculous and improbable than the actual ending to the Michigan game.

Crean in the process of molting before growing a new layer of pants

Sure, Northwestern has not yet qualified for the tournament.  Nothing is official until the Selection Committee emerges from its cave, flies the bracket by sparrow to Bristol, Connecticut, has an ESPN guy read out out Northwestern, and I immediately start to complain about seeding and how the Selection Committee HAS IT OUT FOR THE WILDCATS DAMMIT even though as a Northwestern fan I don't really understand what any of that means and am just trying to fit in.  Between now and then all sorts of things can happen.  They can cancel the tournament immediately because of excessive Northwestern participation.  They can get locked in the MCI Center during the Big Ten Tournament and watch the tournament start without them while Northwestern State fills in.  They can get in the bus on the way to the first tournament hame and get crushed by a giant Monty Python foot.

Northwestern's greatest men's basketball achievement since the 1930s comes with no guarantees.  All they get is an invitation.  The Wildcats' first tournament appearance could involve them drawing a Final Four-caliber opponent loaded with NBA players that spends the entire game floating above them on air currents and raining baskets from the rafters.  They could draw an obscure mid-major that throttles them.  Northwestern players could fall into a giant pie and collapsing tower of unicycles on the sideline or activate a contraption that plucks Chris Collins from the bench mid-tirade and flings him into a rub-a-dub tub.  No one will mind much because the closest thing we've had to that so far was to take hallucinogens, turn on last year's Holy Cross games, and squint.

Northwestern fans took desert spirit quests that allowed 
themselves to believe, for several hours, that a player 
named Rados Ĺ ampion had led the Wildcats to Patriot 
League glory

Northwestern plays Purdue on Sunday on Senior Day in front of a national television audience.  I have no idea if they will flourish, free from the suffocating tournament pressure, or will allow Caleb Swanigan, the Purdue sharpshooters who shot 255 threes in West Layfeyette, and the twelve-foot tall buzzcut guy to once again hammer them while Northwestern fans jubilantly don't care.  Northwestern will be honoring defensive stopper Sanjay Lumpkin, who will allow the first 3,000 fans to barrel into his chest while he draws a charge, and newly-minted hero Nate Taphorn.  Both players remain the last vestiges of the Carmody era, and it's only fitting that they both had crucial roles in getting the team over the hump.

Northwestern will play its final home game at Welsh-Ryan as we know it, just as the arena finally cultivated a genuinely nuts, loud atmosphere.  In previous years, the primary noise in the arena came from Widlcat fans' DE-FENSE cheers overpowered by visiting fans' muttered complaints that Welsh-Ryan was a high school facility.  Next year, the Wildcats will move to the gigantic, empty Allstate Arena to play games in between Whitesnake reunion concerts and Monster Jams.  As anyone who has gone to a DePaul game in recent years can attest, the arena will easily swallow even a sellout Welsh-Ryan crowd and render the games a sea of empty blue seats and Chicago Rush Arena Bowl XX championship banners. The refurbished Welsh-Ryan will have fancier seats and glowing screens and probably won't allow you to be inadvertently bowled over by a visiting team while trying to wait in line for a hotdog, but it's fantastic that Northwestern got to likely clinch their tournament berth in their ridiculous basketball barn instead of the Grave Digger Sedan Cemetery.

Wildcat fans look forward to their season 
at the home of ArenaBowl '88

After decades of broken ankles, dunk victimhood, and general Washington Generalsmanship and even some heart-breaklingly close calls, Northwestern has almost certainly made the tournament on a play so absurd that I still can't quite believe it.  Selection Sunday is March 12, and I'll be watching for the first time.

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