Thursday, March 1, 2018

The First Disappointing Northwestern Basketball Season

Northwestern has had basketball disappointments-- heartbreakingly close losses to miss the NCAA tournament, falling victim to NIT bracketology, having Big Ten championship celebrations derailed by grim tidings from the League of Nations-- but the Wildcats have never had a disappointing season because most Northwestern seasons were considered successful if they played a regulation game without the opposing team bulldozing the arena into a pile of rubble.

The Wildcats entered the season with all the swagger and confidence of a Defending NCAA Tournament Participant.  The Associated Press, which was so bamboozled by Northwestern's improvement last year that they could not find a Northwestern logo for their website, ranked Northwestern to start the season.  With all but one returning starter, the Wildcats seemed like a decent bet to make the Tournament again, to rack up RPIs and Ken Poms, to continue collecting the ire of college basketball fans who were sick of Michael Wilbon's face.  This marked the first season where the NCAA Tournament did not seem like a distant hope or a ludicrous dream, but something to prepare for, that fans could get one of those giant maps and tiny tanks and the tank-pushing sticks and use it to figure out which games they could win and lose before triumphantly arriving in some regional.

Instead, Northwestern struggled all season and floundered their way out of the NCAA tournament, the NIT, and possibly even one of those disreputable fly-by-nite tournaments that are constantly derailed by disputes about whether there're any rules what say a dog can't play basketball.  The purple 'Cats were stomped into wine by Texas Tech, buzzer-beaten by Georgia Tech, and NBA Jammed by Trae Young.  They barely survived overtime against their two crappy in-state rivals DePaul and Illinois.  The Michigan State game involved them racing to a 27 point lead against the conference champions and then slowly sinking into quicksand for the entire second half, a loss so painful and needlessly cruel that Chris Collins turned into a cartoon character.

Collins gets so upset that he reverts to his original toon form

People following this team have spent all season trying to figure out how the Wildcats fell from an NCAA Tournament team to sweating out losses against the likes of Rutgers and Iowa.  They did lose two players, most notably Sanjay Lumpkin, the anchor of their defense, who allowed the team to ride his chest like a burly chariot through Big Ten frontcourts and into and endless conga line of charges.

The go-to explanation has involved the team's temporary relocation to the All State Arena located far from campus at the end of an O'Hare runway.  This is a satisfying reason because the All State Arena is the sports equivalent of a floating garbage island that should be torn down brick by brick during a brawl between fans of what I imagine as a version of Warrant formed by the drummer and the Warrant formed by the guitarist who in this scenario are suing each other and have formed armies of bellicose supporters that have been tearing up arenas and county fairs for the better part of a decade.  Certain uninformed cretins have maligned the pre-renovation Welsh-Ryan Arena as "an arena where you probably could bet on fighting lizards" or "the lunchroom" but those people are missing the charm of melding into the person next to you in tightly-packed bleachers while sitting close enough to spray pretzel crumbs onto Gene Keady's combover, and I will never like a sports venue more.

Every single time I lose my keys or leave the 
house without some vital item, it is because 
the space it should occupy has been taken over 
by the knowledge from this article that Gene 
Keady spent $600 a week to have Gary Oldman 
Fifth Element Future Hair, and I frankly I deserve it

Or maybe the most reasonable explanation is this:

It would be impossible for Northwestern to recapture the giddy ecstasy from last year's run as the tournament became a possibility and then clinched by an impossible sports movie play at the last possible second.  It is no easy task to continue to make the tournament in the Big Ten, and harder still without being able to ambush opponents who instinctively view Northwestern jerseys as dunk runways.  If Northwestern has fallen from its zenith this season, this same group of players can be celebrated for creating a zenith to fall from.


There is a notion that the zone defense is for cowards, a gimmick for overmatched teams that will be instantly vaporized on the dribble, posted up into the stanchion, and relentlessly bullied.  This is ridiculous; teams at every level run zone defenses..  But when a team switches, like Northwestern did, from a brutal man-to-man scheme that got them to the tournament to a match-up zone, the move reeks of desperation.  For Northwestern fans, though, the zone did not just represent a change in basketball strategy but the aesthetic embrace of Northwestern basketball.

Northwestern basketball under Bill Carmody did not involve strategy but an entire ethos.  Carmody's teams sought to bamboozle opponents with unorthodox basketball: a ponderous Princeton offense that involved doing backcuts at opponents until they just let them have a layup under then-glacial 35-second shot clock; a bizarre 1-3-1 zone defense that looked like a basketball jellyfish as players lunged and undulated in patterns that opponents had not seen before that forced them to pause before rising up and dunking through them.  Carmody basketball hoped to confuse opponents for long enough for Northwestern's less heralded players to get a lead.  "Vince played him as well as he could," Tim Doyle said about his center Vince Scott's matchup against Ohio State's Greg Oden in an article with the astonishing title "Cats can't climb Mount Oden." "But Greg is going to the NBA after this season and Vince is going to be an investment banker" is the unofficial motto of Northwestern basketball.

"Minnesotan Gets So Frustrated He Appears to Punt" (2013)
(original image from Insidenu)

The matchup zone used this season is not as aesthetically pleasing as the 1-3-1 zone, with a destroyer like the National Basketball Association's Reggie Hearn terrorizing unwitting guards at the top, and a masked Luka Mirkovic hovering around the free throw line like the Phantom of the Paint.  That particular combination represents the platonic ideal of Northwestern basketball, as long as it is run in front of an enormous number of screaming Indiana fans in Welsh-Ryan Arena, under a malfunctioning dot scoreboard.  But Collins's zone occasionally produces sublime moments: players dashing around the wing to deny entry passes and stay just in front of players rendered into jabronis foolish enough to drive, frustrated perimeter passing, and the most enjoyable sports sight of all, aggressive pointing.


The Wildcats have limped into the Big Ten tournament without Vic Law or Jordan Ash and without a win since February 6.  They've already said goodbye to the All-State Arena, which is only weeks away from giving itself over to Grave Digger, SkullHammer, Car-Nivore, and the other monster trucks to jam it beyond recognition.

Although I post incessant references to Grave Digger constantly, I have no idea how the scoring system for monster jam actually works and I plan to never find out

The team faced an impossible task of topping one of the most joyful sports experiences I've ever witnessed.  Time did not stop when Pardon hit the layup, the Wildcats did not freeze forever in mid-air when CBS announced they were officially in the Tournament, and the world continued to spin even after Pat Fitzgerald burst into the locker room and baptized the basketball team into his cult of the vigorous first pump

It is strange and almost surreal for a Northwestern basketball season to be disappointing because they did not live up to their preseason top-25 ranking.  The Carmody teams that came close enough to knock on the Tournament door or at least make enough noises for the Committee to check and see if it was the wind provided disappointment and heartbreak, but the expectations were never this high.  Most of the time, it was impossible to be disappointed by a Northwestern basketball team, provided that they did not break any federal laws

Sure, Northwestern did not storm back through the Big Ten and shatter records on the way to the NCAA Tournament.  But this team, with Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and Gavin Skelly who may be playing their final game tonight in the Big Ten Tournament, has already done something I didn't think I'd ever see and changed the entire notion of what is possible for the men's basketball team. 

Until of course, they run the table in the Big Ten Tournament and find their way back to the Dance.  As last year's team proved, anything is possible.

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