At its core, being a diehard sports fan is a game of give and take. Most of the time, your team will fail in its ultimate objective, whether it’s to win a championship, win a playoff game or even just make the postseason. As much as you enjoy the ride, you know the end is a freefall off a cliff, followed immediately by an offseason where hope and “Wait ‘Till Next Year” springs eternal.
You do this because every once in a while, you get rewarded for living and dying with every touchdown or ninth-inning rally or six-overtime classic. Your team gets over the hump and achieves its goal, and the euphoria of that success makes every heartbreaking loss worth it.
But some tragic fan bases have wandered in search of sports Canaan for 40 years and then some without success. Like the Cubs or Vikings or Red Sox pre-2004, the fan experience is hardened over time by soul-crushing loss after soul-crushing loss. Resignation becomes your primary emotion, followed closely by dread if your team happens to be doing well because you KNOW it can’t last. And when you do allow yourself to hope, your team falls agonizingly short and you kick yourself for caring, only to be glued to the TV the next week begging for a miracle once again. It’s like an addiction, only without the euphoric high.
That’s what it’s like to be a Northwestern fan.
For fans who want to avoid a masochistic look back at NU’s failures and just focus on today’s game, scroll down seven paragraphs. I’ll wait.
No? Glutton for punishment? Read on.
Since the advent of the NCAA tournament in 1939, 2,804 squads have made the Big Dance. Many of these school were of course repeat customers, but all told more than 200 different teams have been a part of March Madness. That figure includes all the schools in the six “power conferences” — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12. All but one. Poor Northwestern.
The closest my alma mater came to the tournament was that first Big Dance in ’39, when the Final Four was played in Patten Gymnasium on the north part of the NU campus. Students and alums know how insane that sounds — at this point the gym is more for fratstars showing off their “skills” and fencing hopefuls perfecting their epee technique. But the new tournament was obscure enough then to be played at Patten, where Oregon knocked off Ohio State 46-33 to claim the first March Madness title.
Except for a brief stretch in the late 50s, NU was a below-average team with little hope of making the Dance until the last few years. The Wildcats have posted a sub-.500 Big Ten record in 43 of the last 44 years — there’s not much to say beyond that. The one season they scraped out an 8-8 conference mark was 2003-04, when they still finished with a 14-15 record overall.
Recently, though, the work of longtime coach Bill Carmody and (more importantly) the recruiting of assistant coach Tavaras Hardy has propelled NU to the doorstep of March Madness. In the three seasons before this one, NU went 41-12 at home and made the National Invitational Tournament (the de facto consolation bracket for Big Dance wallflowers) each year.
But in typical NU fashion, the 12 losses were as memorable as the 41 wins. Like Feb. 12, 2009, when the Cats held a 57-43 lead over archrival Illinois with five minutes left only to choke down the stretch and lose 60-59 (I was in the stands that night and I cannot adequately describe how demoralizing that loss was). Some losses were just deflating from the start, like an 81-70 loss to mediocre Penn State on Feb. 17, 2010, in a game NU had to win. Last year, the Cats twice had No. 1 Ohio State on the ropes, only to fall 58-57 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and 67-61 in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament.
This year the Cardiac (Arrest) Cats have outdone themselves. Two overtime losses to Michigan, one a come-from-ahead heartbreaker at home. A frantic comeback against the No. 11 Buckeyes that featured this game-tying three-pointer, only to lose seven seconds later. A one-point loss vs. Illinois, a two-point loss vs. Purdue, a five-point loss at Indiana…OK, enough masochism.
Despite going just 3-6 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime, NU has somehow dragged itself to the brink of the NCAA tournament, closer than it’s ever been. Sure, they’ve been buoyed by a weak conference (only six tournament locks) and an expanded field of 68 teams that could be just big enough for the Cats. But they also beat then-No. 7 Michigan State and fellow bubble team Seton Hall, and they have no losses to teams outside the top 100 in RPI.
That brings us to today’s Big Ten tourney first round game against lowly Minnesota. According to the bracketologists, it’s “win and you’re in” barring a slew of upstarts winning their conference tournaments. And though the Cats got pasted 75-52 by the Gophers in January, they beat them comfortably on their home floor in February, a 64-53 win that kept NU’s tourney hopes alive.
NU can (and should) win this game on the backs of John Shurna, Drew Crawford and timely three-point shooting. Shurna, NU’s all-time leading scorer, averaged 19.5 points in the two games against Minnesota, in tune with his season average of 19.8. Crawford, meanwhile, will have to play better against the Gophers after scoring just 16 points total in the two regular-season games.
The contest could come down to the play of freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski. In NU’s win over Minnesota, Sobolewski had a team-best 22 points, one off his season high. In the January loss to Minnesota, he failed to score at all.
According to the sports betting site vegasinsider.com, NU is a 2.5-point favorite in today’s game, and therefore has a better than 50% chance of actually making the NCAA tournament. And you know what? This time, the pundits are right. I don’t care about the repeated heartbreak and trauma and sadness that has come with allowing myself to hope in the past. Screw it.
NU is winning this game, and it is making the Big Dance. Believe it.