The futility of Northwestern basketball first really sank in when Bobby Knight, a fractious sort known for throwing chairs, lobbed a compliment the Wildcats’ way.
“If I’m watching this game,” the legendary Indiana coach said, “I’m rooting for Northwestern.”
Easy for him to say. The Wildcats had just fought valiantly against Knight’s Hoosiers in 1994, only to fall short, as most everyone knew they would, extending another losing streak that eventually reached nine games.
Defeat was something that anyone who attended Northwestern would come to grudgingly accept, like Chicago winters that froze your eyelashes. I endured more than my share of both covering the Wildcats in the mid-1990s for the Daily Northwestern, a rite of passage for student journalists that involved watching games, describing the carnage and feeling at least a twinge of regret for not having applied to Michigan.
Northwestern called dibs on bad basketball from its first game, a 34-19 setback against Chicago in 1905. Things never got much better over the next century, 60 consecutive Big Ten Conference road defeats and 13 straight losing seasons among the lowlights.
As you may have heard, Northwestern was the only member of a major conference, and one of five original Division I teams, to never have qualified for the NCAA tournament before this season. The Wildcats had gone 0 for 78 since Oregon won the first NCAA tournament in 1939, all the more pitiful considering Northwestern hosted that first championship game in its long-since-demolished University Gymnasium.
Fans have long wondered why Northwestern couldn’t become the Duke of the Midwest, a private school parlaying winning academics into success on the basketball court. Maybe all it took was nabbing a Duke graduate. Chris Collins has masterfully guided these Wildcats in his first job as a head coach at any level, perhaps too naive to be intimidated by the impossible.
It’s helped that he has a gritty point guard in Bryant McIntosh, who leads the team in scoring, assists and momentum-changing plays, his corner three-pointer sparking a decisive 20-2 run against Maryland in the Big Ten Conference tournament. Center Dererk Pardon caught what might go down as the most famous scoring pass in school history, a full-court inbounds lob that Pardon snagged near the basket and banked in to beat Michigan earlier this month in the game that is widely believed to have clinched his team’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth.
Equally important are wing players Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law, who give Northwestern the length and athleticism that it’s usually lacked to match up with more highly recruited counterparts.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats (23-11) are good but probably incapable of winning more than their NCAA tournament opener against ninth-seeded Vanderbilt (19-15) on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Remember, this is a team that lost to lowly Illinois twice this season.
Plenty of brave souls had tried to lift Northwestern out of mediocrity before Collins. Bill Foster took Duke to a Final Four but went only 54-141 during his seven seasons in Evanston. Tex Winter, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as innovator of the triangle offense, coached the Wildcats for five seasons in the 1970s. His teams never won more than 12 games or finished above seventh place in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats were so lost that Coach Ricky Byrdsong once wandered into the stands during a game against Minnesota in 1994 and high-fived the Golden Gophers mascot, a motivational ploy gone horribly wrong. Even more comical was a few Northwestern players shaving points the following season to ensure they would lose by lopsided margins, something they typically did without trying.
Postseason success has been fleeting, unless you’re a fan of the National Invitation Tournament. The Wildcats have been to that second-tier event seven times, advancing as far as the third round in 2011.
A scribe for the Daily Northwestern (not me) once surmised in print that the Wildcats had about as much chance of making the Final Four as Bart Simpson did of becoming president of the United States. It was true.
The Wildcats’ greatest triumph before this season might have been an overtime victory over Michigan with four-fifths of its Fab Five (Chris Webber was already in the NBA) during the final regular-season game of the 1993-94 season. That nudged the Wildcats over .500 and into the NIT.
Northwestern as a basketball tragedy once became heartbreakingly literal. Byrdsong was fatally shot by a white supremacist while walking with two of his children near their suburban Chicago home in 1999, two years after he had been fired as Wildcats coach.
The perpetually cheerful Byrdsong was so inclusive that he once even made me feel like part of his team, asking if I wanted to run with his players. The question sparked an uneasy silence. It was my first day covering the Wildcats and I felt the need to prove myself to the coach who may or may not have been kidding about having me accompany his team to workouts along the Lakefill, more than a mile away from where we were standing inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“Sure,” I replied, mustering nervous enthusiasm.
For the next 15 minutes, I chugged on the heels of the slowest player, Dewey Williams, looking more than a bit awkward trailing a pack of players in practice shorts and jersey tops while wearing brushed-cotton khaki shorts, leather Top-siders and a green-and-white-striped L.L. Bean polo shirt.
It didn’t hit me until later, but the whole endeavor was the perfect metaphor for Northwestern basketball: a slow, painful slog that led nowhere.
It’s just that sometimes you get to where you’re going when you least expect it. As the T-shirts the Wildcats wore Sunday under their warmups said, it’s time.