In the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament (which remains in my opinion the year’s greatest sporting event), only 5 schools have never heard their name called on Selection Sunday. Virginia’s William and Mary, Army, St. Francis of Pennsylvania, The Citadel, and Northwestern.
Northwestern is the only Power 5 school on that dubious list, but with just five weeks and six days to go before the NCAA picks its field of 68, barring something catastrophic, Northwestern is about to change its history and hear its name called when the bracket is revealed on Sunday night March 12th.
Through 22 games, Northwestern is 18-4 and 7-2 in the Big Ten Conference. The Wildcats are currently in third place in the Big Ten standings and their six game Big Ten winning streak is the first such streak of that length since 1932- 33 when Northwestern won its only Big Ten Championship.
Northwestern University sits smack dab on Lake Michigan in the suburbs of Chicago. It’s an pretty campus with an amazing view of Chicago’s skyline from the edge of campus. It’s academic reputation is well known. The school features one of the top Journalism schools in American, counting among its alums retiring ESPN Broadcaster Brent Musberger. Its enrollment is only about 8,300 students so I imagine getting into Northwestern is a big deal.
As is the case with a lot of high academic institutions, athletic success is sometimes fleeting although the football program has made an appearance in the Rose Bowl in the past and is currently achieving great success. Basketball has been another story however. Many coaches have tried and failed including Tex Winter who invented basketball’s triple post or triangle offense the Chicago Bulls used to win 6 NBA Titles, and Bill Foster who after leading Duke to the NCAA title game in 1977, spent several years trying to take Northwestern to the top of the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament. Foster spent five seasons at Northwestern winning just 54 games while losing 141 and going just 13-113 in the Big Ten, including an 0-18 season in 1990-91. Foster was followed by Ricky Byrdsong who won 15 games in his first season, then won only 5, 9 and 7 his final three seasons. After he was fired from Northwestern, Byrdsong was jogging one morning when he was shot and killed by a white supremacist in a random drive-by shooting. Unfortunately, an all too often occurrence in this country where someone dies a senseless death.
Next up was Kevin O’Neill, the foul mouthed native of Canada who left Tennessee to coach at Northwestern after telling the local media in Knoxville, he’d never leave Tennessee. His departure from Tennessee had less to do with his coaching ability and more to do with his reported “activities” away from the Court. He didn’t make a lot of friends in Knoxville and absolutely no one was immune from his patented profanity laced tirades. One local television news photographer fell asleep during O’Neil’s Tennessee practice one afternoon. O’Neil cursed him out, threw him out of the practice and for the next practice had the managers bring him a pillow. At Northwestern he found little success going 30-56 and 9-39 in the Big Ten, and was gone to a job as an NBA assistant after just three seasons.
Enter Princeton’s Bill Carmody, who brought the Princeton back-door offense to Evanston and he did find some success. In 13 seasons, Carmody went 192-270 and 70-150 in the Big Ten. In a three season span from 2009-10 to 2011-12, Carmody’s teams went 20-14, 20-14 and 19-14. But, after a 13-19 season in 2012-13, Carmody was cut loose and Northwestern seemingly got serious about winning basketball games.
The school hired Duke assistant Chris Collins in 2013. Collins, the son of NBA Legend and long time broadcaster Doug Collins was a native of Northbrook, Illinois in the Chicago suburbs who left Chicago to play and then coach at Duke. As a Duke assistant, he made his name as a recruiter and position coach for the Duke guards that included such standouts as J.J. Reddick and Jay Williams. He often handled the halftime interviews as well as Coach K is much too important for that or at least he thinks he is. After winning just 14 and 15 games in his first two seasons, Collins’ 2015-16 Northwestern team went 20-12. That set the stage for this year’s success. Northwestern’s 4 losses this season are to Butler, Notre Dame, Minnesota and Michigan State, all of whom figure to make the NCAA Tournament. With Sunday’s win over Indiana, Northwestern is heading into the heart of it’s Big Ten schedule with something clearly to play for. If the tournament started this week, Northwestern would be in the NCAA Tournament and Indiana would not. Let that sink in for a minute. Northwestern has never won more than 1 game in the Big Ten Tournament since it was born in 1998 and in the last 30 years Northwestern’s best finish in the Bit Ten Regular season is 5th and over the past ten years they’ve finished 10th or 11th five times.
The Wildcats still have to navigate 9 more Big Ten games including playing Purdue twice, Maryland the league’s best and Wisconsin one time apiece so they are not in the NCAA field yet, but it does appear that the school has made a commitment to basketball. The Wildcats play in the cozy, but ancient Welsh Ryan Arena adjacent to the football stadium just a couple of miles away from campus in the middle of a neighborhood. Welsh Ryan seats only 8,100 and after this season, will be getting a complete $110 million overhaul to include replacing the arena’s wooden bleachers with chair back seats, new locker rooms, hanging scoreboard and office space. Northwestern will lose it’s home court advantage next season as the arena won’t be ready until 2018. The school will play its games away from campus at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, the current home of the DePaul University Blue Demons, who themselves get a new home next year.
Northwestern uses the slogan, “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” and in a City that’s made history in the past year with the Cubs finally turning it into next year, it seems there’s more to be made and the list of schools to never make the NCAA Tournament may just dwindle from 5 to 4 and with 9 of 14 players on their roster either freshmen or sophomores, there may soon come a time where NCAA trips are a regular occurrence.