WASHINGTON — The narrative is a good one that needs no embellishment. Northwestern basketball — one of just five original Division I programs never to make the NCAA Tournament, and the only one from a major conference — is finally on the doorstep of the dance. But where the story of decades of futility finally coming to an end would make for a heartwarming, underdog story for most schools, this is Northwestern, alma mater of a staggeringly high number of journalists both within the sports world and without.
So get ready for the avalanche.
If you don’t already know, here’s just a sampling of names.
ESPN’s J.A. Adande, Kevin Blackistone, Mike Greenberg, Cassidy Hubbarth, Rachel Nichols, Darren Rovell, Adam Schefter and Michael Wilbon. Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine. NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. FOX Sports’s Stewart Mandel. USA Today’s Christine Brennan. And countless others.
You get the point. They’re everywhere, and their stories are coming.
There have already been pieces, tempting fate before the spot is secure. There have been profiles of the recognizable faces of the long-suffering fan base. CBS play-by-play man Jim Nantz has called Northwestern’s impending bid “the story going into the NCAA Tournament.” And certainly, nothing would be more fittingly insane to cap this sports year for the ages — which, remember, started with Villanova’s miraculous championship-winning buzzer beater last April — than a deep Northwestern run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats just have to actually, finally, officially get there first.
While ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) in as a 9 seed, Northwestern ranks just 51st in RPI and 43rd in BPI after finishing sixth in a Big Ten that lacks star power. Our own internal model has the Wildcats as the ninth-to-last team into the field of 68. What seemed like a lock for an at-large bid at the end of January became much more of a question mark, as the team has lost six of its last nine heading into the conference tournament at Verizon Center this week.
Northwestern got something of a cursed gift Wednesday night, as bottom seed Rutgers toppled Ohio State to earn the right to face the Wildcats Thursday in the Big Ten second round. That should be an easy win for Northwestern, though they squeaked past the Scarlet Knights in Evanston less than a month ago. A win certainly puts them into the NCAA Tournament, but a loss would easily be their worst of the season, the fourth in their last five games. Though the Wildcats would, in almost all certainty, remain in the field, might they be relegated to a First Four play-in game?
The university has come close to earning a bid in recent years, winning 18 games in 2012 and 20 last season, but finishing below .500 in conference both times. There was the sense, sitting at 18-4, 7-2 in the Big Ten halfway through conference play, that this year’s team would leave no room for second guesses about which side of the bubble they should fall. But that was before leading scorer Scottie Lindsey came down with mono.
After posting 19 straight double-digit scoring games to open the season, Lindsey has done so just once in the five games since his return, scoring 13 in a loss at Indiana. Third-leading scorer Vic Law, meanwhile, is shooting just 29 percent from the field (12-41) and just 17 percent (3-18) from deep over those same five contests. While sophomore point guard Bryant McIntosh has picked up the slack, averaging nearly 19 points per game over that stretch, the Wildcats will need all three to win any game past Thursday night.
But you might as well get to know this team. Because one thing is certain: Whatever Northwestern’s March fate, it will be written about and discussed ad nauseam until it is sealed.