EVANSTON, Ill. – There is a roar coming from Northwestern’s house. It sounds like ... history.
This is Sunday night, and the Wildcats carry a 17-4 record into the Indiana game – their best start ever – edging steadily closer to going where no Northwestern team has gone. Selection Sunday will inspire smiles from sea to shining sea, but nobody – absolutely nobody – will be giddier than they, if their name gets called.Everyone knows why, of course. The NCAA tournament has gone on for 78 years and included 317 teams. From Kansas and Kentucky and North Carolina, to Lebanon Valley and Tufts and Williams.
But never Northwestern.
Just down the road, DePaul has gone 22 times. Loyola won a national championship. The other 13 Big Ten teams have made a combined 291 appearances.
But not one for Northwestern.
The first NCAA title was decided in an old gym on campus in 1939. The 1956 Final Four was played in the same Welsh-Ryan Arena—it was called McGaw Hall then—the Wildcats still call home. San Francisco became the first unbeaten national champion, and Bill Russell played his final college game. Lots of NCAA tournament history around here.
But none of it belongs to Northwestern.
“Every March, there’s this great party,” long-time Wildcats radio broadcaster Dave Eanet said. “And they never get invited.”
But maybe – at long, long, long last – it’s time.
Or as junior guard Bryant McIntosh will say when this night is over, “That’s the fun part, going in each and every day and understanding what everyone thinks of this program and kind of allowing that to be a little bit of fire in our bellies. It stokes us right there [pointing to his stomach]. We have to be different. This isn’t the same Northwestern.”
Let us wander around on this Sunday night, then, to see what the new Northwestern looks and sounds like.
The student section
Ninety minutes before the game, a kid in the front row of section 116 is wearing a purple Phantom of the Opera mask and cape. An hour later, students will pack both ends and never sit down. It wasn’t always that way.
“There’s a long history here, and it doesn’t include a tournament,” Jake Schaefer, the senior Phantom, said. “To be a student the year it could be The year – capital T—I think that’s pretty cool.”
If this were March, the Wildcats would be in. But it’s not March. Things can happen. Northwestern started 15-3 last season, then went 5-9.
“There’s always sort of a Northwestern curse kind of feel on campus. Just knock on wood and enjoy the ride,” Schaefer said.
But about that purple Phantom mask.
“It’s hard to explain it.”
Steve Wilson saw his first game here in 1966 as a student. Northwestern pushed mighty Kentucky to the wire before losing, 118-116.
“I thought, man, this is really going to be something. I’m going to get to see basketball like this,” he said. “Little did I know that was kind of the high point.”
The Wildcats would have 37 losing seasons in the half-century since. The last winning record in the Big Ten was 1968. There have only been two All-American players since 1967—but 56 academic all-Big Ten players in the 21st century. This is, after all, Northwestern.
Through all that, Wilson has been coming to games 51 years.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have worked really hard here for a lot of years to try to get us to the next level. We’ve been close… When [athletic department head] Jim Phillips brought Chris Collins in [as coach], it was a sign to me we were committed to building a program.”
Wilson has no doubt Northwestern is NCAA tournament-quality. But still, the past is not to be teased.
“Chris said we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I just had someone ask me to predict how many wins we’re going to have this year. I didn’t do it. My goal is for us to beat Indiana.”
The radio man
“There’s been a few times we’ve had a pretty good team, but they weren’t quite good enough. I think there’s a general feeling after watching this team for 21 games, this team is good enough,” Eanet said. “It’s the payoff for a lot of patience that people have shown around here.”
Eanet has been calling games for more than two decades, long enough to see March dreams come and go, along with the coaches.
“It’s all these guys have heard about. It’s all Chris heard about when he took the job. It’s all Bill Carmody heard about for 13 years. On and on, this is how it’s been here. For fans, yes finally maybe this is it, though I think everybody is cautiously optimistic because you know what can happen.”
Wrigley Field is nine miles away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. Could fate really have that plotline in mind? Two neighboring symbols of nationally-known futility, whose ships come in together?
At the first TV timeout, several members of the Cubs front office are introduced. They have brought a little something to show the crowd. They hold up the World Series trophy. The students sing “Go Cubs Go.” Karma, indeed.
Collins played and coached at Duke before getting this job and can’t help but notice the similarities with his old workplace, Cameron Indoor Stadium. Intimate—at just over 8,000—and intimidating when the crowd is juiced. That was never a problem at Duke. Here, the issue sometimes has been not a full house but half the crowd was for the other team.
“I think now in the gym it’s all purple,” junior forward Vic Law said. “It just feels so good to feel like you really have a true and tough home-court advantage. Even though we don’t have 20,000 people in the stands, all of them are right on top of you, and they’re all yelling and screaming.”
Northwestern has a bad shooting night but finishes off the injury-ravaged Hoosiers with defense. Make that record 18-4. McIntosh, who went to high school 67 miles from the Indiana campus and yearned to be recruited by the Hoosiers – but wasn’t – scores 21 points against the program that never called. He holds no grudge, or says he doesn’t, anyway.
“I’m happy with where I’m at. We’ve done something really special here.”
Defense, hard work on the boards, just enough offense, the savvy of four starters in at least their third seasons. That is how Northwestern gets it done, this night and often.
“There’s things we have to get better at,” McIntosh said. “We have to get a little bit tougher. We feel we are really good, but we can be even better, which I think is scary.”
Collins—who grew up near here when his father and former NBA player and coach Doug Collins worked in Chicago—arrived four years ago with the dream of taking Northwestern basketball to a different place. Now he has a new challenge: trying to manage the suddenly hyper-inflated expectations of the masses and keep his team at a steady one-game-at-a-time trot. February hasn’t even started yet.
“You cannot take your foot off the gas pedal. You have to stay with what’s going on right in front of you,” he said. “March is forever away in my opinion. So to me, it’s irrelevant to be talking about it.”
Yeah, well, good luck on that one.
“I worry about it every second. As a coach you’re always worried. What could derail what you’ve got going good? It’s a fine line because I love that people are taking notice of what these guys are doing. I’m very proud of the success so far and team that we’ve started to become. The moment you let the outside chatter and the noise ... if you soften up the littlest bit, you get crashed down to reality really quick in this conference. Every day we talk about the present. We don’t talk about anything else. We try to find motivation in each game. These guys want to accomplish things that haven’t been done.”
Yeah, we noticed.
Beat Ohio State in Columbus for the first time in 40 years.
Started 7-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1938.
Won six consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 1933.
Collins can trace this blossoming to a maturing mentality, which he started to notice in the summer.
“There was kind of a swagger to the guys I could sense. They felt good about where we were. They felt we had enough. I started to see us be boys starting to become young men, which is a good thing for a coach.”
That translated to a better commitment to the gritty stuff. Defense, for instance.
“We try to be tough-minded, we try to make teams take tough shots. We’re not the biggest team, but our guys battle. They’ve really embraced that to be good, you’ve got to play good defense. It’s what they’ve done. It’s nothing I’ve done.”
Which led to more confidence at crunch time. Two years ago, the then-young Wildcats blew up late in a game at Maryland, undone by the perils of the road. Flash forward to this January, when they started 4-1 on the road in the Big Ten, including one that had to be saved at Ohio State.
“They believed they were supposed to win the Ohio State game. They didn’t believe they were supposed to win the Maryland game. They were just holding on for dear life. That’s a mindset and that’s something you have to develop through experience, through time, through success. I think our guys are walking onto the floor now believing we’re supposed to win, and that’s a big jump from where we’ve been in the past.”
Add all that together, and you get an aroused audience. No more Mr. Nice Guy to visiting teams.
“The fact now that our crowds are becoming a factor is something I envisioned when I came here. I knew this could be a great place to play. My last high school game was in here and it was packed. That lived with me forever.”
This is Sanjay Lumpkin’s fifth year on campus.
“I’ve been through a lot with this program. I’m just cherishing everything, every moment.”
He has listened to Collins’ mantra on not thinking ahead and speaks like the team captain he is.
“Obviously the NCAA tournament’s in the back of everyone’s head. That’s something that looms over this campus. But as a team, one game at a time is all we have to think about. Have clear minds and think of the next opponent. We just can’t lose focus. We just want to be different. We have an opportunity to keep making history.”
A native of the land of “Hoosiers,” McIntosh is well-versed in basketball fairy tales. Now he might be in the middle of his own. If only they can stay the course. The regular season still calls for arduous visits to Purdue and Wisconsin and Maryland and Purdue at home. Northwestern will need to make a strong closing argument, one test at a time.
“Really trying to check all the boxes,” Law called it.
“We know really well it can go as fast as it came,” McIntosh said to the post-game media. “At the end of the day, there’s only two stories that you guys are going to write about us, and we understand that. We’ll either do something special and be different, or we’ll be like every other Northwestern team. It’s an easy job for you guys and it’s a fun job for us, to change the culture. That’s the end of the story and for us, it’s going to be really special when we do it.”
Notice he said “when,” and not “if.” Behold, the new Northwestern.