By Astasia Williams
For the Northwestern men’s basketball team, it had been seven decades of being a bridesmaid. On Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats finally became the bride. March Madness was born in Evanston, Illinois, but the last time Northwestern University was associated with the NCAA Tournament was in 1939 when it hosted the first Final Four on campus at Patten Gym.
Approximately 2,000 fans gathered on Sunday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch 78 years of disappointment come to an end. At around 5 p.m., the Wildcats accomplished the once unthinkable: they were announced as the No. 8 seed in the West region. Northwestern will face No. 9 seed Vanderbilt at approximately 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday in Salt Lake City.
“This is not the endgame,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “To me, this is the beginning of Northwestern basketball. We put ourselves on the national map, and that’s where we plan to stay. So let’s go dance in Salt Lake City.”
From 23 wins and making it to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, there were a lot of historic moments for this one roster to could even comprehend this season.
“This is an experience nobody else has had,” sophomore center Dererk Pardon said. “We just kinda don’t know how to feel right now. I feel like it’s a weight lifted off of everyone shoulders. We were pretty much the first to do anything, which is amazing.”
Although it was a loss, there was one game in the season where Northwestern realized this season would be special.
“It was the Butler game,” coach Chris Collins said. “Even though we lost, it was third game of the year. I knew that was gonna be a game to test where we were at and how good were we.”
The Wildcats fell to Butler 70-68 in Indianapolis after a buzzer beater from Bulldogs freshman Kamar Baldwin. Not only did the game serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country it gave Wildcats players and coaches belief that they could do special things.
“I remember getting on the bus and heading back to Chicago and just saying to myself, ‘We have the chance to be good,’” Collins said.
The next week, the Wildcats went to Brooklyn, New York, for the Legends Classic and symbolically announced their arrival. Gaining a statement win over the Texas Longhorns team and going toe-to-toe with Notre Dame began the thoughts of this being “The Year.” But the road to something great is rarely easy.
The team announced in December that sharpshooting sophomore Aaron Falzon would miss the season following knee surgery. Pardon missed eight games because of a hand injury, and leading scorer Scottie Lindsey went out in the middle of conference play because of illness. But Collins constantly stressed that when you’re trying to do something special, you have to embrace the struggle.
“These guys never quit,” Collins said Sunday. “They stayed tough. They stayed resilient. And at the end of the day, they found a way to win enough. We deserved this. I told them all year long, you get what you deserve. At the end of the year when your whole resume is on the table, you get what you deserve.”
Freshman guard Isiah Brown is familiar to the postseason at the high school level. But coming into Northwestern, he knew he wanted to be a part of something special. While waiting to speak with media at Sunday’s tournament announcement, Brown wore the team bracelet that read “Be Different.”
“Coach Collins has been telling us all year to be different,” Brown said. “It’s great that we get to make history like this because we have worked so hard for this moment.”
Senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin, the Wildcats’ heart and soul, has seen the best and worst times with this program. Lumpkin said he wants this year’s tournament run to be the new standard.
“It’s almost like we’ve been in a movie,” Lumpkin said. “It’s been too perfect. A moment like this, making the NCAA Tournament in Welsh-Ryan and sharing it with the fans, I’ll never forget it.”
Now that the history has been demolished, it’s time to look towards the future. The interesting part of the tournament is teams have the opportunity to face unfamiliar opponents.
Vanderbilt, 19-15 overall (10-8 in SEC), also made NCAA Tournament history by being the first 15-loss at-large selection. According to the RPI, Vanderbilt played the nation’s toughest schedule. The Commodores went on a late-season surge, winning 11 of their last 16 games, which included a three-game sweep of Florida and a lovely win against eventual Big 12 tournament champions Iowa State. They also helped their at-large hopes by reaching the SEC tournament
Junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 ppg) and 7-foot-1 senior forward Luke Kornet (13.2) lead the Commodores in scoring, but four players average in the double figures. Seven players have more than 10 steals for the season. Vanderbilt and Northwestern both average 71 points a game, but the Wildcats allow 65 points a game, three less than the Commodores.
Off the court, the two also share a couple similarities. Both universities average 31-35 ACT scores. They are both the only private institutions in their conference.
“I’ve always wondered what history looks like,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “Now I know.”