Well, it still feels pretty damn awesome.
My assertions that it was not The Year (it’s never The Year, after all) to the contrary, Northwestern defied a number of bumps in the road and capitalized on one of the weakest Big Tens in the last two decades to nab its first winning record in the conference since the 1960s.
First, the ‘Cats lost freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas to shoulder surgery. Then, in mid-December, Aaron Falzon, having played in just three games, was lost to the season after knee surgery. This came as the dark cloud of Johnnie Vassar being run off the team but remaining on scholarship gave way to a lawsuit against the NCAA in November.
A Non-Con Made for the Post-Season
But somehow the ‘Cats persisted and made it through an up-and-down non-conference schedule unscathed.
Sure, the loss at Butler was a bummer, but it was only by two points against a Bulldogs club that was a Top 25 team most of the year.
Yeah, the choke-job against Notre Dame in the Garden wasn’t pretty, as Nathan Taphorn threw the ball away late to hand the Irish the win. After December, though, Northwestern stood at the precipice of the Top 25, with no bad losses, good wins over Dayton and Wake Forest, and a neutral court win over then-#22 Texas, which turned out to be pretty awful.
Starting Hot and Holding On
Moving into the Big Ten schedule, Northwestern handled a green Penn State squad before falling to Michigan State and Minnesota in fairly predictable fashion. At this point, I was damn near despondent—here came Tom Izzo and Company just in time to crowd out Northwestern, here was Minnesota to push the ‘Cats down the Big Ten standings, and there were still middling clubs like Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana to reckon with.
So naturally it was time for Northwestern to run off six in a row.
After playing with their food, nearly choking on it, and then finally swallowing it against Nebraska and rutger, the ‘Cats welcomed an Iowa squad that just upset #17 Purdue.
Of course, that meant the ‘Cats picked apart the Hawkeyes to the tune of a 35-point home win.
The biggest factor during this six-game winning streak was the elevated play of Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. One of the duo led the ‘Cats in scoring for five of the six games, as Dererk Pardon patrolled the glass and Bryant McIntosh dropped dimes left and right. Northwestern’s offense was decidedly better when Law got to the line off the dribble (he was 21/23 on FTs over this stretch),
Here Comes the Choke?
Ranked 25th heading into a showdown at Purdue, of course Scottie Lindsey came down with mono. Of course Northwestern lapsed and forgot how to shoot threes. The ‘Cats scuffled down the stretch, then almost lost to moral victory champion rutger.
It came down to Bryant McIntosh trying to take the initiative for the ‘Cats, who desperately needed his leadership. Unfortunately, this often led to BMac forcing shots. When they fell—like in a 9/21 performance at then-#7 wisconsin—the ‘Cats soared. When they didn’t—like that 3/13 night against Maryland—the ‘Cats struggled.
But this isn’t an indictment of McIntosh. The ‘Cats needed this production, and they weren’t getting it from Law, who shot 28% from the field (24 of 86) over the last 9 games. Returning from mono, Lindsey struggled to find his stroke from deep. BMac stepped up and became the leader Northwestern so desperately needed. He practically dragged this team into the postseason, rescuing the ‘Cats with a late three against rutger to stave off a game that caused me (no, I will not assume personal responsibility for my actions) to black out about 30 minutes after its conclusion.
Things still didn’t look good for the ‘Cats, though. Losses to a fucking putrid Illinois and a left-for-dead Indiana meant a home date with Michigan would likely decide whether the ‘Cats would sweat it out on Selection Sunday or be on the comfortable side of the bubble.
Then this happened.
No, you’re going to want to watch that again.
Fine, we’ll show you the video, too.
Holy shit I’m erect.
I don’t know. Where am I in the recap? Let’s call it the Big Ten Tournament.
The ‘Cats used a 31-0 run against rutger—sorry, wait. I don’t think you get the gravity of that—
to all but cement their place in the Dance, as a weak bubble and a relatively spotless resume meant there were few qualms to find with the ‘Cats.
But why not ruin Maryland’s home tournament while they were at it and leave no fucking doubt? Don’t boo JLD, assholes.
Holy shit, we danced.
I wrote about it here. I’m still not sure how it happened, but it did. I don’t have much else. Zach Collins interfered with the shot, it should’ve been a three-point game, I can’t fault Chris Collins for losing his fucking mind, holy shit, I was in Salt Lake City with about 6,000 other people in purple watching Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament. That’s actually a thing that happened.
Did we see this coming?
I was the high man at 18-13 (8-10), while only Thumpasaurus and babaoreally had the ‘Cats over .500 overall on the season.
I was...optimistic, I think this qualifies as?
Then again, I made a deal with my Cubs fan friend that if they get to win the World Series, we get to go Dancing. So stay tuned.
Apparently I am going Homersota on the ‘Cats in 2016-17. Fuck all y’all, we’re going to the NIT.
So yeah. Long story short: no. This was surprising.
So what’s next?
Northwestern adds high-profile recruit Anthony Gaines in 2017 and returns Ivanauskas and Falzon, losing only Mega Efficient Three-Point Shooter Nathan Taphorn and Glue Guy Sanjay Lumpkin. There’ll be a tougher road in 2017-18, if just because the ‘Cats move to Rosemont’s Allstate Arena while Welsh-Ryan is stripped to the studs and made both more modern and a little smaller (7,000 capacity).
While it’s a bummer that Bryant McIntosh’s last year as a Wildcat will be spent away from Evanston, Northwestern returns a maturing front-court of junior C Dererk Pardon and sophomore C Barret Benson, a bevy of talented wings in Law, Lindsey, Falzon, and Ivanauskas, and a set of guards—including Tre Demps heir Isiah Brown—who hopefully will not feel the pressure to do as much next year. Oh, and there will be All-Bro Team and Glue Guy Heir-Apparent Gavin Skelly to...well, occasionally make a weird three and pound his chest after strange and-ones. Stay tuned.
Northwestern plays a pretty underwhelming non-conference tournament (against Texas Tech, Boston College, and La Salle at Mohegan Sun), but the ‘Cats will travel to Oklahoma for the first leg of a two-year home-and-home, play host to a not-terrible St. Peter Peacocks club and local mid-major Valparaiso, continue their series with DePaul, and hopefully grab resume-boosting matchups in the B1G-ACC Challenge (Duuuuuuuke. Do it.) and Gavitt Games (please let a Marquette matchup happen).
Northwestern remains in the running with Iowa State and Gonzaga to pull down New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown. They somehow are still in the Mark Smith Sweepstakes, despite Michigan State and Kentucky throwing their hats in the ring.
After two consecutive seasons of 20 wins, markedly improved recruiting, and a vaguely ambitious non-conference schedule, it’s starting to look like Northwestern can approach the 18-19 win range every year. Jim Phillips still schedules the Mississippi Valley States and UT-Rio Grande Valleys of the world, and a 9-4 non-conference in 2017-18 would be an immense disappointment.
The Big Ten won’t be this shitty forever (hi, Michigan State), and the ‘Cats will lose a few games they won in 2016-17. But hovering around .500 in the Big Ten is slowly becoming an expectation in Evanston, and if that’s coupled with a 10-win non-conference and senior leadership in 2017-18...oh boy.
There are expectations for Northwestern, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Joe Lunardi has them comfortably slotted as a 9-seed in 2018. ESPN has them as an honorable mention in their too-early Top 25, while SI slots them in at 22 and FOX Sports, in a fit of madness, sends the ‘Cats all the way to 19.
People believe in Northwestern now?
People believe in Northwestern now.
What the actual hell.