USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the NCAA tournament’s West region.
USA TODAY Sports
EVANSTON, Ill. — It’s not that Northwestern isn’t enjoying the attention. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be the warm-and-fuzzy story of the NCAA tournament, the one team that pretty much everyone from California to Carolina was hoping to see get in.
Ultimately, however, Chris Collins wants the Wildcats to be considered serious players come March. Not some cute sideshow.
“This is a great day for our program. A great day for our school. But this isn’t the end game,” Collins said Sunday after Northwestern shed its 78-year, oh-for-the tournament streak. The No. 8-seeded Wildcats play Vanderbilt on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
“To me, today is the beginning of Northwestern basketball,” he added. “Today is the day we put ourselves on the national map, and that’s where we plan to stay.”
This isn’t to diminish the meaning of Northwestern seeing its name in the NCAA bracket for the very first time. The tournament began in 1939, and the Wildcats had been one of just five original Division-I teams that had never played in it.
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Think about that. The tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and 68 in 2011. To still not be able to wiggle into the field even once takes a special kind of futility.
And by special I mean excruciating and sizable.
“A lot of people told me not to come here. A lot of people told me this couldn’t be done,” acknowledged Collins, who is responsible for half of Northwestern’s 20-win seasons — two – in his first four years in Evanston.
You have no shot at winning the NCAA title if you’re not even in the field, so, yes, making their first appearance is huge for the Wildcats. But Collins knows firsthand that a top-notch academic school can have one of the best teams in the country, too, reaching the championship game as a player at Duke and winning the title twice as a member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff.
That’s what he wants at Northwestern, and that means building a program for which a tournament appearance is not a celebration but an expectation, year in and year out.
“For next year, my mentality is not to be a one-hit wonder,” junior forward Gavin Skelly said. “Not being that `one team’ and never do it again. That would be really unfortunate.”
Northwestern and their host of famous alumni are pretty amped about making the NCAA Tourney for the first time.
The first challenge was to change Northwestern’s mindset. To make what had always seemed like something on a bucket list into a tangible goal.
It was little more than a promise Collins’ first few seasons at Northwestern. But as the Wildcats began seeing the results — a 20-win season last year that included a victory against Wisconsin and the first win at Ohio State since 1977 — what had once been the impossible looked more and more attainable.
“I don’t think anyone knows the pain of going through a 10-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Or being counted like an easy win,” said Vic Law, who holds the distinction of being Collins’ first recruit at Northwestern.
“To know you’re now known to be a tough outing and have a real home-court advantage, it’s really uplifting.”
Now the challenge is to build off this foundation, and that requires a pool of talent that, let’s be honest, was never realistic for Northwestern in years past.
But Collins is a master recruiter — c’mon, you really think Coach K is skulking around high school gyms and texting teenagers? No, he’s the closer for those blue chippers — and it’s starting to show at Northwestern.
Law, Bryant McIntosh, Aaron Falzon and Rapolas Ivanauskas were all four-star recruits. Isiah Brown was Washington’s player of the year by both Gatorade and The Associated Press. Jordan Ash and Dererk Pardon both played on state championship teams as seniors.
Anthony Gaines, who committed to Northwestern in the fall, is prized for his versatility and athleticism, and also was on Butler’s wish list.
Northwestern’s success will only make it easier to pitch the school, too. Granted, the lure of being part of the school’s first team to make the NCAA tournament is now off the table. But there are plenty of other milestones still to accomplish.
“Now we’ve got to keep that tradition going,” Skelly said.
Being first is special. So, too, is being built to last.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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