Although every time the Wildcats begin knocking on the NCAA tournament door it feels like the first time they’ve ever done so, they’ve actually done this quite a lot lately.
There was the 1998-99 team, which was 14-6 overall and had wins over No. 14 Purdue and No. 17 Minnesota before it dropped seven of its last eight games. There was the 2001-02 squad which was 16-9 overall, 7-6 in the Big Ten before losing its four remaining games. The 2003-04 team was 11-11 with two wins over ranked foes and lost four of its last seven.
Then, there are Northwestern’s last three teams, which won enough to reach the NIT, but not enough to make the NCAA tournament. The difference between winning and losing has been such a small margin, which has only made things all the more frustrating for the Wildcats.
Northwestern has been a program defined by late-season disappointments, and Tuesday’s 67-55 overtime loss to No. 13 Michigan was the latest one.
Tuesday’s defeat was like so many games at Welsh-Ryan Arena in the past few years. It was as if Northwestern was a marathon runner and was approaching the finish line in first place, but just as the Wildcats were getting ready to celebrate, another runner came in and passed them by.
The Wildcats had the game in their hands and then they didn’t. Their two-point loss to Purdue on Jan. 28 and their one-point loss to Illinois on Jan. 4 had similar feelings. Last year’s narrow home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State can be thrown in that category, too.
But as difficult as Tuesday’s defeat was for the Wildcats, the season isn’t over with. A lot of people hyped Tuesday’s game, but while it would have been nice to win, it wasn’t a do-or-die situation.
The Wildcats seemed to understand that. Northwestern junior Reggie Hearn sat blank-faced before the media Tuesday, showing signs of being obviously disappointed with another heartbreaking loss, but he also understood the bigger picture.
“I think we still have a lot to play for,” Hearn said. “This is a tough loss, but I think we just look at it like we lost to a good team. We had a chance to get a résumé-building win, and we didn’t. We still have a lot to play for.”
What Tuesday’s loss did do was put Northwestern closer to the edge. The Wildcats can’t afford many more mistakes with a 6-9 conference record and only three regular-season games and the conference tournament ahead of them.
So while the Wildcats have been here before, they still have a chance to go somewhere they have never been. Now it’s up to them.