Thursday, March 1, 2012
Northwestern's script plays out like usual
By Eamonn Brennan
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Was it too much to ask?
Was it too much to hope that just one time -- this time -- would be Northwestern's turn as fate's chosen beneficiary? Was it too much to think that maybe, despite all the reasons to believe the contrary, the Wildcats might just catch a break? Could Northwestern fans, besieged constantly by reminders of their program's historic futility, finally feel the freedom of belief?
"Disappointing," forward John Shurna said. "Kind of a tough way to go out."
Wednesday night was Shurna's senior night, an honor he shared with Davide Curletti, Nick Fruendt and Luka Mirkovic. Shurna & Co. are the school's all-time winningest class, one that also set a school record with three consecutive postseason appearances.
Of course, none of those postseasons has been of the NCAA tournament variety, which is why Wednesday night's game was so much more than a disappointing loss, so much more than an emotional senior night spoiled by a 75-73 defeat.
Indeed, the game against Ohio State was one of the biggest in Northwestern's history. That title is fresh, because we said the same exact thing in the wake of Feb. 21's home loss to Michigan. And we could say the same again Saturday, when Northwestern travels to Iowa to play its regular-season finale. At this point, every game Northwestern plays is abnormally important for reasons that go beyond conference record or pride or graduating seniors or even a one-year bubble scenario.
Why? You know why: The Wildcats are still searching for their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. This is the only team in a major conference to never visit the NCAA tournament. You have heard about this ignominious distinction more than a few times in the past few weeks (and months and years) because it's impossible to talk about this program without dwelling on its unique, defining story of woe.
Wednesday night was merely another page in that book. At first, the action looked predictable enough. After a quick six minutes of dominant interior play and hot shooting, a focused and freewheeling Ohio State team -- one that looked vastly different from the weekend's home loss to Wisconsin -- had opened an 18-8 lead. By the five-minute mark, the lead was 30-18.
Just before the half, it was all the way up to 39-26, before Shurna made a 3 to cut the deficit to 10, but no matter. Clearly, the Buckeyes were in control.
Ohio State was moving the ball seamlessly against Northwestern's zone, using skip passes and penetration to find easy first looks. Better yet, when the first looks didn't drop, OSU forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas pounced. Together, they combined for 15 offensive rebounds (and 28 total) and carried the Bucks to an eye-popping offensive rebounding percentage of 62.5 percent.
Northwestern -- for which Shurna, who shoots nearly as many 3s as 2s, counts as an interior player, and a team that plays 6-foot-1 guard David Sobolewski in the baseline of its 1-3-1 zone -- had nothing remotely close to an answer.
"They destroyed us on the backboards," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
His team's only answer was hope: hope that enough 3s went down to stay within striking distance, hope that Ohio State caught a few bad bounces, hope that the game was just close enough to steal in the end. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. The Wildcats gradually cut OSU's lead throughout the second half, first to six, then to five, then to four.
After clawing back to tie visiting Ohio State, Northwestern's John Shurna, left, and Drew Crawford suffered another difficult loss.
And although Ohio State seemed to have an answer each and every time -- an Aaron Craft 3 here, a Sullinger putback there -- the Cats, led by Shurna and a 13-of-27 mark from 3, and aided by said bad bounces (and a huge JerShon Cobb steal), found themselves down by three. With the ball. With 16 seconds to play.
You've probably already seen what happened next. Guard Alex Marcotullio, against the advice of his better angels, launched what felt like a 30-foot 3. Like all great last-second shots, it seemed to hang in the air forever before splashing through the net and sending Welsh-Ryan Arena into convulsions of euphoria and disbelief.
The only problem: There still were 7 seconds on the scoreboard and Thad Matta called a timeout, and before you could realize it -- before Welsh-Ryan could process what was happening -- Craft was sprinting down the court and heaving the ball ahead to Sullinger, who had established the perfect position to quickly turn and score with his right hand, and now there's 3 seconds left, and Shurna is hoisting a half-court shot that hits the front of the rim and misses, and ... wait. What just happened?
A cynical fan -- or an out-and-out jerk -- probably would say Northwestern happened. This is what Northwestern does, especially in recent seasons. It takes its fans to the brink, to the point of ecstatic belief, before revealing some fresh new horror.
Frankly, if the aforementioned cynic said this to you, it'd be pretty difficult to disagree.
But while the short answer above might have been "no," it was impossible to talk to Crawford and Shurna after the game and not sense some lack of emotional weight. Both were positive, even upbeat, or at least as upbeat as a human being can be after what they had just seen. (Before shooting the above video, I cursorily asked Shurna, "How's it going?" His response: "Ha. I've been better." Note to self: Never use that phrase on a dreary Monday morning again.)
"Obviously it's tough," Crawford said, "but we played great down toward the end of the game, and we're all proud of our team. I think we're a resilient bunch, and we'll be ready to go on Saturday."
Maybe Shurna and Crawford are used to all the will-they-or-won't-they talk by now. Maybe they've chosen to ignore it. It was surely no surprise that every question, press-room murmur and speculative amateur bracketologism Wednesday night dwelled on whether this team would be the one to finally, mercifully end college basketball's most infamous streak.
It was the first question Matta faced when he sat down for his postgame news conference: Is Northwestern a tournament team?
"Yeah," Matta said. "Oh yeah. ... I know this. I would hate on Selection Sunday to have Northwestern come across, to have to play them."
Shurna was quizzed about how, with so much pressure and bubble speculation compounding in the final week of the season, his team could rebound. ("Gotta win," he said.) Crawford was asked whether Wednesday's loss "proved" anything to the selection committee about Northwestern's makeup.
"I don't think a loss means too much," he said, flashing a better understanding of the selection process than his inquisitor.
The truth is, a loss doesn't mean much, if anything. The good news, however, is this: Other bubble teams lost Wednesday night, too, and in Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket update, the Wildcats were still listed as the last team in the tournament. Nothing is guaranteed, but in Northwestern's case, that's a good thing. The Cats might not be safely in the tournament, the way they would have been had Shurna's final prayer been answered, had Matta and and Craft and Sullinger not so ruthlessly executed their final four-second game winner. But this group isn't obviously out of the field, either.
"Had we won the game, it would have been a great win for us," Crawford said. "But that's not really going to keep us down at all. We're excited to finish this season strong. And it starts in practice tomorrow."
And so another five days -- or 11 days -- of bubble speculation will continue. Can this star-crossed program get it done? Can Shurna go out on something more than disappointment? Can Northwestern fans, against all reason and rationale and evidence to the contrary, dare to believe?
The short answer, at least Wednesday night, was no.