College Basketball Nation: Alex Marcotullio

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?

The short answer? No.

"It's very tough," Northwestern guard Drew Crawford said.

"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.

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern's John Shurna and Drew Crawford
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter 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.

But the long answer? Let's wait and see.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A quick rundown of Ohio State's 75-73 victory over Northwestern on Wednesday night:

Overview: The script was written. Northwestern didn't have enough size, enough athleticism, enough sheer basketball talent, and Ohio State did. The Wildcats were getting brutalized on the boards, and while their outside shooting kept them in the game, it didn't seem capable of actually pushing them over that last big invisible hump.

And then, suddenly, it did. Northwestern hung in and battled back from double-digit second-half deficits. By the final two minutes, the Wildcats had cut the lead to five, then four, then three, then -- suddenly, miraculously, from 30 or so feet -- Alex Marcotullio sank a game-tying 3 and sent Northwestern's tortured fan base into hysterics.

And then, just as suddenly, the euphoria vanished. Ohio State ran a perfectly designed play with 7 seconds left, leading to a shockingly easy Jared Sullinger layup. John Shurna's last-ditch half-court heave (just barely) missed, and there it was: 75-73, Buckeyes. Northwestern was close. So, so close. But the hump won again.

Star of the game: Jared Sullinger. The Buckeyes big man found life in the middle of Northwestern's zone about as easy as you'd expect. He scored 22 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, 11 of them of the offensive variety. He and Deshaun Thomas (19 points, 10 rebounds) dominated down low, an advantage that for much of the game kept Northwestern at bay.

Stat of the game: 62.5. That's the percentage of its own misses Ohio State grabbed Wednesday night. For reference's sake, the national leader in offensive rebounding percentage (Quinnipiac, believe it or not) grabs about 42 percent of its own misses on average. Again, OSU dominated the offensive glass, and those second-chance points were the key difference.

What it means: It's impossible not to feel, if only a little, for Northwestern. In consecutive weeks, the Wildcats took a top team (first Michigan, then the Buckeyes) to the wire at home, either of which would have given them the marquee win that almost certainly would ensure a first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament. Now, their at-large bid is still shaky, with only one game -- a potential bubble-burster at Iowa on Saturday -- left in the regular season. This is Northwestern's second brutal loss in eight days.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Carmody's motto for years has been simple and straightforward: Make shots.

Those two words appear outside Northwestern's basketball offices and on the T-shirts of those in NU's student section.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thompson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNorthwestern's Michael Thompson scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half.
For 32 minutes, Carmody's players didn't follow orders at all. With 7:58 left in Thursday's first-round Big Ten tournament matchup against No. 10 seed Indiana, Northwestern had made 4 of 28 shots from 3-point range.

"At shoot-around today, we made about five percent of our shots," Carmody said. "I thought we got all our misses out of our system, but we didn't."

Junior point guard Michael Thompson evidently had enough of the bricks, and sparked Northwestern on a huge second-half run to take control. The seventh-seeded Wildcats went on a 20-5 spurt midway through the second half and recorded a rather comfortable 73-58 win against Indiana. They outscored IU 37-13 in the final 13 minutes.

Northwestern has won 20 games for the first time in team history and advances to face No. 2 seed Purdue in the quarterfinals Friday (Big Ten Network, 6:30 p.m. ET). Thursday's win likely assures NU of an NIT berth, at the very least.

After scoring only three points in an ugly first half, Thompson exploded for 13 in the final 20 minutes and really provided a lift from beyond the arc (four 3-pointers). The man nicknamed "Juice" didn't have much of it early, but an elbow to the throat from Indiana's Tijan Jobe early in the second half changed that.

Though the elbow wasn't intentional, no foul was called and the 5-9 Thompson let the 7-feet Jobe know about it. Thompson got in Jobe's face and the officials called double technical fouls with Indiana leading 35-29 and 17:08 left.

"He felt like the big guy was trying to bully the little guy," Wildcats guard Jeremy Nash said. "He was like, 'I'm not having it. I'm going to show you how big I can play.'"

Thompson did in the final nine minutes, sparking Northwestern with his shooting and showing emotion rarely displayed.

"That really got me going," he said of the altercation with Jobe. "It gave me a lot more energy to make me want to go out there and play hard. It was just me being small and him trying to move me out the way.

"All my life, I've been small. People [underestimate] me because of my height, but I just try to compete and play as hard as I can."

Northwestern had relied almost exclusively on its starting five for most of the season, but got a huge lift off the bench from guard Alex Marcotullio (eight points) and forwards Davide Curletti (12 points) and Mike Capocci. The Wildcats found other contributors than Thompson and John Shurna today.

Indiana (10-21) had no business leading by only three points at the half, after the way Northwestern shot the ball. The Hoosiers built an 8-point lead in the second half but totally fell apart down the stretch, especially with their ball-handling. The rebuilding project continues for Tom Crean.