Commentary

Put Northwestern in tourney if …

… the Wildcats can win their final three regular-season games

Updated: February 25, 2012, 1:29 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

If you're the kind of person who always buys the $29.99 warranty for a $15 toaster, always thinks your girlfriend is cheating on you and always feels sure those postal clerks gathered behind the Plexiglas are whispering about you rather than, say, how boring the new "forever" stamp is, you do not want to get wrapped up in Northwestern's latest star-crossed attempt to bust its 73-year streak of never making the NCAA men's basketball tournament. You have enough issues already.

But everyone else? Lean in a little closer.

If there was ever a good excuse for a write-in campaign to the all-seeing, know-it-all NCAA tournament selection committee, the Wildcats are it.

Northwestern is the bubble team whose bubble always seems to burst.

For the fourth straight season, the Wildcats have a fighting chance to snap the worst streak going in college basketball. But when you're O-for-forever at getting into the Big Dance, the meat wagon tends to show up for you on campus far more often than the bandwagon ever pulls up.

[+] EnlargeBill Carmody
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDave Sobolewski, left, and coach Bill Carmody would make fine Cinderella candidates.

When I emailed a Chicago sports nut I know to see if the city is captivated by Northwestern's latest attempt to bust the streak, this time with just a six-man rotation in the black-and-blue Big Ten, the reply I got back was: "I can answer that. It's a resounding 'no!'"

No?

Northwestern hosted (but didn't play in) the first NCAA tournament in 1939, and it's been on the outside looking in ever since. The perennial optimism that each new basketball season brings everywhere else -- we think we can, we think we can, we think we can! -- has always given way at Northwestern to grim realities like what happened Tuesday.

Many bracketologists agreed that Northwestern began the day clinging to one of the last four spots in the 68-team NCAA tournament field and then -- and then!? -- failed to control their destiny by losing to No. 13 Michigan at home, before a sellout crowd, after being outscored 9-0 to start overtime. (Why not just skip the game, Taser everyone and call it a day, right?)

This post on the fan blog Sippin' on Purple said it all:

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH.

"AAAAAAAAAAAGH. THERE ARE NO WORDS…How. In the HELL. Do we lose two games to the same ranked team in overtime? HOW? Why does this happen? THIS IS JUST THE WORST."

Northwestern junior guard Reggie Hearn played well, but he isn't sure why the game slipped away, either.

"I think there was more excitement than anxiety," Hearn told the Chicago Sun-Times afterward. "If you would have been in the locker room, it was loud and everyone was ready to go.

"I don't think we felt pressure."

Fine. But how about now?

"I think maybe we're feeling some anxiousness, a little bit of pressure," Hearn conceded in a phone interview Wednesday. "We hear about the streak all the time. … We talk about it amongst ourselves as a team, just to try to maintain focus to try to reach that goal. We talk about how we think the campus would go absolutely crazy if we were the first team ever to make the tournament. We want to be that team."

For now, though, a cloud has once again moved over campus, and it's unlikely to lift unless the Wildcats sweep their remaining three games against Penn State, No. 9 Ohio State and Iowa to get to 9-9 in the Big Ten and 19-11 overall. Then they still might have to make some Kemba Walker-like noise in the Big Ten tournament.

Whether this miss would really be "the" worst depends on your point of view.

Northwestern won 17, 20, and 20 games the past three seasons and have been to the National Invitational Tournament all three years. Toss in this season, and coach Bill Carmody has the Wildcats on the best four-year run in program history.

So even if Northwestern's latest try falls short of the NCAAs again, does it not at least conjure up existential questions like, "Isn't it better to have tried and come close than to have never tried at all?"

(I know. Yuck, right?)

"A lot of Northwestern alums just expect the team to be bad. It's sort of this perennial depression," says 27-year-old George Price, who writes for Sippin' on Purple under the screen name Loretta8. "I'm often told my funniest attribute is getting people to laugh at my miserable rants … but [the misery] is not just that they've never made the tournament; it's that they've never been close enough to where you can sit down, turn on the TV for the Selection Sunday show and think, 'OK, they might make it!'

"I just want to be even that close, to even just have that feeling, you know? I just want to wake up and turn on the TV that Sunday and actually be tense all day, like they might make it."

For crying out loud, does anyone have a Kleenex?

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
AP Photo/Paul BeatyJohn Shurna has been part of Northwestern's four-year run of success and would like to cap his career with a tourney bid.

Price has been publishing a semi-regular list of other bubble teams that Northwestern fans should root against so the Wildcats can make the tournament. But when I asked him who the particular locus of hate was the morning after the Michigan loss, he said, "It's not like there's one particular enemy of state now. It's more like the whole college landscape."

Good thinking. Carpet bomb anyone who's a threat with mental A-bombs.

As cries of the heart go, Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's rant when LeBron James skipped town has nothing on Northwestern basketball. Neither do the nearby Chicago Cubs, who have at least been to the playoffs during their 103-year World Series championship drought.

The Cubs have a gimmicky curse (the Billy Goat), a cute nickname (the Cubbies) and just hired star GM Theo Epstein away from Boston. They play in a sun-splashed ballpark where you can sip on cold beer all afternoon until you couldn't care less what the score is, let alone if Alfonso Soriano just dogged it after yet another fly ball.

The Cubbies can be torture, but at least the torture comes with tan lines.

Northwestern's chances of making the NCAAs did indeed dim Tuesday. But it's not totally impossible. Look: Didn't Northwestern beat a higher-ranked Michigan State team earlier this season? Doesn't Carmody run the Princeton offense, basketball's version of David's slingshot?

Many a college basketball Goliath has been left dizzy by the precision cutting and passing the Princeton offense features. Occasionally, one of those Goliaths even says "ow" and falls down.

It didn't happen Tuesday when Northwestern went hunting for an upset against Michigan. Now the Wildcats have to win these next three games. Otherwise, we're in for another NCAA tournament featuring Duke, Kentucky and a bunch of other folks who have been there before.

I don't know about you, but that offends my sense of, well … proportion.

Doesn't even the unluckiest mutt at the shelter sometimes gets adopted?

So why can't that all-powerful, know-it-all NCAA tournament selection committee take into account Northwestern's very representative RPI and the Big Ten's top power ranking this season and put the Wildcats into the tournament just this once if they win out and the call is razor close?

Don't think of it as a sympathy vote. Call it a sanity reboot for the bubble team whose bubble always bursts.

When they coined the term "March Madness," Northwestern's saga ain't what anyone had in mind.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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