The 2017 NCAA Tournament will eventually be remembered for, and connected to, only a handful of dramatic endings, unforgettable games and captivating sequences. We don't yet know what those images will include -- except for one.
Guaranteed to be among the most notable events in the 2017 NCAAs: Northwestern playing in the Big Dance for the first time in program history. The NCAA Tournament was first played in 1939. It featured eight teams, Oregon won the title, and the team traveled by train to play the championship at ... well, how about that? Northwestern's own Patten Gymnasium.
It's been a cruel irony that, in the nearly 80 years since playing host in that first NCAA Tournament, Northwestern's been incapable of earning a trip to the best postseason event in American sports. The Wildcats have earned infamy in by continuing to exist as the only program from a power conference to never punch a ticket to the Dance.
But that ends in less than six weeks. The tickets are at will call; it's just a matter of physically picking them up when it's time for the show.
This is happening, people. The wait will be over in 41 days. Northwestern will have its named called by Greg Gumbel on March 12, Selection Sunday. CBS will have its cameras in the room to catch coach Chris Collins and his team explode in joy as they make history. The Wildcats will watch, celebrate, then prepare for the biggest game in the team's history. The school's fans and alumni will for the first time experience the thrill of seeing "NORTHWESTERN" dramatically undraped on a TV screen, then get the fun curiosity of stressing about the next opponent.
There are some Northwestern cynics who are reticent to accept this inevitability. NU has occasionally had strong starts over the years, only to falter in Big Ten play and scoot right into the NIT. But I promise you, that will not be happening this season. The Wildcats are 18-4. They're ranked 21st in LRMC, 29th in RPI, 30th in KenPom and 30th in Sagarin. The Wildcats are almost never this highly regarded across so many metrics at the end of January.
Northwestern. In the Dance. Unavoidable. Still not convinced? Let me lay it out for you even further.
The Wildcats aren't thick on big wins, but they have defeated Wake Forest, Dayton and Indiana. They are 5-3 in road/neutral games, and most importantly, the record is becoming too good. This 18-4 start is the best start in program history. The team doesn't have bad losses, either. The worst of the four is at home to Minnesota, which is 15-7.
The Wildcats breezed past Indiana on Sunday, winning 68-55, and looked like a top-four Big Ten team in the process. In a boost of karmic fuel, Northwestern got Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts to show off the World Series trophy during the game on Sunday.
You'll hear some Cubs/Wildcats comparisons, but they aren't all that similar other than being based in the same city and facing decades-long droughts. But unlike Northwestern, even the Cubs made their big postseason event here and there before ultimately winning the World Series. And Northwestern's not remotely in the conversation to win the title, whereas the Cubs were the season-long favorites in 2016.
But hey, let's let NU be its own story. The Wildcats are 7-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since the year before they hosted that first NCAA Tournament. Yeah, 1938!
Northwestern is on a six-game winning streak in the league. That hasn't happened since 1933.
Eons-old trends are getting wasted. Ultimately, Northwestern's winning way too many games to make this all that much of a debate, really. I do love the perspective, though, from the players. Check stud point guard Bryant McIntosh after the Indiana win.
Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh: "We'll either do something special or we'll be like every other NU team. And that's the end of the story."— Brian Hamilton (@BrianHamiltonSI) January 30, 2017
I love that. McIntosh is correct.
This, from Collins, is also an acute dash of truth.
Worry about all the attention going to your players' heads?— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) January 30, 2017
Collins: "I worry about it every second."
Fine to worry. That's his job. He can worry, but the rest of us can celebrate a really cool storyline for college basketball. It's been a really fun season so far, bordering on a special one, and having Northwestern be this good and continue to make its presence known on a national level adds to it.
The thing I love most about it is the thing I've written in years past. I've long wanted the Wildcats' first Big Dance ticket to be bubble-free. Lose the drama. Getting in is theatrical enough. Have the hex end by barreling into the bracket. That's going to happen. Northwestern is going to get in with room to spare. Do I hear 7 seed? Maybe even a 6? That would be tremendous.
For as interesting as it would be to get to Selection Sunday and have Northwestern in the cluster of 4-6 true unknowns, it's so much more rewarding to see a program that's waited 78 years to play in the NCAA Tournament finally get there and categorically build its case.
The Wildcats have a road game at Purdue on Wednesday night, and they'll probably lose that game. But after that NU has five home games vs. just three on the road. KenPom projects the Wildcats to finish 23-8 overall. If that happened, and even if Northwestern lost its first Big Ten tournament game, that would be enough. Forty-one days to go, then it's all over. The NCAA Tournament bracket looks different every year, but the 2017 version will be particularly colorful because a new shade of purple will finally be included.