By Harrison Larner
A miracle heave. A score forgotten. A goaltend missed. Northwestern men’s basketball’s first ever NCAA tournament appearance embodied the Madness of March in a way only the Cardiac ‘Cats could. But most of all, it was a long time coming.
For 78 years, the men’s basketball squad had been held out of the Big Dance. The 2016-2017 team came into the season with modest expectations and blew them out of the water in a way Northwestern sports rarely do. Not only did the Wildcats make the tournament, but they won a game and took No. 1 seed Gonzaga to the wire before a controversial ending put a period on their magical run. With this year’s edition of March Madness shut down, WNUR sports takes a look at one of the greatest seasons in NU sports history.
The year is 2014. Northwestern hasn’t landed a top-75 basketball recruit since Bill Clinton’s first term. Enter Vic Law.
Law, a 6-7 small forward from the South side of Chicago (St. Rita High School) was the type of recruit that usually passed up Northwestern. Elite athleticism, defense, and passing along with a four-star rating from national recruiting services was quite the grab for newly appointed head coach Chris Collins.
The former Duke assistant didn’t stop there, getting commitments from three-star prospects Bryant Mcintosh and Scottie Lindsey when both held other power-5 conference offers. This 2014 recruiting class proved to be the driving force behind an unlikely run.
The season prior to their unexpected trip to March Madness, McIntosh established himself as a star player by averaging nearly 14 points and 7 assists per game. NCAA.com claimed he was one of the 6 best microwave scorers in college basketball (alongside future NBA star Donovan Mitchell). After a couple years on the bench, Lindsey was ready to break out in a starters role. Law had a season ending shoulder injury in 2016, but his lofty recruiting status and flashes of play during his freshman year made pundits believe he was a key piece. Chris Collins described him as a “jack of all trades.” Finally, then-sophomore Derrick Pardon was sliding into the starting big man role after averaging 16 points and 10.1 rebounds per 40 minutes as a first-year.
The young squad finished 2016 at 20-12 with flashes of brilliance. In February, the Wildcats dismantled Rutgers in a 98-59 beat down. However, their performance in conference play could swing wildly to the other end of the spectrum, for example the 76-45 loss to Michigan State suffered at home just a month before the game with Rutgers. Northwestern closed the season 8-10 in the conference and fell short in the Big Ten tournament, an overtime loss in the first round to Michigan. Remember that name.
Even with some glimpses of hope coming into the season, expectations were modest. Not a single national outlet had NU ranked among the top 25. Bleacher Report pegged the squad to finish ninth in the Big Ten. For a team that finished a pedestrian 68th in Ken Pomeroy’s basketball rankings the season before, national media hesitancy was not exactly shocking.
The buzz around campus did not differ much from the national media consensus. Then-first-year Ben Krieger, Sports Director this past year at WNUR, said Northwestern students knew “that B-Mac and Lindsey were good… but I don’t think anybody expected that to be the year we made the tournament.”
The WNUR staff was even more pessimistic in their preseason predictions. Not a single prognosticator predicted a winning record in the Big Ten. Then-senior Ari Ross wrote “without [Tre] Demps and [Alex] Olah, this team is going to struggle, especially as it enters Big Ten play. There’s plenty of wins on the schedule, but is there enough to earn an NIT berth? That’s doubtful.”
Only one believed. Then-sophomore Amit Mallik not only predicted an NCAA tournament appearance after sweeping the Big Ten tournament but also a National Championship victory in Glendale, Arizona. Over the phone, Mallik confirmed he was exaggerating as an ongoing WNUR bit and that nobody “really thought that was going to happen.”
National Champions? A prediction only unbridled optimism with a touch of facetiousness could bring — but not too far off from the defiant confidence needed to believe the Wildcats could accomplish what they had failed to do in their first 78 tries.
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three part series taking a look back at a legendary moment for Chicago’s Big Ten Team. Parts two and three will be released in the coming weeks. Harrison Larner is a guest of WNUR Sports and is the founder and host of the Slice of Sports podcast.