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.
Chris Collins appears to be a March Madness seeding conspiracy theorist. He expected the NCAA basketball committee to put him in the same quadrant with Duke and Marquette, promoting a Duke coach reunion with current coach Mike Kryzewski and former fellow Duke Assistant Steve Wojciechowski.
Minutes later, when the CBS Selection Sunday broadcast begins to announce the West region, the chatter subsides. Number 1 Seed Gonzaga is set to play No. 16 South Dakota state in Salt Lake City. Then, the No. 8 seed is announced.
It’s a reaction generally reserved for a last minute victory against a Big Ten conference rival (of which many happened in that season). It’s a celebration of a mirage of the impossible and the jet-lag of a miracle heave. Most of all, it’s relief. Relief to no longer be the answer to a trivia question. Making the tournament means finally escaping the storm cloud the program has never been able to elude. How did this even happen?
As mentioned in part one, the recruiting class of 2014 – Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, and the improbable Vic Law – was the impetus. However, it takes more than crafty recruiting for the selection committee to deem you a top-35 team in the country (and worthy of a No. 8 seed).
November 21, 2016 was the first sign this team may be special. They thrashed No. 22 Texas in the Legends Classic Semifinals 77-58. McIntosh poured in 20 points and five assists. The next day, a New York Times headline from Seth Berkman declared the Wildcats “Good enough to Dream”. Coach Collins admitted his mind wandered sometimes in excitement for what the team could be. It was no secret what their dreams were about.
After a narrow Legends Classic loss to Notre Dame, the ‘Cats rattled off nine straight wins and moved to a 12-2 record on the season. On the other side of the country, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are undefeated with big man Zach Collins emerging as one of the best first-years in the country. Matthew Fisher-Davis is a dynamic leading scorer for the Vanderbilt Commodores, but they still struggle to rise above .500.
The next few months are predictably bumpy as NU faces a wall of Big Ten Opponents. On one hand, a signature win at No. 7 Wisconsin in the Kohl Center proves the Wildcats are legit. On the other, as 2017 slips into the month of March, they are just 2-5 in their last seven games.
Wednesday March 1, 2017, approximately 5 p.m.: NU first-year and basketball superfan Walker Reinfeld has a decision to make. The now-WNUR broadcaster could trek from Elder to Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch a pivotal matchup versus Michigan that could all-but-clinch a March Madness spot or study for his MENU test the next morning. If the Wildcats lose, the team could be in danger of slipping out of March Madness altogether He decides to stay in that night. It feels like the right decision.
6 p.m.: Tipoff. Northwestern jumps out to a 26-16 lead in the first half.
Approx. 7:45 p.m.: Star Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. completes a four point play to cut the lead down to only 54-52 with 11:30 in the second half remaining. Reinfeld studies for his math test while watching the game on TV.
Approx. 8:10 p.m.: Michigan’s Zak Irvin misses a left wing three long and the ball bounces out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining. Score tied 65-65.
Approx. 8:11 p.m.: Michigan Coach John Beilein calls a timeout. He wants to set up his defense in case of a deep heave. He puts a man in front, Nathan Taphorn, to cover the inbound pass. Reinfeld is disappointed he might miss an exciting overtime finish.
Sixty seconds later: The inconceivable. A Hail Mary heave from Taphorn to Pardon. An overhand pass 92 feet away that Northwestern quarterbacks would be jealous of. Belien calls it a modern day Christian Laettner shot.
March 2nd, Noon: Reinfeld takes his math test he sacrificed so much for. He gets a 63.
March 12th: Riddled with guilt, he shows up hours early to the Selection Sunday watch party at Welsh-Ryan – early enough to hear player chatter and coach conspiracies.
As the CBS broadcast finally announces Northwestern’s first round matchup vs. Vanderbilt, Reinfeld smiles as the crowd erupts. He’s happy to be here. And for Northwestern fans around the world? After waiting for so many years? They are happy to be here too.
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three part series taking a look back at a legendary moment for Chicago’s Big Ten Team. Part one can be found here. Harrison Larner is a guest of WNUR Sports and is the founder and host of the Slice of Sports podcast.