INDIANAPOLIS – Don't weep for Northwestern. The Wildcats are undeserving of the pity.
Thursday night in the Big Ten tournament, the most underachieving basketball program in America did what comes naturally – it gagged away a bid to the NCAA tournament with a ghastly 75-68 overtime loss to Minnesota.
Coach Bill Carmody said he told his team this week that a victory over the Gophers would not solidify a bid and a loss would not cost a bid, but he was only half-right. This was a game Northwestern could not lose, and it lost.
And thus the school that never has been to the Big Dance will spend one more March on the outside looking in. The Wildcats couldn't make it when the field was eight, back in the dark ages (the first championship was held in Evanston, ironically). Or when it went through the various expansions, now all the way up to 68. Seems that no matter how many teams they let in, Northwestern always will be left out.
This season's final verdict won't be official until Sunday, when the field is announced. I suppose there's a scenario in which an 18-13 team with an 8-11 record in league games and exactly one victory of note still gets in, but you need purple-tinted glasses to envision it.
The Wildcats led this game by four points with 4:06 to play in regulation and didn't score again until overtime. In simple, declarative terms, they blew it. In the process, they forfeited control of their destiny.
"It sucks," said guard Drew Crawford, accurately summing up the situation in a funereal locker room.
The Wildcats said the pressure of the situation did not get to them. They ran into a Minnesota team that has been playing dreadful basketball but shot the lights out early; that's bad luck. But Northwestern regrouped to gradually take control of the game, then promptly gave it back at crunch time; that's bad execution.
Three times in the final four minutes of regulation, all while holding a lead, the Wildcats had the ball coming out of a timeout. Three times, whatever Carmody drew up failed – two missed shots and a turnover. They added another turnover coming out of a timeout in overtime while trailing by three.
"Lack of execution," Crawford said. "Those are plays we made that you really can't do if you want to win a game."
As they flirted with the first tourney bid in school history, Northwestern became something of a national curiosity – maybe even a national darling. The Wildcats had the backing of casual fans, and there was even some discussion of the team getting a sympathy vote from the NCAA selection committee in a close call.
It was like the Cubs' dynamic shifted up the Lake Michigan shoreline to Evanston.
And like the Cubs' dynamic, this was a sham.
Instead of giving Northwestern a pass, America should be wondering how the school possibly could be so persistently futile in basketball. No, it's not easy for a smaller, private, "brain" school from a power conference to win big, but it's far from impossible. The names Duke (35 NCAA appearances, four national titles), Stanford (16 NCAA appearances, one national title) and Vanderbilt (12 NCAA appearances) should ring a bell.
If they regularly can be competitive, why can't Northwestern find a way to scrape into one tournament?
Sheer numbers dictate that it should be harder to do in football, but the school has succeeded in that sport on a level the hoops program cannot touch. There was a Rose Bowl berth in the mid-1990s, and the Wildcats won or shared three Big Ten titles from 1995-2000.
The sympathy card might be playable if the school and its fan base cared. They clearly do not. Fewer than 500 fans showed up for arguably the most important game in school history. Northwestern doesn't even have good bandwagon fans.
And the school's tolerance of Carmody shows that basketball success isn't exactly a front-burner priority. This is Carmody's 12th season in Evanston. He clearly has elevated the program; this was Northwestern's fourth consecutive winning season – a first since the early 1930s – but it's just as clear that he can only take the Wildcats so far.
How many years does it take before his bosses deliver an ultimatum: Get us to the Big Dance or we have to make a change. That lack of administrative urgency helps maintain the status quo.
[Dan Wetzel: Syracuse's win makes you lament what's coming]
It is admirable that Northwestern does not let the athletic tail wag the higher-education dog. The priorities are better there than at almost every other member of a power conference. But it's possible to be competitive and clean, and the school believes it is capable of both.
Sooner or later, that has to result in an NCAA bid. It does at similar institutions, over and over. Not at Northwestern.
You can feel sorry for the players, a generally articulate bunch who genuinely were hurting after this loss. It would be nice to see them make the Big Dance just once.
But it's hard to feel sorry for a program that continually underachieves and a fan base that only gives lip service to caring about it.
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