Northwestern had its big moment on CBS and acquitted themselves well. Now they must prove they belong for good.
It was completely surreal.
The familiar tones of the NCAA on CBS played and Jim Nantz — hello, friends — welcomed the audience to Evanston, Ill., and Welsh-Ryan Arena. He then introduced his broadcast team of Grant Hill — THAT Grant Hill — and Bill Rafferty — ONIONS!
The Final Four broadcast team was there for Northwestern’s final home game. The final weekend of the NCAA regular season and the college basketball world had descended on tiny (not so tiny) Evanston. Northwestern was the reason.
Or at least half the reason. The other half was the Big Ten regular season champion Purdue Boilermakers were in town. This was a game featuring two of the Big Ten’s best — another surreal statement made this Sunday.
And the game? Northwestern again lived up to the moment. Almost.
The game delivered a nail biter.
Northwestern took a nine-point lead in the first half. Purdue stormed back to take a nine-point lead in the second half. Northwestern stormed back.
And with about a minute to play, the Wildcats ran a play to get Nathan Taphorn a 3-pointer. The hero from Wednesday’s full-court throw to defeat Michigan and send Northwestern (essentially) to its first NCAA Tournament air-balled his 3-pointer. Purdue held on for a 69-65 win to close Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Northwestern’s football and basketball history are marked by these kinds of games. The team gets to the big stage with the spotlight shining directly on them and then they put up a good fight and lose. That is Northwestern history. It just usually ends up costing them.
This time it will not. This time Northwestern was playing with house money and have one of the team’s ultimate goals in its pocket. The Wildcats are probably (definitely) going to the NCAA Tournament.
And so Sunday’s game needs to be the last time Northwestern’s basketball team feels that feeling of a moral victory. The Wildcats defeated Wisconsin on the road, they toppled a now-surging Wake Forest team and Dayton at a neutral site.
It is Tournament time. And Northwestern is here to win. This team is good enough to do so — they have proven that time and time again.
With no pressure to make the bubble, the Big Ten Tournament is an exercise of Tournament practice. Yes, that is an actual statement everyone can legitimately make about Northwestern.
But this is no longer the feel-good story. Northwestern can no longer think of itself as that plucky little team that tries and tries. This is the cultural shift Northwestern wants to make across its revenue sports.
The Wildcats are here to win. They should be here to win. They are capable of winning.
Northwestern always envisioned that first NCAA Tournament berth would see them squarely on the bubble and unsure for Selection Sunday. Northwestern will have a celebration next Sunday.
Whether Northwestern is the home seed or the road seed in the Tournament, they should feel confident they can play into the weekend. This should be the goal. The Wildcats have proven throughout this season they are not just sneaking in and happy to be there. They are ready to win.
And that starts with the Purdue game. Northwestern stood toe to toe and lost a toss-up game with the Big Ten champion. That should provide some confidence for the NCAA Tournament. There is a path to the semifinal and a chance to build some major momentum (Northwestern’s close loss to Minnesota earlier in the season is an intriguing quarterfinal matchup).
Losses are no longer OK. Moral victories are no longer OK. These are single elimination tournaments now. And there is an opportunity to make history and realize this team’s full potential.
What is important is for Northwestern to believe this. The Wildcats must now believe they are good enough not only to make the Tournament, but to make noise.
That, of course, is the next evolution for the program. To win these big games regularly. Northwestern was spotty against the top teams in the conference, earning just one win over the five teams ahead of them in the Big Ten standings. Although plenty of them were close.
Northwestern hung with Purdue well Sunday. That is a constant narrative this season. The Wildcats can hang with the big teams, but cannot beat them. This goes dating back to their loss to Butler.
Now that Northwestern is in. Now that Northwestern has climbed that hurdle. They have to prove they belong.
The Big Ten Tournament is a start. Getting a win or two would really serve some notice.
The goal for the Wildcats is no longer getting into the NCAA Tournament. The goal is to make it to the weekend.