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Northwestern Wildcats are in (finally)

Sanjay Lumpkin, Chris Collins, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament. No more ifs, no more fantasy. it is reality. And it feels surreal. But so good.

The CBS television coverage was going to take its time. What was another 30 minutes to a school and a fan base that has had to wait eternity (or all time or some other extra superlative for the length of time the NCAA Tournament has existed, I am too excited and lazy to do math right now)?

The Wildcats have been through plenty of heartbreak. Even something that seemed so sure was left in doubt. The Wildcats have failed to finish the job so many times. Jokingly, a clerical error would be the only thing to keep the Wildcats’ run of futility going. And everyone in the fan base expected it.

Especially as the show went longer and Northwestern’s name was not called yet.

Chris Collins told the crowd to stay calm, the team was headed out West. That is Collins. the ultimate believer. The guy who took a chance on the woeful program and believed he could be the one to take it to that unforeseen land.

And very quickly, it was done. Heading to Salt Lake with Gonzaga and South Dakota State and matched up with Vanderbilt, Northwestern is heading to the NCAA Tournament.

That is the image of pure joy. Of pent-up frustration and belief bursting out in one beautiful moment. The Northwestern Wildcats are going to the NCAA Tournament.

No more qualifiers. No more should be. No more probably will. No more doubt.

Northwestern is a NCAA Tournament team.

They are really going to the Dance. They are playing in Salt Lake City on a neutral floor with that blue NCAA logo at midcourt. The CBS theme will play and someone will welcome viewers around the globe to the Big Dance where Northwestern will play a basketball game.

Like in the Ron Paul meme: THIS IS HAPPENING. For real this time.

It was an emotional day at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the final event that charmingly quaint (when full) stadium would experience before it is gutted and renovated. The team knew it was in and yet the reality of it had not even hit. This could not be real.

The journey was a long and uncertain one. The Wildcats made video packages reminiscing on the journey this group has taken to get here.

For long-suffering Northwestern fans, there was not a dry eye in the building. Least of all the Wildcats’ big players.

President Morton Shapiro and athletic director Jim Phillips spoke of the vision they had when they hired Collins. And then Collins took the mic and spoke about the journey he took to get this program here.

It was a risk for seemingly Mike Krzyzewski’s replacement in waiting at Duke to return to Chicago and try this project. This project was impossible for many. This was a total leap of faith. The Wildcats were the impossible school.

This season proved anything is possible. The Wildcats can do anything.

Slowly but surely the bandwagon got bigger. The win over then-ranked Texas was the first sign something special could happen. Then there was the close defeat at Butler, a painful reminder of how fragile things can be. Then the win over Dayton, holding on to the last moments despite a killer first half.

The Wildcats avoided the pitfalls of bad losses entering the Big Ten season. They only had to do what had not been done since the 1930s, get a winning record in conference play.

History would require history, after all.

Northwestern navigated its schedule well. The Wildcats defeated the Buckeyes on the road for the first time since some unknown year (it was the 1970s, again too excited to do math). They traveled to Wisconsin and knocked off the Badgers on the road with Scottie Lindsey fighting mono and out for nearly a month.

What Northwestern team before could withstand losing its leading scorer? What team could even make the NIT like that?

This team was always different. They always found a way. Even when they created that typical Northwestern angst. The loss at Indiana was the breaking point of doubt and belief. That loss was the impossible loss for Northwestern. The one fans had come to expect every night out.

And then the impossible win. The full-court pass to Dererk Pardon from Nathan Taphorn against Michigan was a hope and a dream. It was the ultimate go-for-it move. The Wildcats were not waiting for someone else to let them in the Tournament, they were taking that bid. There would be no overtime and no doubt.

There were moments where it felt like Northwestern was in for sure. It began feeling all but certain after winning at Wisconsin. It was done after Michigan.

The Wildcats had their moment. It happened on March 1. Northwestern had their March moment. And the team kept it going with a first ever Big Ten Tournament run to the weekend.

There will be more firsts. The Wildcats take on a very strong Commodores team. The surroundings and the pressure will be new to them.

The tears from Sunday will last with this program forever. No matter what happens Thursday, Northwestern will view this season as the greatest success. From here on out, just being in the Tournament will not be enough.

For this team, that may not be enough now. The Wildcats should think about playing to the weekend. And, sure, why not make it to San Jose. Everything else impossible has been done this year.

The Wildcats will get back to work Monday and prepare for their trip to the Wasatch Mountains for Thursday, and maybe longer. The emotion will likely not fade. This is a big moment for the university and the program. One that the team has worked its entire existence for.

Northwestern is in.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.


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