For the longest time, everyone wondered what would happen when the Northwestern Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament. It felt like the big breakthrough. The go-ahead to recruits and to the program to reach a new level. Everyone would believe the tournament was possible in Evanston and not simply a dream.
Northwestern was no longer a wasteland for basketball players.
Coach Chris Collins made a lot of recruits believe in doing something for the first time — Victor Law and Bryant McIntosh among the most notable — and achieved what was previously impossible.
The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament last year. They won a game. And momentum seems to be bounding downhill.
Nate Taphorn’s pass to Dererk Pardon against the Michigan Wolverines is up for an ESPY for Best Play of the Year. And was seeded fourth.
Northwestern, for a moment, was not the elitist Ivy of the Midwest, but the underdog finally getting its chance in the sun.
Now the question remains. The dreaded reality the Wildcats will finally find out what happens after the Tournament. Will Northwestern get the bump? Or will the team revert to something else? Will that challenge and mystique fade?
Collins is not resting on his laurels this offseason on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats have proven the Tournament is possible in Evanston and face a season with humongous expectations. The team loses glue guy Sanjay Lumpkin along with Nate Taphorn. But neither were major offensive contributors. And the Wildcats will welcome back Aaron Falzon, a starter in 2016, and freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas off injury and welcome stellar freshman Anthony Gaines to campus.
Northwestern, in other words, very much expects to make it back to back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2018. And the Wildcats are working to make it so the Tournament becomes a yearly occurrence.
That became much more assured this weekend when Northwestern landed a commitment from three-star point guard Jordan Lathon.
— Jordan R. Lathon (@j2lathon) June 25, 2017
The 6-foot-4 point guard is ranked 151st in his class by 247Sports. He was a big rebound after the Wildcats missed out on Cormac Ryan in recruiting. Ryan chose Stanford.
Like the football team, Collins is beginning to work to get his bigger recruits done early. Lathon will be the early favorite to replace Bryant McIntosh in the very near future — Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash may hold the fort steady for a year or two.
Northwestern is not done with recruiting the Class of 2018. Lathon told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune he would be working the phones, including calling his friend in Simeon forward Talen Horton-Tucker. The Wildcats are in a direct battle with the Illinois Fighting Illini for him. And Northwestern is on the tail for several other prospects to round out the Class of 2018.
With the first year of the renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena on the horizon, Northwestern has a lot to sell to these recruits.
In these early stages in Year 1 A.T. (after Tournament), Northwestern seems to be chugging along well to repeat the success and make it sustainable beyond then.
The Wildcats have a strong team returning. Despite the Big Ten coming back as strong again, Northwestern figures to be in the mix to compete for the Big Ten title. At least, the expectations are for Northwestern to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Ultimately, Northwestern can begin measuring gains if the team can make one NCAA Tournament appearance two in the next season. That will keep the momentum going and give Collins even more to sell.
After just one appearance, though, it does feel like Northwestern has turned a new leaf and beocme a bigger player.