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Northwestern Wildcats feel right at home in the NCAA Tournament

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The Northwestern Wildcats took over Salt Lake City and made themselves right at home in their first NCAA Tournament game.

Northwestern’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament is not about what happened on the court — not completely.

The Wildcats were more than game, taking as much as a 15-point lead in the second half. They were the dominant team, controlling the the game seemingly from the tip. Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew lauded the team’s physicality afterward.

Northwestern not only played the game, but played like it belonged.

So did Vanderbilt. The Commodores were advertised as a three-point shooting team and proved every bit of that. An 11-0 run behind the 3-point shooting from fireballer Matthew Fisher-Davis made the game tight.

It made it more than tight, it pushed Vanderbilt into the lead late and forced Northwestern into a back-and-forth game. The Wildcats were going to get to experience all the emotions of a NCAA Tournament game in their first appearance in the tournament.

And, yes, Northwestern advanced thanks to a puzzling foul from Fisher-Davis, giving Bryant McIntosh a take foul with his team up one and less than 30 seconds to play. The Wildcats frittered away their lead, unable to get shots consistently and got bailed out.

Thus is the madness of March. And Northwestern fans learned it firsthand for the first time. They felt the agony of uncertainty and the ecstasy of victory.

Survive and advance. Give up the game on free throws. Win the game on free throws. Get beat at the buzzer. Survive at the buzzer. All of it was wrapped into one.

But as the team and its fans descended upon Salt Lake City, there was also another unmistakable feeling. A feeling of how special this first trip to the NCAA Tournament is. And, more importantly, how at home everyone seems to be in this setting.

Salt Lake City is some 1,400 miles from Evanston, Illinois. But with the amount of purple that descended upon Vivint Smart Home Arena and the downtown area, it is unmistakably comfortable for everyone.

Northwestern packed the arena with its fans ready to witness history. The TBS broadcasters noted how it felt and sounded like a Northwestern home game — especially considering the dearth of Vanderbilt fans around. The players noticed it too on the court.

That feeling, though, permeated all of downtown Salt Lake City. Northwestern fans have taken over the city.

It did not matter if it was a Wednesday night bar packed with a hundred or so fans wearing purple. Or an alumni association tailgate teeming with purple-decked followers. Or a hastily planned post-party at another bar. Everyone greeted each other with “Go Cats!”

That is unusual for Northwestern. The rest of the Big Ten knows how quickly and easily opposing fans can pack that stadium. That is pretty much Northwestern’s reputation as a home team is giving up its home-court advantage.

This year has been different once fans got a whiff of the Tournament. And now that the Tournament is finally here, fans turned out in droves. It did not matter that this was not Evanston and they were not playing at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern had found a home in its first NCAA Tournament game.

It gave the team an added energy boost. Each Vanderbilt run was met with a critical play and a loud roar from the purple faithful all over the arena.

Northwestern played loose much of the afternoon. The team buried big shots and moved the ball. It closed out and held off Vanderbilt’s 3-point shooting. The Wildcats did not play like a Tournament novice.

Northwestern may have been playing with house money for some time. Since the Michigan win that seemingly clinched Northwestern’s place in the tournament, the team has played with a looseness and confidence that has been so rare in Northwestern’s history.

Even late in Thursday’s Tournament win, it felt like Northwestern was going to answer back. The team was going to have the answer.

Perhaps it was fate Vanderbilt made the play to erase any doubt, sending Bryant McIntosh to the line for his 24th and 25th point in this game. Perhaps Northwestern would have answered and won it anyway.

The Wildcats belonged on the floor. They belong in the second round.

And their fans get to revel in the victory in what is now seemingly a second home in Salt Lake City. Call it Evanston West for now.

Call it Evanston West, for now. The Wildcats certainly have made themselves at home.

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Northwestern Wildcats measure up as they bow out of NCAA Tournament

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Vic Law, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats had plenty of emotions as they bowed out of their first NCAA Tournament. But the one that matters most? This is just a start.

The emotions for the end of a breakthrough season were still raw as the players began filing toward the locker room following the 69-63 loss to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

Chris Collins had gone ballistic on an official, getting a technical foul and, in some sense, costing his team a chance to complete a 21-point second-half comeback. Very clearly (unless you were sitting in the upper bowl right behind the basket and so obstructed from its view) a Gonzaga defender had blocked a shot by poking his hand through the cylinder.

The basket would have made it a three-point game, one possession late in the game and tantalizingly close to completing the impossible once again.

Collins was incensed and the technical foul he received made it a seven-point game. The task was that much tougher. And Bryant McItnosh and his team ran out of gas against a long and feisty Gonzaga team.

The headlines around the nation focused on that call and its effect on the strategy late in the game. It had an effect, Collins said. It shifted momentum as the Wildcats came so close to completing the comeback.

The reality is Northwestern was too sloppy and inconsistent in the first half. Trailing by 18 points at halftime and looking like the team might get run out of the gym was the reason the team lost. The Wildcats struggled to adjust to the Bulldogs’ length and speed on the perimeter. They fell behind and looked tight and pressured as they tried to get back into the game.

It did not come until the desperation seeped in during the second half. Northwestern had to make a slow climb back into the game, but with each stop, each dive on the floor and each dig, the team came back. The Wildcats made the top-seeded Bulldogs sweat.

Northwestern showed its program’s truest colors in that second half. The team was going to fight to the very end of the game. The Wildcats were not going to see this season end with a whimper, it was going to end with nothing left on the floor.

And so, while Northwestern gave itself plenty of reason to lose before that moment, the goaltend was something that mattered. It took the fight away from the Wildcats. They were not going to win or lose on their own play, shooting or mistakes. It was someone else’s. One they could not get back.

Nobody wanted to see this season end. And so it was angry to see its end at least partially taken out of their power. The Wildcats at least wanted the fair chance to win on their terms.

The anger was palpable for that reason.

Soon it gave into the reality and sadness of finality. Northwestern’s season was over. Its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament was done. Another team would move on and the Wildcats would be done.

It was always going to be this way. Northwestern was not about to win the national championship. But this fan base and this team probably were not prepared for that final moment when it came.

What team really is? Even if they did not expect to do much more than to make the Tournament field.

The feeling started to seep in when Dererk Pardon fouled out. He received a hug from every member of the coaching staff on his way to the bench. Fans started chanting “Dererk Pardon” in appreciation of what he did — famously his lay-in against Michigan but more generally his strong contribution on the block and even in this game against Gonzaga’s group of big men.

It continued as Sanjay Lumpkin came off the floor for the last time. Then Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. The Wildcats’ season ended with all five starters getting their standing ovation. Deservedly so for the history this group made.

After the game, Collins was sad this team’s season was over. The Wildcats played their best basketball at the end of the season. The run through the Big Ten Tournament and Thursday’s NCAA Tournament win and even the second half Saturday were all signs the team had found its mojo and were ready to make noise.

The Wildcats made noise. Northwestern is still the talk of the tournament one way or another — whether it be as the darling newcomers or the team that got robbed of an upset.

There is no guarantee this group will get back here. Sanjay Lumpkin was the heart and soul of the team. His leadership will be missed. And now everyone knows Northwestern can do this. How does a team handle those expectations? Do the Wildcats try to get too aggressive living in the shadow of this historic group?

Those might be questions for the offseason and before next season. For now, it was the appreciation and sadness of this team’s season ending.

After the team had done its press responsibilities, every player, still in uniform, came out of the locker room and into the arena bowl, climbing into the stands to greet their parents and fans. There was a special appreciation reserved for this team.

That would be the last anyone would see of this team together in public. The Wildcats thanking those who supported them and generally still enjoying everything about each other, the family and this season.

Northwestern accomplished a lot.

And there is still more to do. That defiance and optimism were present too as Northwestern filed off the court after the game. Northwestern fans stood and cheered the team after the final buzzer for everything it had done.

There were bowed heads and gestures toward the crowd in appreciation.

And then there was freshman Barrett Benson thumping his chest and soaking in the love. Benson seemed ready to go again and get the next season started.

He and all other classes coming after him will no longer view it as acceptable to miss the NCAA Tournament. The feeling from this weekend in Salt Lake City was that Northwestern is here and here to stay.

With the Wildcats losing only Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn and gaining back Aaron Falzon and freshman Rapolas Ivanauskas, expectations will be high in Evanston.

Nothing is guaranteed. But Northwestern certainly should feel it has a Tournament-capable team in 2018. And all the pent-up frustration and rage that were present at the end of the game Saturday have some place to go — becoming a two-time Tournament participant and a Sweet Sixteen team in 2018.

Only time will tell if they get there. But Collins repeated what he said on Selection Sunday on Saturday: This is only the beginning.

Fans of the three other teams in the Salt Lake City pod complemented Northwestern fans on their way out the doors at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Saturday. Northwestern came to the city and took over it as a fan base and proved the team belonged on the court.

It is only the beginning for the program.

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Badgers Basketball

2017 talking10 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Awards Special

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The Big Ten may have its awards, but what is the point of watching endless hours of Big Ten basketball without putting our two cents in, right?

Welcome to the 2017 taking10 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Awards special. Our hope is to educate you on the names that dominated our conversations and the hardwood across the Big Ten this season.

So, sit back and enjoy our special for your viewing pleasure.

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Northwestern Locks up NCAA Tourney Berth on Buzzer Beater

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No streak in college basketball may be more talked about than that of the Northwestern Wildcats and their absence in the NCAA tournament. You know, as in they’ve never made the NCAA tournament…EVER.

It isn’t something Northwestern fans aren’t well, well, WELL aware of on a yearly basis. Northwestern fans often joke about the NCAA tournament like Chicago Cubs fans have about the World Series prior to this year — you know, “there’s always next year.”

No season may be as memorable as the 2016-17 season, as the Wildcats have done everything but clinch a berth in the tournament leading up to the final days of the season. Well, after Wednesday night’s finish against Michigan, consider that ticket finally punched.

We can say that thanks to one of the most ridiculous plays of the Big Ten season.

Northwestern fans likely won’t forget where they were and who they were with when the witnessed this buzzer beater. After all, it was the buzzer beater that got them firmly in to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.

Welcome to immortality Derek Pardon.

Welcome to trivia question for the ages Nathan Taphorn…as the one who made the full-court pass for the win.

Of course, the bottles will be put on ice for the next 10 days or so until the name of the Northwestern Wildcats will be named as part of the field of 64 officially. However, a win over Michigan in the final week and a winning record in the Big Ten?

You can bank on a NCAA tourney ticket with those kind of numbers.

[Video from theScore]

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Big Ten Basketball Weekly Roundup: Jan. 16

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Another week, another set of “we didn’t see that coming” results. Welcome to the Big Ten basketball season apparently. 

While a few teams appear to be separating themselves at the very top of the conference, 10 teams are within two losses of the top spot in the B1G. That’s how insane the Big Ten has been already.

So, here we are with our second weekly roundup, trying to make sense of the chaos. Enjoy the week that was in Big Ten basketball.

Team of the Week: Northwestern Wildcats

You don’t need to refresh the page…this is not a drill. Northwestern had the best week of any team in the Big Ten this past week. It’s part expectations, part potential amazing story and a whole lot of things that NU needed to do to become an NCAA tournament team.

Northwestern survived a scare in Piscataway, New Jersey, narrowly beating Rutgers 69-60 on the road. Teams that make the NCAA tournament find ways to grind out these types of games. NU

While that wasn’t a great night, Northwestern put the bad moments behind them in a return to Welsh-Ryan arena and proceeded to dismantle Iowa in an 89-54 result. Sure, Iowa isn’t great this season, but that was the biggest ass-kicking in the Big Ten so far this year.

In fact, dare I say it was the most complete performance I have ever seen from Northwestern at any point in the 30-plus years I have been paying attention to Big Ten basketball. NU shot nearly 60 percent from the field, held Iowa to just 35.3 percent shooting and had four of five starters reach double figures (two of which went off for 20-plus points).

Northwestern taking care of business against teams it should be hasn’t been a consistent thing in a long time. If the Wildcats keep winning games they should and find a way to get a bigger win down the road this could well be an NCAA tournament team.

Other Big Ten coaches should also be calling Chris Collins, because the Wildcats have figured out the road win thing…starting off the B1G campaign 3-1 in road contests.

Player of the Week: Scottie Lindsey, G Northwestern

For the second straight week, the team and the player of the week are the same on our end. This was an easy one, as few players in the conference were as clutch as Lindsey was nor were they as vital on both ends of the court as Lindsey was either.

He finished the week averaging 18 points, grabbing seven rebounds against Rutgers and eight against Iowa. Lindsey also shot 48.2 percent from the field this past week. Not too shabby from the junior guard that most people outside of the Northwestern basketball community could’ve picked out of a lineup heading in to the season.

Lindsey’s game against Iowa should’ve been good enough alone — finishing with 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and 53.3 percent from the field. Incredible stuff for an incredible game as a team.

We Didn’t See That Coming: Ohio State’s win over Michigan State

Seriously, who saw Michigan State going in to Columbus and dropping that game? Even the most diehard of Ohio State fans likely didn’t see that coming. After all, the Buckeyes just got done get blasted by Wisconsin earlier in the week and Michigan State appeared to be rounding in to form.

Instead, Ohio State played some physical basketball and matched Michigan State’s intensity level from the opening tip-off on. Ohio State even managed to handle a few runs made by Michigan State including a 5-0 run to start the game that had an eerie feeling of deja vu for OSU after Thursday’s game at Wisconsin.

But, the Buckeyes battled hard in this one and came out the other end with a huge win. Will this be a catalyst towards a crazy run in conference play? That remains to be seen, but it was very important for Thad Matta to have his team not let that Wisconsin butt-kicking snowball on them.

Biggest Disappointment: Nebrasketball

What a cute hashtag #Nebrasketball makes. However, it needs to be backed up by quality basketball, and it appears a lot of the early season production was smoke and mirrors for Tim Miles’ crew.

Staring the Big Ten season at 3-0 and becoming the final team to stand undefeated in conference play seems like ages ago now. That’s what happens when you go from undefeated to a two-game losing streak.

It’s not so much that Nebraska has dropped a pair of games, it is that the Huskers have done it at home and on the road and begun to lose the close games they were winning earlier in the Big Ten season.

Nebraska’s three-game winning streak to open conference play came by a combined nine points. Teams like that usually are the ones that not only have luck, but the grit to grind out any and all close games throughout the season.

That has been quickly reversed as soon as the undefeated B1G bubble burst in Lincoln against Northwestern. But, perhaps the most disappointing result came in the lone game the Huskers had this week — giving up over 90 points to Michigan in Crisler Arena.

It was a brutal defensive performance for a team that has a reputation as one of the toughest defensive teams in the Big Ten. Miles has built his program on that defensive reputation.

Hopefully for the Huskers’ sake, that performance over the weekend was a blip on the radar. If it is a symptom of a larger problem afoot, Miles may be in some serious trouble in Lincoln.

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