Northwestern entered the 2011-2012 season with high hopes of earning its first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. After tonight's nerve-wracking 75-73 loss to No. 10 Ohio State, Northwestern will likely once again find itself on the outside (of the Tournament field) looking in.
If ever there was such thing as a "must win" game, tonight's contest with Ohio State represented that for Northwestern. The Wildcats came into the game clinging precariously to the NCAA Tournament "bubble." When the game tipped off, they had a 17-11 overall record, with a 7-11 record in the rugged Big Ten. The main credential on Northwestern's NCAA Tournament resume was an impressive mid January win over then-No. 6 ranked Michigan State. But after that, the Northwestern resume was a bit thin: their only other "big" win was an early February win at Illinois.
That's why tonight's home finale against Ohio State was so big. With an upset over the No. 10 Buckeyes, Northwestern would have had two signature wins over opponents ranked in the top ten of the AP Top 25. Even with a win, Northwestern still probably would have needed to beat Iowa this weekend and win a game in the Big Ten Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. But a late-season upset win over Ohio State would have made Northwestern's case for receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament considerably more credible.
That's also why Jared Sullinger's tie-breaking and game-winning turnaround bank shot with 3.1 seconds was so crushing. The Wildcats overcame a 13 point defecit late in the second half to tie the Buckeyes in the game's final seconds. Momentum was on the 'Cats' side and they were that close to taking the game into overtime (at home, no less -- overtime is usually kind to the home team); Sullinger's game-winner was dagger that probably ended whatever chance Northwestern had of making its first appearance at the "Big Dance."
However dispiriting tonight's loss may be for the Northwestern basketball program and its fans, a brief look back at the road that led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament "bubble" provides some needed perspective. Overall, Northwestern basketball is a success story. The once-perpetually moribund Wildcat basketball program has slowly and quietly become a legitimate second-tier competitor in the Big Ten conference. Head coach Bill Carmody was originally hired away from Princeton in 2000 to install the famed "Princeton offense" at Northwestern, and thus, give the ever-undermanned Wildcats at least a fighting chance to a "hang" with their athletically superior Big Ten rivals. In recent years, however, Carmody has been able to attract significantly better players to the highly-selective Evanston, Ill., school. As a result, the Wildcats have gotten a lot better: they've made three straight N.I.T. appearances, and they put together back-to-back 20 win seasons in 2010 and 2011.
The one big thing they haven't done yet, though, is make it to the NCAA Tournament.
All the gradual improvement of the Carmody era has been great (however deliberate and plodding the Wildcats' style of basketball may be), but Northwestern basketball won't have officially turned the corner and won't officially be on the college basketball "map" until the Wildcats take the floor in the NCAA Tournament. Things, however, looked quite promising prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season: with what the "experts" expected to be a "weak" Big Ten (how wrong they were!); with the attendant expected "wide open" open Big Ten race; and with four returning starters coming into 2012 -- including leading scorer John Shurna -- 2012 was supposed to be the year.
Obviously, things didn't exactly work out as expected. The Big Ten turned out to be the strongest conference in Division I college basketball. Outside of Penn State and Nebraska, every Big Ten team has, at various points in the season, looked like a potential NCAA Tournament invitee. Northwestern had an easy non-conference schedule and subsequently raced out to a 10-2 non-conference record (which included wins against LSU, Seton Hall and Georgia Tech). But the rough-and-tumble Big Ten brought the Wildcats back to Earth a bit, and despite the aforementioned impressive wins over then-No. 6 ranked Michigan State and at Illinois, Northwestern limped into tonight's home finale against Ohio State with a 7-9 conference record and in desperate need of a win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
They're now 17-12 overall, 7-10 in the Big Ten. And barring some "bat out of Hell" run in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, Jared Sullinger's game winning shot likely relegated them to their fourth consecutive N.I.T.
(Photo: Jared Sullinger game-winning shot, courtesy of Lake the Posts).