Northwestern Sits Out the Big Dance Again: Why Wildcats Sports Seem Hopeless

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The Minnesota Golden Gophers would eventually grab that ball -- and an NCAA bid hope -- out of the hands of Northwestern's John Shurna during the first round game of the Big Ten tournament on March 8, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

It may appear a curious coincidence that Northwestern’s sports complex is located adjacent to one of the best hospitals in the Chicago area. But when your team acquires a nickname like the Cardiac Cats, it becomes a pleasant convenience. OK, so I never had to make post-game use of Evanston’s hospital, but the heart-racing action of the Wildcats (that often ended in utter depression) made me fantasize about what a shock from a defibrillator would feel like. Or perhaps the endorphin rush of a Prozac would have been a better decision.

And the Cardiac Cats were up to the same tricks again this year. The Wildcats men’s basketball team was tantalizingly close to a March Madness berth. Oh so close, but they were destined to fail. Call me a cynic, call me a hater; but as a 2010 graduate of Northwestern, I knew they’d falter. Four years of watching the Wildcats score touchdowns and shoot baskets and so often manage to screw it up in the final moments will do that to you. So once again, the Wildcats’ are refused an invitation to the Big Dance. But it didn’t get lost in the mail. Nope, they had the letter in hand – and instead took a blowtorch to the envelope.

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Their last chance at dancing with the grownups was squandered Thursday with a 75-68 overtime loss to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Sure, the team had been on a rather poor streak as the season came to a close, an 18-13 record and a couple of major losses set them farther back in the selection committee’s good graces, but it was almost as if the basketball Gods had a pact to smite the Cats: in the last seconds of Thursday’s game, a jumper from JerShon Cobb, one that could have put Northwestern’s name on a bracket line, stalled on the rim for a second. In that unfathomably long amount of time, the exuberance (and tinges of fear) of our first admission to the Big Dance after a 74-year drought – that is, every single year since its inception – flashed before our eyes. But before we had a chance to even think about changing the championship banners in Welsh-Ryan Arena, the ball found the wrong edge of the rim and flopped to the floor, deflating along with it our tourney hopes. Instead, we’ll have to cheer on our rivals at Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin who all made it. And despite our winning record, once again Northwestern is left feeling like the twelfth team in the Big Ten.

Though I can say with the utmost sincerity that we’re not a terrible sports school. We recruit great players: Kevin Coble was a much buzzed-about powerhouse when he arrived in 2006. “Juice” Thompson shattered scoring records when he arrived in 2008. And current forward John Shurna is the top scorer in the Big Ten and has quickly rose to become Northwestern’s all-time scoring leader in just three years of playing. The Wildcats have qualified for the National Invitation Tournament the past four years, including this one. We routinely hold our own against the rest of the Big Ten, including a thrilling 81-74 rout in January vs. current #1 seed Michigan State. Big names, big games, but no glory.

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And it’s not just basketball. Our football team has made it to a BCS bowl game the past four years straight. With four straight losses. And it’s all about the last-minute, small-margin losses, too. No loss has been greater than 11 points. And two of those games were decided in overtime. I can still picture the overtime fumblerooski that saw Zeke Markshausen faking out Auburn defense (and the ESPN camera crew) and barreling toward the goal line, only to get shoved out of bounds at the two-yard-line in the 2010 Outback Bowl.  So often the Wildcats get so close, but cannot capitalize on those divisive moments. Talk about a turn-off – which is exactly the problem. We quickly wised up to the Cardiac Cats’ disappointing outcomes after investing hours of emotion and energy into cheering. Which is why the typical debaucherous freshman days of funneling Busch Light and stumbling to the field were quickly traded for an extra few hours of sleep or video games or whatever else. It became increasingly difficult to recruit companions to games. And the tickets were free, for God’s sake! Yes, Northwestern implicitly realized that the frequent disappointment would turn so many students off that they had to allow us free entry.

I sometimes wonder how fans of perennial basketball powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky maintain their enthusiasm year after year when their school’s name is called on Selection Sunday. Maybe a bit delusional, I tuned into last night’s selection show, hoping that the committee would show some mercy, and offer my Cats a backdoor invite. I continue to bleed purple even though my college days are gone, but I maintain an overwhelming feeling of doubt that the Cats will find their moment in the spotlight. Don’t get me wrong, though: When it finally arrives, it will be glorious. It’s just hard to see the top of the well Northwestern seems permanently stuck in. It’s this ideal of finally attaining glory that sets us up for utter failure in the end. Perhaps my healthy cynicism will make the ultimate win feel that much more real. If and when it comes.

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