They say that in order to understand the present, you must explore the past. With that in mind, it's time to take a trip in the Wayback Time Machine to the last time NU was *thisclose* to the NCAA Tournament with three games left in the regular season.
No, I'm not talking about the past three years, when our bubble was already basically burst this late in the season, nonwithstanding our fatalistic hopes. I'm talking about the 2001-02 season.
Yes, 10 years ago, 27 games into their season, our Wildcats were in position to make school history, sitting at 16-9 overall, and a tantalizing 7-6 in the Big Ten. At the time, it was the second-best win total in the program's sad existence. They had beaten Michigan State and Wisconsin, who would go on to be that year's conference regular-season co-champion. They had lost by just one on the road against Ohio State, the eventual Big Ten tournament champion (before their wins were vacated by the NCAA). In the non-conference slate, NU had notched wins against Florida State (which would later beat No. 1 Duke) and Kansas State.
All the Wildcats had to do was win at least two of their remaining regular season games, then maybe get a win or two in the Big Ten tournament, and they would be in, the first NU team to make the Big Dance! Sound familiar? National media was taking notice of the Wildcats. Anticipation was high. Would they be able to pull it off???
Of course, they didn't. NU would close the season with four straight losses, none of them close, and to add insult to injury, the team wasn't even invited to the NIT. Yes, as if our basketball history wasn't ignominious enough, the '01-'02 Wildcats became the first Big Ten squad with a winning record since 1984 not to be invited to the NIT.
The season began promisingly enough. A bright, young (ok, not that young) coach named Bill Carmody was entering his second season at NU with his tricky Princeton offense, rebuilding the program that Kevin O'Neill had torched to the ground.
Carmody had gone 11-19 in his first year at NU, more than doubling the win total of O'Neill's last year, and had a solid veteran cast returning, which included undersized but hard-nosed center/forward Tavaras Hardy, gritty sophomore guard Jitim Young, and outside marksman Winston Blake, a junior forward.
Junior center Aaron Jennings started the year on the bench but emerged in the second half of the season to claim a starting spot. Senior point guard Collier Drayton ran the offense. Hustling junior forward Jason Burke played key minutes off the bench, and a lanky Croatian, Vedran Vukusic, made his freshman debut, being the first product, along with Davor Duvancic, of Carmody's Eastern European pipeline.
This sounds laughable now, but the Wildcats' success came from a stifling defense that ranked 4th in the nation in points against. Much of that was due to a slow-down offense that bled down the 35-second shot clock every possession, limiting the other team's offensive chances, but NU also held opponents to 43.7% shooting from the field and ranked third in the conference in steals-per-game. Some stats all-too-familiar to us also applied: NU ranked second to last in rebounding margin and was dead last by a significant margin in free-throw percentage.
The Wildcats got off to a really solid start, going 7-1, including the wins over Florida State and Kansas State in Evanston. Head-scratching was the 71-68 loss to Eastern Carolina in the second game of the season, but besides that, things looked good. Then, some troubling signs emerged. First, a 63-60 loss against Fordham. Then a one-point win, 52-51, against Louisiana-Lafayette. Then a 77-60 blowout loss to Arizona State, which would bring NU's non-conference record to 8-3.
Given how bad NU basketball had been prior to this, an 8-3 start was not something to scoff at. The three losses were bad losses, but hey, eight wins! So then, the Big Ten season started, and the injury-plagued Wildcats lost their first three games, against Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State. Vukusic had a bum shoulder that would later require surgery and cause him to miss the next season. Drayton was playing on a sore ankle, reserve guard Drew Long had an injured hip, and Burke had a broken hand.
The season seemed sunk already, but despite the adversity, the Wildcats would go on to win their next two games, at Michigan and home against Iowa. After a heartbreaking 63-61 road loss at Purdue, NU would get a non-conference win over Buffalo and then stun Wisconsin, 69-60, in Evanston. Riding the momentum of that huge upset, NU would play No. 25 Ohio State down to the wire, before coming up just short, 58-57.
Halfway through the Big Ten season, NU's record stood at 12-8, 3-5. It was a solid record by NU standards, but nothing that necessarily signaled an NCAA bid.
NU started the second half of the conference season with a bang, beating Michigan State at home, 61-49. It was NU's first win over the Spartans since 1997, and the four conference wins surpassed NUs total from the previous year. Things were looking up. After a terrible 73-44 loss at Wisconsin, NU would right the ship with three straight wins, inviting Wildcat Nation to dream of the impossible: 58-56 over Minnesota, 55-49 at Penn State, and 61-48 against Purdue. That brought NU up to 16-9, 7-6, unprecedented territory for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats hadn't been this close to the NCAA Tournament ever. MSU head coach Tom Izzo even called NU "a tournament team." I don't know what NU's RPI was back then at that point, but it was enough to have NU on the bubble. The Wildcats' resume was marred by those bad non-conference losses, but it did have the big wins over Wisconsin and MSU, though both were at home. NU was in fifth place in the Big Ten, tied with MSU and Minnesota. Indiana was at the top, followed by OSU and Wisconsin. The 16th-ranked Illinois, NU's next opponent, sat in fourth at 8-5.
Strangely, much of NU fandom seemed more relieved that the Wildcats were eligible for the NIT at 16 wins (ensuring a winning record), which seems an indictment on how bad the program has been. While there was some national buzz about NU being on the NCAA bubble, even this Daily Northwestern article focused on the NIT. And that's with three games left, including high-profile games against Illinois and Indiana, as well as against fellow bubble team Minnesota, for the Wildcats to enhance their resume.
On campus, the buzz was....muted. Despite the success of the team, NU students didn't seem caught up in the road to March Madness. NU attendance that season included showings of 4,984 for the OSU game, 3,935 for Wisconsin, 5,375 for Michigan State, and a pathetic 3,613 for Minnesota. Hardy and Drayton would email the student body before the Illinois game, practically begging for fan support on Senior Day, lest NU student tickets be made available to the public (i.e. Illinois fans). This was back when students had to pay for tickets, instead of getting in "free" thanks to a student activities fee like nowadays.
NU would sell out that Illinois game, arguably the biggest game in NU history up to that point, ignoring games in the '50s and '60s that were two whole generations ago. This blogger, still young and naive in the ways of the world, would settle into his student section seat totally hyped up for the game and sure, just sure, that NU would kick the crap out of the hated Illini en route to an NCAA bid.
Instead, NU got walloped, 56-41, as the Wildcats would score just 13 points in the first half and miss every single one of their 17 three-point attempts. No matter, this future blogger said. It's just one loss, and we've got two more chances. Illinois isn't ranked No. 16 for no reason, and maybe the pressure of Senior Day and the tournament talk caused the team to be uptight. Surely, the Wildcats would have a better showing in their next game against Minnesota, a team they were competing against on the NCAA bubble.
Alas, it was not to be. In Minneapolis, NU would score just 18 points in the first half and shot a season-low 28.3% for the game (somehow worse than the Illinois game), as the Golden Gophers would bury the Wildcats, 69-51. So, NU now stood at 16-11, 7-8. One last chance to pick up a big win, which then hopefully would bode well for NU's chances in the Big Ten tournament. A win against No. 25 Indiana, plus maybe two wins in the conference tournament, could just be enough to squeak in. The hopes for an NCAA bid, flickering as they were, were still alive. The few fans left on the bandwagon still dared to hope against logic.
The Wildcats would take a 19-10 lead in Bloomington in the first half, but Indiana would claw back, and the half ended with the Hoosiers ahead, 33-32. Indiana would stretch the lead to 16 in the second half, but NU, behind 24 points from Hardy, would rally. The Wildcats would close to 73-67 with 1:19 to play, but they couldn't get over the hump, losing 79-67.
The three straight losses put the team into a funk entering the Big Ten tournament. Despite having the No. 7 seed, the highest seed they had ever gotten, NU wilted against Michigan, 72-51, in the first round. And with that, the dream was over. Hardy and Drayton wouldn't even get to continue their careers in the NIT, after that tournament snubbed the Wildcats. Back then, NIT match-ups were determined more by potential ticket sales and television ratings, and NU apparently missed the cut.
Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois would share the Big Ten regular season title, along with Ohio State, though the Buckeyes' record would subsequently be vacated by the NCAA. The Buckeyes also won the conference tournament. Those four teams and Michigan State made the NCAA tournament out of the Big Ten. Illinois and Indiana would make the Sweet 16, and Indiana would go all the way to the final, before losing to Maryland.
For NU, Hardy would earn third-team All-Big Ten honors, after averaging 12.3 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game. Blake would be an honorable mention selection, ranking 12th in the conference with 13.6 points per game.
The season, even with its disappointing end, would breed optimism for the program and earn Carmody a ton of positive vibes. After slipping back in the '02-'03 season to 12-17 overall, 3-13 in the Big Ten with an all-freshman backcourt of TJ Parker and Mohammed Hachad, the Wildcats would rebound the next year to go 8-8 in the Big Ten, good for fifth place, earning Carmody a Big Ten Coach of the Year award (not a typo). Unfortunately, a 14-15 overall record that year would keep NU out of the postseason.
The next two years would see the Wildcats go 15-16 and 14-15, both years with 6-10 Big Ten records. (As an aside, I wonder if coming 1 game under .500 for three years in a row, keeping NU out of the NIT, has been a reason that the team has gone with really soft non-conference schedules the last few years, to ensure that NU stays eligible for the postseason.)
At that point, fans began to wonder whether Carmody had plateaued, and the first signs of Carmody being a victim of his own success began to show. That would be quickly be replaced by misery the next two abysmal seasons, when the Wildcats would go 2-14 and then 1-17 in Big Ten play. Then, as you know, the last four years have seen even greater success, if not quite satisfactory.
So here we are again, three games left in the regular season, our NCAA Tournament hopes paradoxically higher than they've ever been but still so far away. This year's team is closer to the tournament than the '01-'02 team was, with a better RPI and overall resume. But bottom line is, just like 10 years ago, the Wildcats face three games that will be uphill battles, but almost all of them are must-wins. They might be able to afford losing one, but almost certainly not two. I don't know what lessons can be taken from that '01-'02 season, but at the very least, Hardy can empathize with our current players and maybe impart some wisdom on how to (or how not to) handle the pressure.
Here's the part where, if I were a real sportswriter, I'd come up with a quippy ending. But I don't have one.
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