- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A staid announcement March 27, 2013, delivered in the month that had haunted Northwestern’s basketball program, made no mention of the history. It welcomed Chris Collins of buttoned-up Duke pedigree as the Wildcats’ new coach. Statements within it mentioned family. Collins referenced competing in the Big Ten Conference. No one mentioned “it”, the one “it” that has surrounded Northwestern basketball for more than a half a century: The school had never made the NCAA Tournament.

The program is one of five since 1948 that has not made it into the tournament, and its failure has become a somewhat cause celebre. Famous media alumni who work for national outlets often bring up the tortuous shortcomings. Actress and former Northwestern student Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and her husband, Brad Hall, try to attend games when possible to watch their son, Charlie Hall, who is a sophomore walk-on. They sit in the stands with other player parents.

Those famous folks have made Northwestern’s plight more recognizable than the other schools populating the list of not-so-fabulous five. Army, The Citadel, St. Francis of Brooklyn and William & Mary are neither in conferences or locations that have the pull of the Big Ten and Chicago. Which is why the Wildcats will be one of the preeminent groups this week in Washington. They come to the Big Ten Tournament at Verizon Center with a 21-10 record in a year the bubble is soft. Sunday evening, when the bracket is slid onto a television screen and the producer chooses the camera on Northwestern’s team, the waiting should be over. This, finally, will be the year the Wildcats get in.

The burden of Northwestern sports history settles on the less-publicly revered in addition to the more well-known. Michael Cohodes Payant, 22, learned of the school’s athletic failings from his mother, Susan, who graduated in 1983. In the last two years of his three years on campus, Payant covered himself in purple for every men’s basketball game and football game. His face was painted purple and white, his body sheathed in purple Spandex. A purple dress suit framed the layers. A purple Afro wig sat atop his head. After about 30 minutes of assembling, he would go to games and station himself in the front of the student section to root against history.

“I knew very well of the longstanding lack of success the team had had,” Payant said in an email. “I wore it as a little bit of a badge of honor, because it was fun going to a school where the only place to go was up.”

Long-standing Northwestern fans felt Collins was moving the Wildcats toward a tournament berth. He came with shiny Duke ties and ambition. Northwestern won 14 games his first season, then 15 the next. The Wildcats won 20 games last season for the first time since 2011, though the NCAA Tournament remained elusive. A 12-2 start this season bolstered hope.

Near the beginning and end of conference play were two crucial wins. After Northwestern moved to 4-2 in Big Ten play following a home blowout of Iowa, another chunk of infamous Wildcats basketball lore was up: a game at Ohio State. Northwestern had not won in Columbus since 1977. Collins was two years old when the Tex Winter-coached Wildcats beat Ohio State in the Buckeyes’ gym. Despite shooting 37.5 percent from the field, the Wildcats won by two points, kicking aside one lengthy list.

“That place has been a house of horrors for Northwestern forever,” Collins said in a conference call this week. “It had been 40 years for a Northwestern team to win in Columbus. That was a motivating factor for us in that game. … I thought it was a huge confidence builder for us. That was early in the year. It was during that time we were really gaining some momentum.”

Move to the end of conference play when things were getting rough. Northwestern had lost three of four after reaching 20 wins and needed to beat Michigan on a Wednesday night to snap out of it. A win against the Wolverines would be a stern fastener on Northwestern’s tournament hopes and help remove irritation from its loss a game prior, a one-point heartwrenching evening in Indiana that finished with a three-point play by the Hoosiers’ with 2.6 seconds to play. Northwestern did not score in the final 93 seconds of that game.

Most inside Welsh-Ryan Arena stood after the clock was reset to 1.7, the game with Michigan tied at 65. Northwestern had the ball along its own baseline. Nate Taphorn threw it downcourt like a right fielder unleashing a throw to the plate. It was caught by Dererk Pardon who gathered, then banked it in with his left hand from the right side just before the horn went off. The play launched Collins into the air, as much as his 42-year-old frame and black dress shoes allowed. Pardon was jubilantly tackled. The heave and finish instantly became tagged as the possession to break the 58-year run of being left out in March. Payant said it took him an hour to calm down after watching the play.

On the heels of that regular season, Northwestern arrives in the District as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. It will play the Rutgers-Ohio State winner on Thursday at approximately 9 p.m. If it wins, Maryland would be next.

ESPN projects the Wildcats as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. CBS lists Northwestern as a No. 8 seed. USA Today tags Northwestern as No. 9 seed. Its spot would be guaranteed if it wins the Big Ten Tournament.

Otherwise, it needs an at-large bid, an option which could only currently be derailed by a resounding confluence of negative events. The long shot to get in has turned into a long shot to be kept out.

Sunday, the school’s following, famous and otherwise, will be tense and expectant. Basketball has been played at Northwestern since 1901. The Wildcats did not have a winning record in conference play from 1968-2016. Collins changed that this season. They had not won at Ohio State in almost 40 years. Collins changed that this season. There’s only one thing left.

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