It’s become one of the most well-known sports trivia questions: Name the five college basketball programs that existed in 1938 (when the NCAA tournament was first held) to have never danced in March Madness. By this Sunday, though, that number will likely drop to four. Northwestern, the only high-major school of the group (which includes William & Mary, St. Francis NY, Army, and The Citadel), currently has a 21-10 record, and is coming off the greatest win in the team’s history: tied with Michigan in the final seconds of a Big Ten game last week, Dererk Pardon snagged a full-court desperation pass right under the basket and laid the ball in, giving the Wildcats the win and essentially punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament (though Northwestern lost on Sunday to Purdue, the team is currently a 9-seed in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology).
This has been the year for teams in the Chicagoland area to end curses. First, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and now the Wildcats—a team that for years struggled to find enough talented players who could both excel on the court and in the classroom—will have their first One Shining Moment appearance. What changed? For starters, Chris Collins, hired several years ago, ditched the Princeton offense that former coach Bill Carmody had long practiced, and then began to bring Big Ten-caliber players to campus. His first recruiting class, consisting of Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, and Gavin Skelly, is the offensive core of this 2017 squad, and Collins has continued to tap the Chicago recruiting pipeline that long stiff-armed past NU coaching staffs.
While Northwestern won’t compete for the national title, the team has enough talent to win at least one tourney game. McIntosh, a 6-foot-3 junior, has a ball-handling legerdemain that rivals the nation’s other top guards, and Sanjay Lumpkin, one of the few players of Indian descent to play Division I ball, is the squad’s most offensively efficient player, a role player who is accurate around the hoop and rarely turns the ball over. But even if the Wildcats don’t win a game, all that matters is that the team’s infamous streak has finally been relegated forever to the record books.
Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated—a Northwestern grad—wrote about the team’s renewed recruiting success in 2013, when Law, the first high-profile Chicago recruit, committed to the school:
One four-star commitment can’t change a program, and there are higher-impact players than Law in the class of 2014, but in terms of need and momentum, his pledge will go down as one of the biggest of the summer. Collins was used to pulling in elite players as a Duke assistant, but Northwestern? Zero-NCAA-bids-ever Northwestern? Its last top-75 recruit was center Evan Eschmeyer—in 1993. Three months into Collins’ tenure at NU, he ended that 20-year drought by selling the promise of a turnaround. “He just needed one person to believe in him,” Law said. “And I believe. I know we’re going to win.”