Chappatta: Cats’ effort makes underdogs fun to watch

Brian Chappatta

I’m still waiting for a question about Kevin Coble.

After Northwestern took down No. 6 Purdue 72-64 Saturday, coach Bill Carmody and his players had to field the usual condescending questions. What does a win over a ranked opponent mean to you? After a history of losing, how nice does it feel to get a win? How does it feel to have fans?

Those NU fans stormed the court in jubilation because the Wildcats are the real deal. But their team could knock off more top-ranked conference foes, and it will still be looked down upon as the team that’s never made the NCAA Tournament. They faced early-season adversity when they lost their best player. They are the underdog of underdogs.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I watched the game against Purdue, it became quite clear NU was outmatched physically, both in terms of speed and strength. It took the Cats a few minutes to get a decent look at the basket.

But soon after, Michael Thompson, the smallest player on the court, stepped up in a big way, knocking down two contested 3-pointers to spark a 12-0 run. The junior point guard said after the game he was so worn down by the Boilermakers’ smothering defense, he threw up during a media timeout.

Then freshman Drew Crawford, with his father Danny looking on, hit big shot after big shot like a four-year starter. He put the Cats in the lead 51-50 on a fade-away trey with two seconds on the shot clock, and then extended the lead to 64-57 after pouring in six straight points.

NU might not be the strongest team, the fastest team or the most experienced team. But this team has fight and the will to win. That’s why Purdue coach Matt Painter was practically gushing about NU’s performance against his squad.

“We got beat by a better team,” he said. “They played harder than we did. Just look at some of the effort categories. It’s pretty simple to me.”

Only effort and willpower can explain how the Cats went from not grabbing a board in the final minutes against Wisconsin to outrebounding Purdue 42-23. Painter said the Boilermakers executed their game plan of pressuring the ball and not letting the Cats beat them with the 3-pointer. NU responded by driving hard to the hole, getting fouled and nailing its free throws. The Cats were 26-of-30 from the foul line-a vast improvement from their 9-of-16 showing against the Badgers.

Those are just the obvious areas of what Painter called the “play hard chart” that show up in the box score. What you won’t see is just how hard Thompson had to work every possession to make it past halfcourt. You won’t see how Kyle Rowley played a crucial role in getting JaJuan Johnson in foul trouble and keeping him out of rhythm. You won’t see the passion and determination the players had as they held onto their lead in the closing minutes.

The little things are what make the Cats so fun to watch and are why they earn the admiration of opposing coaches. Teams like North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and the other perennial powers are boring. They can play poorly but still win thanks to sheer talent. It’s more exciting to be the team gunning for the top than to be the team trying to avoid being gunned down.

Though I don’t mind NU flying under the radar, I’m sick of it getting no respect. This isn’t the first big win for the Cats this season. How quickly people forget this team was ranked a few weeks ago after notching nonconference wins against teams like Notre Dame, Iowa State and North Carolina State.

One win does not legitimize a team. It will rekindle the buzz around the Cats and their potential to make the NCAA Tournament. But until they do so, the Cats will continue to be tortured with patronizing questions every time they beat a top opponent.

Sports editor Brian Chappatta is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]