Johnson: Northwestern didn’t deserve an NCAA Tournament bid, but all is not lost

Chris Johnson

NIT. The three-letter acronym stands for National Invitation Tournament. But for the many Northwestern men’s basketball fans who stood by their televisions Sunday afternoon and watched as CBS’s Greg Gumbel revealed this year’s NCAA Tournament Bracket, the three letters took on a different meaning: Not In Tournament.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Wildcats will be playing postseason basketball. And for the fourth consecutive year, that postseason play will not have any impact on the 68-team bracket that we all become so familiar with this time of year.

As the Welsh-Ryan faithful and all NU alumni with a rooting interest in Bill Carmody’s squad-sporadic as they may be-commence with their lamenting of another “wasted” season, I think it’s best we remove our purple-tinted glasses and attempt to restrain our indignation.

Let us assess this year’s field of 68 with an unbiased, holistic approach. The Cats simply didn’t deserve a bid.

NU finished at 18-13 with an 8-10 record in the Big Ten, an RPI of 68, and a strength of schedule rating of 20. Those metrics simply don’t comprise a tournament-worthy resume.

The Cats finished 1-10 against the RPI top 50, their one win coming at home against Michigan State. Yes, beating the Spartans did wonders for NU’s tournament hopes – it was the only bright spot on an otherwise mediocre resume. But in order to make the field, you need to prove that you can beat good teams on a consistent basis.

What NU did for most of this season was prove it could hang around with good teams – see its two overtime losses to Michigan, two-point losses against Purdue and Ohio State, one point loss to Illinois and five point loss to Indiana – but, ultimately, fail to come out on top.

A common post-game remark from opposing coaches was that Northwestern “is a tournament team.” The Cats have the talent to be a tournament team, and with a win in any of the aforementioned heartbreakers, they likely would have been a tournament team. But the RPI does not include margin of victory, nor does the Selection Committee offer consolation for close losses. There are no moral victories: a win is a win and a loss is a loss.

The Cats continually came up short when they couldn’t afford to. The result: a tournament-resume that left a lot to be desired.

Critics will say neither BYU nor Iona deserved to be included in this year’s field. While I admit those two selections are a bit puzzling to say the least, the Cats weren’t any more deserving, nor were they one of the teams the Selection Committee considered for the final at-large bid.

CBS’s Jerry Palm gave NU fans a false sense of hope in the wake of the Cats’ overtime loss to Minnesota by keeping them in his bracket projections up until Selection Sunday. But the truth is, NU was doomed the moment JerShonn Cobb committed a crucial turnover in overtime, the moment the Cats’ elimination from the conference tournament was set in stone.

“I don’t think the guys need much convincing,” Carmody said, when asked about the motivation of his players going into their NIT game, a home matchup with fifth-seeded Akron.

While the likes of John Shurna, Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski and the rest of the Cats surely won’t treat this postseason as a consolation tournament, my fear is that the fans will. But disappointment over missing the NCAA Tournament does not justify ignoring a team that just concluded one of the most successful seasons in program history.

Lest we not forget, the Cats provided us with some of the most thrilling, unforgettable drama-even if that drama didn’t always conclude with a happy ending.

There was the Michigan State game, in which Welsh-Ryan Arena played host to one of the best upsets in this year’s college basketball season, a scintillating roller coaster ride that included 17 points from the man now affectionately known as Lord Curletti and culminated with a court storming that left Draymond Green and the rest of the Spartans thinking, “What just happened?”

Then there was the Ohio State game, in which-for 38 of 40 minutes-the Cats appeared as if they would succumb to the Buckeyes’ superior size and athleticism. But an overmatched, yet resilient NU squad managed to get within striking distance, allowing Alex Marco-three-llio to connect on a desperation 3-point try with just less than eight seconds remaining, tying the game and sending the NU student section into rapturous bliss. The ensuing game-winning basket by Sullinger put an end to the celebration, but did nothing to erase that memory.

Of course, there have been low points, chief among them the beatdown suffered at the hands of Baylor in Evanston. But with all this team has given us this year, NU fans owe them our support in the coming week – or hopefully, weeks – and, more importantly, our attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Tuesday night.

A matchup in the NIT with the Akron Zips is not the ideal situation; even a “first-four” game in Dayton is, undoubtedly, preferable. But these NIT games, which so often get slapped with the “consolation” game moniker, do mean something.

This postseason marks the final time Cats fans will be able to witness Shurna grace Welsh-Ryan Arena with his presence and his unsightly, yet highly effective, jump shot, and the last time we see Luka duck as he enters the locker room tunnel at half time. The seniors have given Cats’ fans only their best for four years, and that effort is not going to go away just because they failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

More importantly, though, the core of this team will be back next year, when the Cats collectively regroup and hope for their 74 (and counting)-year streak of futility to finally come to an end. This group as currently constructed-minus Shurna, Mirkovic, Curletti and Nick Fruendt-will be responsible for making sure that NU doesn’t feel the same way one year from now.

With this in mind, would it make any sense for us to neglect our beloved Cats, even if they failed to qualify for the tournament we had hoped for?

The group that takes the floor Tuesday night in its opening round NIT matchup will suit up next November for the start of the 2012-2013 season with one goal in mind: make the field of 68.

Although the Cats failed to reach that goal this season, they came closer than ever before to breaking the threshold. One bucket here, one stop here, and we’re all singing a different tune today. All we can hope is that next year, they make those crucial plays and win those close games.

November is a long way away, and until then, we will continue to lament a season defined by “almost” and “should have”. But despite all of our anger, our woe, our seeming resignation to a future sans March Madness, there is hope-hope that our misery will come to an end by this time next March.

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