Source: Sarah Finnegan/The Daily Collegian
Northwestern has a bit of a tortured basketball history.
The Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament. Never. Every single Power 5 conference team besides NU has qualified for the Big Dance at least once. To add salt to the wound, the Cats actually hosted the first NCAA Tournament at the old Patten Gym in 1939, but they were not invited.
But under head coach Bill Carmody, an offensive virtuoso hired away from Princeton in 2000, the long-suffering program was getting close to the holy land.
“There was quite a bit of NCAA talk for the 2011-2012 season,” Matthew Snow, who has a website about NU basketball statistical analysis, said in an email. “It was the third year in a row that NU was still in contention for an at-large bid in February. That had never happened before in NU history. The elevation of the program in that 2008-2009 to 2012-2013 period made the NCAA tournament seem tantalizingly within reach for the first time, if not ever then certainly in a very long time.”
The Wildcats were selected for the NIT (the second-most prestigious postseason tournament), for three consecutive seasons from 2008-2009 to 2010-2011.
The next step appeared to be an impending first NCAA tournament trip, and many felt the 2011-2012 squad would be the team to get it done.
Injuries hit the Cats early on, but the team weathered the storm, partially due to the surprising emergence of a former walk-on named Reggie Hearn who had just recently received a scholarship ahead of his junior season.
NU put together a good 10-2 non-conference season — with a noticeable blip in an embarrassing 69-41 whipping at home at the hands of then-No. 7 Baylor — but succumbed to a 1-3 start in conference play.
Then came Michigan State.
Upset city and the rise of Curletti
The Spartans, who traveled to Evanston to face off with the Wildcats on Saturday, Jan. 14, in some ways were not a likely opponent for NU to upset.
Michigan State was ranked No. 6 in the country ahead of the contest, and was on a preposterous 15-game winning streak.
Head coach Tom Izzo was (and still is) a legend of the sport, and the Spartans had an emerging frontcourt — future NBA player Draymond Green started at forward — right where the Cats were weakest.
“They were stronger, more physical and more athletic,” said Ivan Vujic, an NU assistant coach at the time. “It was a complete size mismatch.”
Compounding the problem was the near-absense of 6-foot-11 center Luka Mirkovic, who was limited to four minutes in the contest as he struggled with injuries.
Mirkovic had been splitting time all season with fellow senior Davide Curletti, but the forward would get the full start on this night, all 6-foot-9 of him trying to take down the Spartans.
Curletti found out about his temporary full-time role just minutes before tip-off, but the Michigan native was ready.
Actually, it had been a long shot that the forward would make his way to NU at all. Curletti had been courted by a cadre of big schools early in the recruiting process only for a fractured back and his subsequent absence in the all-too-crucial summer AAU period before his senior season to remove his scholarship offers.
He had thought for a time afterward that he would enter school as a regular student, until some hot play in January and February of his senior year.
“Northwestern was the first team that talked to me after my injury,” Curletti said. “After they showed interest, a lot of other schools came back, including Michigan and Michigan State, but I felt a little shafted. I was like, ‘Oh now you want me because another school is showing interest?’”
Revenge wasn’t necessarily on his mind, but a little extra excitement was in the air for Curletti.
It wasn’t just the opponent either, the crowd was that electric.
“It was a blackout from the students and we packed the arena, which was nice because that wasn’t commonplace for Northwestern basketball,” Hearn said. “In the non-conference slate, we struggled to fill the lower part of the arena. And that was the third (home) game in the Big Ten, and literally every seat was filled.”
The noise didn’t dissipate when the contest began.
“Basically every play, the crowd was going crazy,” then-junior guard Alex Marcotullio said. “When you see a crowd like that, it makes you play harder.”
As for the game action, the plan was to neutralize Michigan State’s greater athleticism, especially by slowing the Spartans down by implementing the Cats’ patented ultra-pressure 1-3-1 zone — a defensive set up that required great discipline from all five players in order to facilitate proper trapping.
The game plan worked, especially with the physical play of Curletti.
“He was comfortable taking hits to the chest,” Vujic said. “And the more physical the game got, he performed better. He loved the contact. Defensively, he was just a machine.”
Curletti catapulted NU forward in the first-half, with his 13 points contributing mightily to a 39-37 Cats halftime lead. He would only score 4 more in the second half, but his defense remained meaningful, and NU’s offense worked to near-perfect execution in an 81-point effort.
“They played a lot of man-to-man, and our offense was designed to beat those teams that were up in your face,” Curletti said. “We were just trying to take advantage of them overplaying us. They were playing us tight, and we just cut backdoor.”
The young Spartans were befallen by such mistakes, one leading to an emphatic and memorable Curletti dunk.
“That dunk may have been one of the loudest noises I’ve ever heard at Welsh-Ryan arena,” season ticket-holder Jon Davis (Weinberg ’06) said. “It was just the sheer shock of it, having such an athletic dunk from a Northwestern center. It was something that was rather unheard of. ”
In the end, NU captured the contest 81-74, culminating with a rare court rushing at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The mood in the NU season had changed all of a sudden, as the Cats were now 2-3 in conference and had a signature win to hang their hats on. The win catapulted them firmly into the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
The players, while appreciative of the crowd that had gathered for the contest, were a bit underwhelmed by the precision of the court rushing.
“Because it happens at Northwestern so little, we’re not good at it and we need to learn,” Hearn said. “We can use some drills on rushing the court”
Marcotullio piled on.
“You like to see a mad rush, a flood up the court, rather than people coming out of the crowd here or there,” he said. “Overall, it was a B-minus.”
The Michigan State upset was a seminal moment for NU basketball. It wasn’t the only time NU had beaten a top-10 team — actually the program accomplished a similar feat against Purdue just two years before. And it wasn’t even the most jaw-dropping victory against the Spartans— the Wildcats beat a Magic Johnson-led Michigan State in 1979.
But the win put the Cats back in the NCAA Tournament conversation in a year where more fans than ever believed in the team’s ability to qualify for the biggest postseason tournament in college basketball.
But it didn’t faze the players.
“At that point we had been to the NIT for three consecutive years and we had heard the same talk,” said John Shurna, the star senior forward. “We were so accustomed to hearing it that I don’t think it changed anyone’s mindset.”
Nonetheless, the roof quickly caved in. Following the upset, NU lost three consecutive contests, two of them by blowout margins — an unusual occurrence in a season riddled with nail-biting contests.
This was at a time when Mirkovic’s injuries continued to limit him, and he would soon miss the rest of the season.
Shurna, the heart of the team’s offensive firepower but not considered as potent a defender, was forced out of position into center duties during this streak.
Adding onto the mountain of problems were complications with Curletti’s health.
“I had food poisoning or something either a night or two after Michigan State,” Curletti said. “I was vomiting like crazy, from 10 to 5 in the morning, and I even needed to have two IVs put in to get some fluids back in me. I think I lost 4 to 10 pounds or something. I still played the next game, but I was basically dead.”
Tack on tough road environments and 1-3-1 buster Wisconsin, and the losing streak and subsequent move off the bubble seemed inevitable.
As pressure and nervous energy permeated the environment surrounding the Cats’ season, the team never hinted at fracturing.
The group was having too much fun.
Even as the tournament pressure amped up, team morale held firm. The players were a tight bunch, constantly hanging together outside of practice, competing ferociously in “Halo” in the locker room and committing to “cookie time,” — a period after team meals on the road where players would sit around, tell stories and build team relationships.
Curletti had fond memories of mocking forward Drew Crawford’s big car, dubbed “the Airplane” for its massive size and inability to conform to street parking.
The friendships also aided in canceling out the tournament hysteria from fans and media.
“Being so close as a team, and not having that many outside friends to hype this up, really helped us,” Curletti said. “That really allowed us to keep our heads together and surge forward.”
The on-court antics were fervent as well. Shurna and Marcotullio committed to legendary 3-point shooting contests in practice on a near-daily basis.
Fellow teammates would place wagers on the side, with Hearn remembering small amounts of money being bet, and informal running accounts keeping track of who owed who.
“Shurna and I had some battles,” Marcotullio said. “He may not have gotten the better of me. I think I got him overall. There are witnesses who will back me up.”
The stretch run and heartbreak
After the bad streak of play, NU got back on track. Following the three losses, NU rolled off the same amount of successive wins, and then jostled back and forth between both columns.
Tournament talk among fans was re-energized and became non-stop.
“It kind of became an everyday obsession,” Davis said.
The players admitted to hearing the noise as the season wore on, with the questions persistent and coaches hinting when a certain game might have extra importance.
The fans showed up in full force as the stretch run commenced.
The lynchpin of the regular season, though, was a home matchup against No. 10 Ohio State, a team NU had lost to by 33 in its only previous meeting that season.
The Cats were sorely lacking in the signature wins department of an NCAA tournament resume, and a victory against the Buckeyes would near-guarantee their inclusion.
Against a loaded and complete Ohio State, NU surprisingly held its own, and was down 3 with about 15 seconds left in the game.
The ensuing sequence — with the acclaimed Gus Johnson on the call — would go down in NU lore.
As Marcotullio recalled, on the inbounds play the set up was to get the ball to Shurna, but tight coverage on NU’s star scorer forced the ball into Marcotullio’s hands at the top of the key. From there, he took quick action.
“When I caught it, I realized they had put Deshaun Thomas on me,” said Marcotullio, who was smaller but quicker. “I figured that I could have an opening, make a move and get off my shot fairly easily. I was able to make a little pullback move and make the shot.”
The ensuing frenzy from the crowd was short-lived. Following a timeout, Ohio State had five seconds to move the ball up court, and they did so with ease.
“I’m not sure we should’ve been in the 1-3-1,” Hearn said. “They screened Marcotullio off, and (Ohio State guard Aaron) Craft was able to go full speed. JerShon (Cobb) was down low and he went for the steal when they lobbed it up to Jared Sullinger down low, and I was a couple milliseconds too late.”
Hearn said that a photo from the game proved his milliseconds claim wasn’t an exaggeration. In the photo, he said, his fingers appeared to be touching the ball as Sullinger released it for a turnaround layup.
A failed desperate heave from Shurna later, and the Cats had lost another close battle.
A week later at the Big Ten Tournament, the Cats needed one win, likely two, to have a good shot at an NCAA bid.
Amid NU players throwing up on the sideline during the opening round of the tournament, the Cats faltered and lost to Minnesota in overtime following a missed jumper by then-freshman guard Dave Sobolewski in regulation. The dreams of the tournament looked bleak, and everybody knew it.
Marcotullio said there wasn’t a dry eye after the game, and his assistant coach concurred.
“When you can make history like that and you come one game away, it’s heartbreaking,” Vujic said. “Guys were crying in the locker room. They were crying, some were laid out on the floor because they care so much about the sport.”
The Minnesota loss was the nail in the coffin.
The team gathered together on Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament, and there was “a mix of optimism and pessimism” in the room.
Most knew that the tournament was not to be that year.
“I was there that Sunday in the N Club and we had the whole team watching the show,” University President Morton Schapiro said. “They wanted to have cameras in there, they always have cameras for a team that doesn’t get picked so they can watch you cry. But we said no cameras because we were pretty sure we wouldn’t get in.”
NU indeed missed out on its greatest chance, settling for a No. 4 seed in the NIT and losing in the second round of the tournament.
The team had proven once again that Carmody was an offensive artist.
“That was an exceptionally good shooting team,” Snow said in an email. “They had the (second-best) eFG percentage in the conference. The only player with a true shooting percentage under 50 on that team was Curletti, and even he was at 48.9 percent.”
Carmody, though, would not last much longer at NU. He was fired following the team’s injury-riddled 2012-2013 season. He was only spotted back in basketball last month, when Fairfield hired him as a special assistant/advisor on its men’s basketball staff.
Years later, players can’t help but remember the good times had, along with the excitement of the chase. The losses linger, but the fond memories overtake the internal conversation.
For the fan base, though, that first tourney bid remains elusive and NU’s white whale in basketball.
There are plenty of what-ifs, but the 2011-2012 team could have had an even more special place in NU history.
“If we were able to cross the line and make it to the tournament, we thought we could win some games there,” Vujic said. “Our offense was so tough to prepare against scouting-wise that other teams would have a tough time with it.”
And Carmody’s place on the Mount Rushmore of NU would’ve been solidified.
“I think Carmody would have been remembered in the same way that (legendary NU football coach) Gary Barnett is remembered if he had gotten us to the tournament,” Davis said. “Even if that was his one moment, I think he would have a very, very special place in the Northwestern community for a long time.”
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