I’d been waiting to pass judgment on Northwestern’s season until it ended.
With the full run of emotions that accompanied being a fan of these particular Wildcats, it seemed only right to wait until the end, whenever it was, to articulate my thoughts. That end came last night in Seattle at the hands of Washington.
Safe to say, from the minute the rollercoaster began, my emotions have scraped every corner of the spectrum. Elation and pride, dejection and disbelief followed each résumé-building win, and every this-can’t-really-be-happening-again defeat.
Look, by now all the angles have been played out. We didn’t make the tournament. Carmody is back on the hot seat. Senior John Shurna, arguably the greatest Wildcat ever, won’t taste postseason glory. These are all facts.
But what this team has done is arguably more difficult than hearing their names called on Selection Sunday. They built me up, broke me down, tugged at my heartstrings, and made me into something I wasn’t: a believer.
I won’t disguise how hard I find it to completely support sports teams. Aside from my hometown Chicago Bulls, I’ve never really been able to pour my soul into a squad, year in and year out without hesitation or skepticism. I didn’t quite realize it as Northwestern walked off the court last night in Seattle, but the Wildcats changed that.
For all its successes, Northwestern was irrevocably flawed. The team wasn’t spectacularly athletic. The best player’s shot looked like Shawn Marion’s, if Shawn Marion were white and uncoordinated. The shooting guard was a walk-on and an afterthought, and found himself starting only after last year’s incumbent missed time with a hip injury. There was no semblance of post play. Yet it was those same flaws that made me fall in love.
I was lucky, or unlucky enough to witness several of this team’s defining moments in person. I covered my eyes as Illinois’ Meyers Leonard swatted away a home victory. When the ‘Cats improbably upset Michigan State on the back of enigmatic Davide Curletti, I started to believe. Painting my chest in honor of John Shurna’s record-setting day against Minnesota, I bled purple. I felt physical pain as Michigan’s Trey Burke drove the nail in our tournament hopes, and couldn’t believe it was happening again the next week as Jared Sullinger caught the ball on the right block, yards away from me, and Ohio State hammered that nail all the way in.
By then, the logical, impartial sports fan inside of me knew we were done. Honestly, we’d had one chance too many, and didn’t deserve a berth. But instead, the never-say-die basketball romantic emerged from his hole. Finals week aside, I watched to the excruciating end as Minnesota exacted revenge in Indianapolis. I scrambled to find a television on Selection Sunday, watching hope slip away as the names rang out. BYU. Iona. South Florida. California. We didn’t even receive a high seed in the NIT, painfully illustrating just how far we were from dancing.
And yet two days later, there I was again in the familiar front row of Welsh-Ryan. I cheered as John Shurna broke 2000 career points. I saw flashes of things to come, as junior Drew Crawford put up 20-plus first half points, and still, in typical fashion, the ‘Cats barely slipped by Akron. Watching the seniors, even Luka Mirkovic, the 6’10” Serbian target of my endless scrutiny, leave the cramped old stadium with a victory was cathartic.
Whatever happened next didn’t matter. They were calling for Carmody’s head, Shurna had a foot out the door, and we still hadn’t danced. Those problems weren’t going away. But next season was an afterthought. Our fate would be determined across the continent against Washington.
And so Northwestern’s road came to an end yesterday, on a day where names like Norfolk State, Lehigh and Ohio put on their glass slippers and seized headlines and hearts around the country. I’d rallied behind the VCU’s, Butlers and Davidsons of years past, but something was different.
Sorry, Cinderella. This March, the team that wasn’t in the tournament had a hold on me.
Catch you next year, Wildcats.
Jeremy Woo is a journalism student at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter@JWooSwagAir.