At 5:03 p.m. CDT Sunday evening, Northwestern received a bid to its first ever NCAA Tournament. An 8-seed in the West region, the ‘Cats (23-11, 10-8 B1G) take on 9-seed Vanderbilt (19-15, 10-8 SEC) in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday.
The announcement came on a livestream of the CBS Selection Sunday show in front of a Welsh-Ryan Arena packed with students, fans and – most importantly – the players and coaching staff. After a stressful half-hour of waiting, the announcer called Northwestern’s name, turning a stressed environment into an overjoyed one.
IT HAPPENED pic.twitter.com/eUbhpRSVuK— NBN Sports (@nbn_sports) March 12, 2017
After waiting 78 years, Northwestern fans had to wait just a little bit longer during the selection show. The West region was the last of the four announced, and the increased stress in the arena was apparent as the fans, coaches and players waited.
“While we were all sweating that maybe something could go wrong, we weren’t a bubble team,” guard Bryant McIntosh said.
Three regions done. I honestly think Scottie might cry. This is just mean.— NBN Sports (@nbn_sports) March 12, 2017
Following the announcement (and the deafening roar that followed), both Coach Chris Collins and Athletic Director Jim Phillips spoke to the crowd.
“To me, today is the beginning of Northwestern basketball,” an emotional Collins told the crowd. “Today is the day we put ourselves on the national map.”
A storybook season will end in a way a Northwestern season never has before, with an appearance in the Big Dance. It’s only fitting, since this team isn’t like any past Northwestern team. They won a program-record 23 games, including 11 wins in non-conference play and signature victories against Wisconsin on the road and against Maryland in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
“We got guys that believed wholeheartedly in what we could do,” senior guard Nathan Taphorn said when asked what made this team different from the teams from his past three seasons.
When asked when they knew this team could be different, multiple players shared an identical answer: before the season even started.
“I knew in the summer,” McIntosh said. “With the development of [Scottie Lindsey], the return of Vic Law, I never doubted it.”
Center Dererk Pardon agreed.
“I felt like I knew it from the summer. When Coach Collins sat us down and pitched his message, we all bought in,” Pardon said. “This is the reason why I came to Northwestern.”
Although Northwestern’s NCAA bid was treated with incredulity for the entire season, it was all but a certainty by Sunday. Joe Lunardi called the ‘Cats a “lock” to make it, and they proved him right with their seeding.
Vanderbilt is the first 15-loss team to ever get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but their resume included three wins over Florida and a win over South Carolina, two top-25 teams. They might match up well with Northwestern (who has struggled this season against dominant big men), boasting a Luke Kornet, a 7’1 forward who averaged 13.2 points per game.
“Maybe at halftime we’ll compare SAT and ACT scores,” Phillips jokingly told the press.
Whatever happens come tournament-time, Northwestern has already made history today.
“Today is a pretty great day,” McIntosh said with a laugh.