CHICAGO – Alas, Northwestern. Where did the good times go?
It’s been only two springs since the Wildcats were the toast of Chicago. The Cubs in short purple pants. The plucky, history-defying bunch who finally played their way into the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, and even won a game once they got there. An underdog’s underdog fairy tale, just perfect for March. The entire basketball-speaking world was happy for Northwestern.
But that was then, and this is now, 180 degrees across the basketball compass:
The Northwestern locker room was wall-to-wall emotion late Wednesday night. “There was a lot of crying in there,” coach Chris Collins would say later. The Wildcats had just been summarily dismissed from the Big Ten tournament in overtime by Illinois, 74-69. They had finished last in the conference in the regular season, beating Indiana on Jan. 22, and not winning again until March 6, or 10 defeats later. All told that meant a 13-19 record, to go with 15-17 last year, and suddenly that magical 2017 seems from another planet.
There was Dererk Pardon, one of the ringleaders of that run, standing dejected by his locker, having finished the last college game he will ever play. Two years ago, in the glow of the Wildcats accomplishments, could he have believed what was coming?
“That’s the way of life. Everything in life don’t go your way. You have to keep on fighting. You get knocked down nine times, you’ve got to get up 10.
“Things happen for a reason. This is going to make everybody in this room a better person, and a better player at the end of the day.”
There was Vic Law, sitting with a hood covering much of his face. He led that 2016-17 Northwestern team in scoring in 11 games, and was the top overall scorer this season, plus a key defender. But he was helpless to save the day Wednesday, out with a leg injury. He watched the last sands of his career slip away from the bench. As awful as it gets for a senior.
What to feel about such a star-crossed season?
“I didn’t do enough. That’s what. Didn’t do enough.
“Just wish for everybody I could have came in and helped. But life deals you what it deals you. You’ve just got to deal with it.”
And there was Collins, sitting at a microphone, the miracle worker of 2017, now trying to put this wrong turn into some perspective.
“Their legacy is not what happened this year,” he began about his seniors. “It’s about the overall body of work, and what those guys have meant to our program and their belief in us when there wasn’t a whole lot to believe in.
“Now we find ourselves in a position where we’ve got to build it again, and I’m committed to doing that.”
The problems started early this season, when Northwestern lost two guards who were expected to play. That forced a massive shift in positions. Collins turned to a football analogy.
“Your running back has to play quarterback, and your wide receiver has to play running back and your tight end has to play wide receiver. That’ what we had to do all year . . . Guys did things they’d never done in their whole life in terms of their positions.”
Another thing about the Wildcats. It’s a hard game to win with the offense on mute. They arrived at the United Center Wednesday 323rd in the nation in scoring, 335th in field goal percentage and 305th in 3-point shooting. So the 34.7 percent shooting against Illinois and the 8-for-36 from the beyond the arc was not out of the ordinary. It gave Northwestern little margin for error in close games.
“One loose ball, one layup, one 3, it can all change . . .,“ Pardon said.
Back in March of 2017, how could the future not seem promising, with the NCAA tournament wall broken down at last, and lots of players returning who smashed it? But something Collins warned about then: “You’ve got to be real careful where you just think because a lot of guys are back, it’s going to be the same.”
Well, it hasn’t been.
“Where we are right now is not acceptable for where I want to be as a program,” he said Wednesday. “It’s not the players’ fault. I take full responsibility. But if you look at many programs — I had a situation when I was at Duke in 1994. I played for the national championship as a sophomore. In 1995 as a junior, we went 2-14 in the ACC and came in last. If you look at every program, every single program, they have times when there are peaks and valleys.”
It doesn’t feel good to go from one to the other, either.
“You know, there’s a lot of firsts that that group did that will never be taken away from them,” Collins said of his seniors.
The players were having a little hard time remembering that in the Northwestern locker room Wednesday night. Maybe later.