Northwestern’s unthinkable run to The Big Dance

In face of long-standing unsuccessful history, Northwestern Men’s Basketball leaves fans impassioned by recent victories

Will Klearman, Staff Writer

March Madness is one of the most anticipated tournaments in all of sports. Every March, the top 68 college basketball teams in the country are invited to the single-elimination tournament played all over America. From Cinderella stories to buzzer beaters to upsets, the tournament is… MADNESS. It truly is like no other event in sports.

“In a lot of sports like the NBA, NFL or even College Football, there’s not really a lot of room for upsets because it’s mostly the top teams that win, especially in the playoffs. But in March Madness, you see 14 or 15 seeds make runs to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight rounds; when you feel like everyone has a chance, that just elevates it to a new level,” says ETHS senior Henry Barbaro.

Every March, the comradery and buzz of March Madness circulates throughout the ETHS community. Students spend hours on end filling out and discussing their brackets. From Selection Sunday up until the first-round games, the anticipation is evident.

“It’s just a fun atmosphere at school. Everyone knows the results and talks about it; it’s really interesting. The format is so great that basically anybody can win. There’s a lot of upsets. That makes it very fun at school,” says Barbaro.

Students around the school enter bracket pools with their friends. Through the middle of March to early April, students cheer on their brackets in the hope that they can win their pool.

“It’s a ton of fun. I make a bracket with my friends and family and just having rooting interest in every game, it’s always fun to root for the underdog too,” says freshman Aaron Shalin. 

What’s different about March Madness this year? A new team is going dancing: the Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern was picked to lose the Big Ten outright by most analysts. The Wildcats have had very little history in Big Ten Championships, NCAA Tournaments and, quite frankly, successful seasons. The Wildcats haven’t won the conference since 1933 and have only made the NCAA Tournament once: in 2017. Since the historic 2016-2017 season, Northwestern Men’s Basketball Head Coach, Chris Collins and the Wildcats had produced six straight losing seasons.

“At the conclusion of a challenging season, I share in the disappointment felt by our staff and avid fans … I have tasked Coach Collins with making necessary changes to build towards success in the 2022-23 campaign,” said Athletic director Derrick Gragg following a disappointing 2021-22 season.

The situation did not improve for the team in the offseason. The team’s leading scorer, Pete Nance, transferred to North Carolina and the team’s starting center, Ryan Young, transferred to Duke. The upcoming 2022-2023 season was looking more and more like the previous six. 

“[Before the season], I thought Northwestern was going to have to pay people to come to the games. They were going to be so awful,” jokes Barbaro. 

“Going into the season, I didn’t think Northwestern had a chance,” Shalin exclaims.

The roster did contain some bright spots, though, with guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige returning to the team for their senior season. Buie had started each of his first three seasons with the team and was due for a big senior season as the team’s main scoring outlet. Audige showed flashes of potential in his two-year stint with the ‘Cats, but failed to find a consistent rhythm throughout the seasons. The team was also returning solid role players in Ty Berry, Robbie Beran, Matthew Nicholson and Brooks Barnhizer.

Against all odds, the Wildcats are producing a historic season. The team finished the regular season with a record of 21-10 (12-8 Big Ten), landing them at second place in the Big Ten. 

“It’s been special to watch. The way [Northwestern] has come together and battled their way to 21 regular season wins has been incredible,” says freshman Tim Lister. “The biggest improvement I’ve seen has definitely been the team chemistry. It’s been on point all season. That’s really been the difference between the losing seasons and this historic year.”

In addition to improved team chemistry, Buie and Audige have stepped up on the statsheet, averaging 17.1 and 13.8 points per game respectively. They do more than just score the basketball though; Audige led the conference in steals and won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Buie averaged over four assists per game and was named First Team All Big Ten by the media.

“I know I am biased, but I would be hard-pressed to see a better backcourt out there,” Collins says, referring to Audige and Buie.

It wasn’t the offense that carried the team to 21 wins though, it was the defense. The double-the-post style defense gave trouble to teams all season long. The team held their opponents to a meager 63 points per game, ranked twenty-first nationally.

“In my opinion, the biggest reason our defense has been so good this season is the doubling-of-the-post. Collins implemented it into the defense just this year and it has forced teams out of rhythm all season,” says Lister.

Collins and his staff have done an incredible job this season. Northwestern is by no means one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten this year, but they have played like they are. Chris Collins won Big Ten Coach of the Year and first year assistant coach, Chris Lowery, won Big Ten Assistant Coach of the Year.

The team earned a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in school history.  Northwestern faced No. 10 seeded Penn State just nine days after the Nittany Lions hit a game winner in overtime to spoil the  ‘Cats’ senior night. The tournament game had a strikingly similar outcome, with Penn State defeating the  ‘Cats in overtime by a score of 67-65.

Despite the ‘Cats’ disappointing early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, they have earned some of the best victories in program history this season.

The biggest win came when Purdue entered into a hostile, sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena. At the time, Purdue was ranked first in the country and Northwestern was 0-18 against AP #1 opponents all-time. That changed on Feb. 12, when the ‘Cats stormed back late and pulled off an improbable upset. Following the incredible win, Northwestern students stormed onto the court, mobbing the players and coaches. 

“[The Purdue game] was my favorite game I have seen as a ‘Cats fan. To see us go on that massive run in the final minutes to beat the best team in America was awesome,” says Lister.

“At the beginning of the season, the energy wasn’t the greatest due to the fact that there were few students and fans cheering the team on. But once Northwestern started to win more games, the energy went off the charts. There were more fans and students in the stands, and it started to feel electric,” says senior Sofia Varela. “After the win over the No.1 seed, Purdue, there was so much excitement and energy.” 

The very next game, the ‘Cats took down the 14th ranked Indiana Hoosiers thanks to a game-winner in the final seconds by Buie. This game essentially punched Northwestern’s ticket to The Big Dance. 

“We are going to the [NCAA Tournament],” said Collins confidently following the Indiana win.

And they did just that. 

The Northwestern Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history. The ‘Cats received a No. 7 seed and will take on the No. 10 seeded Boise State Broncos (24-9, 13-5 Mountain West Conference) in Sacramento, California, this Thursday. 

The Broncos lost in the Mountain West semifinal against Utah State. Boise State’s notable wins include San Diego State, Texas A&M and Colorado. The Broncos are led by sophomore forward, Tyson Degenhart who averages 14.3 PPG.

The last and only time Northwestern made the tournament was back in 2017. The ‘Cats received a No. 8 seed and played No. 9 seeded Vanderbilt in the round of 64. They pulled out a gritty, 68-66 win and advanced to the round of 32 where they would meet the number one seed, Gonzaga. The ‘Cats fought hard but eventually ran out of gas and lost 79-73. 

“I just remember people in my neighborhood being all hyped about it. I remember recording the games and going to someone’s house and watching it. It was just inspirational,” reminisced Barbaro. 

“It was just so cool. So many people in Evanston watched Selection Sunday at [Welsh-Ryan], rooting on [Northwestern],” said Shalin.

There is no doubt enthusiasm will spread around Evanston as it did six years ago.

“I definitely expect [Evanston] to be hype,” said Barbaro. “Northwestern making the tournament is a big thing.”

“This is only the second time in the history of the Northwestern’s men’s basketball team making the NCAA March Madness tournament, so I think it will result in an excited buzz from the community,” said Varela. “Being in the Tournament means a lot for the ETHS student body. It will be an exciting thing to talk about and create an exciting community within ETHS.”