SALT LAKE CITY — Sanjay Lumpkin's collegiate career is over.
There is no one more qualified to describe the journey from the days before the start of the Chris Collins Era to where Northwestern basketball is now, four years after Collins arrived in Evanston.
Lumpkin was a Bill Carmody recruit and found himself with a season-ending injury during his freshman season, Carmody's last at Northwestern, meaning he's been able to spend four seasons watching Collins take the Wildcats from the bottom of the Big Ten standings to the team's first-ever NCAA tournament.
Collins made a special gesture in the final seconds of Northwestern's second-round loss to Gonzaga on Saturday, a defeat that brought an end to this dream season, removing from Lumpkin from the game so he could receive an ovation from the massive pro-Cats contingent at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
"I was shedding tears right after the game in the locker room. Toward the end of the game, coach took me out, and I was trying to hold them in," Lumpkin said after the game. "But as the media's seen I've been pretty emotional the last couple weeks. I'm really going to miss these guys and this program and just being part of this team."
Lumpkin is one of two players on the roster whose tenures predate Collins' — the other being Nathan Taphorn, who committed to Carmody before the coaching change and stuck with Collins in his first season. Lumpkin, though, has the unique distinction of having spent a season in the days before Collins, back when Northwestern was what it had been for more than seven decades, a losing program with no hopes of ever reaching the NCAA tournament.
Four years after Collins took over, the Cats have come so incredibly far. This season, the team won a program-record 24 games, reached the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, experienced the immense joy of Selection Sunday for the first time and captured a win over Vanderbilt in the program's first-ever NCAA tournament game earlier this week.
Lumpkin has been there for the whole ride.
"It's really incredible," he said. "I've had so many people come up to me and say I don't really realize what we've done and how much it's meant to them. But I know. It's been incredible to do what we've done. It's been a magical year. Really going to miss playing with this group of guys, being part of this team. Even though we did lose and we all wanted to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, this is a group that all of us will never forget being a part of.
"That's why I came to this program. I wanted to be a part of that first team to make it to the NCAA tournament. That's what drew me to come here the most when I was being recruited. This has been an unbelievable journey, this whole five years. For this to happen during my last year, for us to make it this far, the season we had, for everything to fall into place for my last year is a dream come true for me. It's been an unbelievable ride, and I'll never forget any of these moments."
Certainly even in the wake of Saturday's defeat, there's never been a better time for Northwestern basketball. Lumpkin is moving on, one of just two players on this roster who won't be back for the quest for back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2017-18.
But for a guy who's leaving this program far better than it was when he arrived, he's cognizant of the legacy he's helped leave behind.
"I said to them, 'This is just the start,'" Lumpkin said. "These guys are all my brothers, and I look at them as all my little bros, taking care of all of them. This program is going to reach unbelievable heights.
"There's no doubt in my mind that these guys are going to work hard and be here many times."