SALT LAKE CITY — Northwestern deserved its congratulatory attention after earning a win in the program's first-ever NCAA tournament game Thursday.
But playing top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round? That's not exactly an enviable reward.
Of course, don't tell that to these Wildcats, who have had so much confidence throughout this dream season. They're itching for the chance to take on the Bulldogs on Saturday.
"We just see this as an opportunity," Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin said Friday. "Obviously Gonzaga is a great team. They're a No. 1 seed. We fully respect them, but this is an opportunity for us to make history once again, just as we've done. ... We have another opportunity in front of us tomorrow, and we're going to take it."
When you compare these two programs' resumes, the differences are as stark as can be. Gonzaga has been to 19 straight NCAA tournaments. This is the first time ever for Northwestern.
And it's not just Gonzaga's history. This season, the Bulldogs have been nearly unbeatable. They enter Saturday's game with a 33-1 record, and if you're immediate reaction is based on Gonzaga's strength of schedule, know it scored huge non-conference wins over Arizona, Florida and Iowa State, teams seeded second, fourth and fifth in the NCAA tournament, respectively.
It's hard to describe Saturday's game as a "David vs. Goliath" matchup. There are far greater seeding disparities across the tournament bracket. But if that's how this game will be described, Northwestern has no problem with its assigned role. Why? Because in that story, David wins.
"They're one of the best teams in the country, so you kind of understand that narrative that people are trying to give off," Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh said. "I would be OK with being the David in this situation. Just from my upbringing, I understand the back story of that one. That would mean a lot to everybody in the program, and I think it would be a great story for the country. It's going to be tough. It's not going to just be one stone that we have to throw in order to beat them. We're going to have to play a really great 40 minutes and try and keep them out of transition, try and limit their paint touches and keep them off the boards. So it's going to be really a tough task. They're a really good team."
Confidence hasn't been a problem for this team all season long. That attitude has been on display in full force this week in Utah, but it's been a hallmark of everything Chris Collins and his players have said for months.
Where did that come from? Other than coming directly from Collins — who forward Nathan Taphorn said "oozes with confidence" — it's been there since before the season even began.
"I thought our confidence really started in the offseason. There was something different when we were working out in the summer and the fall. I just noticed the swagger to our guys," Collins said. "There was a different feel when we were doing drills and we were competing in practice. I could just sense that they were ready to be good. And they believed it. There was no more hoping we belonged. No, we're good. We're going to win. And I really think our confidence grew early in the season."
Collins went on to describe a stretch of non-conference games where Northwestern lost at Butler on a buzzer-beater, beat Texas and lost to Notre Dame on a last-second turnover in New York and then beat Wake Forest at home. It could be argued the Cats should have won all four of those games. Three of them came against teams that ended up in the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern beat tournament teams Wisconsin and Michigan during conference play and scored a huge win over tournament-bound Maryland at the Big Ten Tournament last week in Washington.
So all that confidence, whether it was the stuff that already existed before the season started or the stuff that came from playing well and getting wins against top-notch competition, really sets the Cats up well for Saturday's showdown with one of the country's top teams.
"We play in the Big Ten. So I know we've never been here and this is all new territory and it's really exciting and all those things. But night in and night out we're playing against pretty high-level competition throughout the year," Collins said. "Our guys draw confidence from that. We've had to go down the line and play the Michigans and the Purdues and the Wisconsins and Michigan States. When we get in these atmospheres, there's a confidence and belief that we belong. And I like that. You have no chance to be successful if you don't have that belief and confidence in yourself.
"So that's why for us we don't really view ourselves as a Cinderella story because we feel we've played a great schedule. We've played a lot of high-level teams and we've done well. This is just another example of that. We need to use our experiences that we went through in the conference, in the preseason to carry it out tomorrow when it matters most on the biggest stage in the NCAA tournament."
Obviously Northwestern knows what's in store in Gonzaga, a team that without one night in February against BYU would be on a mission to be the first undefeated NCAA hoops champ since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
But the Cats don't shake in their boots. They don't cower. It took an awful lot of confidence to do something no Northwestern team had ever done before. That confidence will be there again when the team on the opposing bench will have a No. 1 in front of its name.
"Definitely coming into the tournament we were already confident in ourselves. I think we all knew that we deserved to be here," forward Vic Law said. "I think the two strongest things about this team are our chemistry and our confidence, and within the locker room, we feel we can go out there and beat anybody."