When Northwestern was announced as a member of the NCAA tournament field for the first time, Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted.
Head coach Chris Collins and his Wildcats exploded out of their seats along with all the fans in the stands.
The smiles, the dancing, the jumping around. It was a day for celebration in Evanston, a day Northwestern fans have dreamed of for a long time and a day most probably thought would never come.
But for Collins and his team, now it's time to get back to work. Because if this is how good it feels just to get into the NCAA tournament, imagine how good it must feel to win in the NCAA tournament.
"We're going to go there to try to stay there for a little while," Collins said Sunday. "It's not about just today. I wanted to celebrate today. Today was a celebration, a celebration of a long time coming for a lot of people and especially our team. But now it's time to get to work. We've got to get back on the practice floor tomorrow, and we'll have our hands full against a very good Vanderbilt team."
Yes, making the NCAA tournament doesn't end on Selection Sunday, and come the first round on Thursday, Northwestern will play its first ever March Madness game against Vanderbilt.
The Commodores, coached by former Valparaiso player and coach Bryce Drew, are the No. 9 seed to the Cats' No. 8 seed and have had a pretty good go of things of late. After starting the season 9-11, Vandy has won 10 of its last 14 games including five wins over other NCAA tournament teams and a pair of wins over Florida, a top-20 team. In fact, the Dores have beaten the Gators three times this season. Vandy also went toe to toe with Kentucky on Feb. 28 and lost by just six points. Plus the Dores advanced to the SEC Tournament semifinals this weekend, the same round the Cats reached in the Big Ten Tournament.
Collins had a little partying to do before he could get to work studying Vandy, but believe he was at it by Sunday night.
"Bryce and I are very good friends, and we've known each other for a long time," Collins said of his opposite down in Nashville. "Both of our dads our coaches, so we've grown up in basketball. We both played. So we have a lot in common, and we've been close friends for a long time. I'm really happy for his success, what he's done down there. I got a chance to watch them a handful of times during the year. And they're playing great. In Year 1, it's like any time you take over a job. Those first couple months, there's a feeling-out process. But he figured it out with his team, and they've got together and they've been as hot as anybody in the SEC. I think they beat Florida three times, if I'm not mistaken.
"They're playing really good basketball, they're a confident team, and we're going to have our hands full. I need to get locked in tonight, start watching some tape. But trust me, it's nice to still be working this time of year."
Collins has worked plenty this time of year. In 17 seasons with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke — four as a player and 13 as an assistant coach — Collins went to a heck of a lot of NCAA tournaments, and he said he might be able to provide some insight on how to handle the NCAA tournament after going to so many Big Dances with the Blue Devils.
But this will obviously be a new experience for Collins' players considering they'll be the first to wear Northwestern jerseys in the NCAA tournament.
As for how they'll handle the program-first shine of the March Madness spotlight, Collins is confident thanks to how the Cats played this week at the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C. Northwestern played three games, scoring big-time wins over Rutgers and Maryland on Thursday and Friday, respectively. The Cats looked like a well-oiled machine in both of those games, perhaps playing their two best offensive games of the season. Not only that but Northwestern managed to beat Maryland at the Verizon Center, just a short distance from its campus. The crowd was raucous in its support of the Terps — and in its lack of support for the officials — but the Cats weathered that storm and got a huge win, one of their biggest this year.
"I believe in this group. I think the guys are going to be anxious to compete," Collins said. "I think we gained some confidence in Washington, D.C., especially that Maryland game. For all intents and purposes, that was a road game. That was a crazy environment the other night against Maryland. And for us to have the toughness and the courage to go in there and win the game, I think we got a lot of confidence from that win. We feel good about where we're at."
How far Northwestern might march in the Dance is not something Collins is concerning himself with at the moment — "We can't be worried about anything but playing Vanderbilt and trying to do what it takes on Thursday to win that game." — but obviously being in an 8-9 matchup means any potential Round of 32 game is likely to come against a No. 1 seed, in this case Gonzaga.
But certainly the Cats are looking to make some noise in the West Region.
"Anybody that's invited has a chance, that's what's so great about the NCAA tournament. The hardest part is getting in," Collins said before making a little admissions-based humor. "Just like Northwestern."