For the first time ever, Northwestern is going dancing.
This special season reached its most important milestone on Selection Sunday, when the Wildcats were announced as part of the NCAA tournament field for the first time in program history.
The packed house at Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted when Northwestern was announced as the No. 8 seed in the West Region. The Cats will take on No. 9 seed Vanderbilt on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
It's been a long time coming for the school that played host to the first-ever NCAA tournament back in 1939. The Cats weren't a part of that year's field, nor were they part of any field for the next 78 years.
But the day has finally come, even though we've known it was coming for a while now — wins at Wisconsin and then at home against Michigan seemed to seal the deal on two separate occasions. This has been an incredible season at Northwestern, and these Cats have already accomplished so many program firsts. They won 10 games during Big Ten play for the first time, and just this week in Washington, D.C., they advanced to their first Big Ten Tournament semifinal. They have won a program-record 23 games, a number that could get even bigger in the NCAA tournament.
Surely, though, no program first is bigger than this invitation to the Big Dance.
Head coach Chris Collins has done a remarkable job in his four years helming the program. The longtime Duke assistant personality, experience at one of college basketball's best programs and lineage — he's the son of former Bulls head coach Doug Collins — brought immediate excitement to a program that rarely experienced that emotion. He started his tenure with unprecedented recruiting success, bringing in some of the highest-rated recruits the program had ever seen.
In his first season, Collins led the Cats to eye-opening road wins at Indiana and Wisconsin, the latter boasting a team that made that season's Final Four. In his second season, the Cats won five of their last seven regular-season games and broke in star freshmen Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey. Last season, the Cats went 12-1 in non-conference play, the lone loss to a North Carolina team that ended up in the national championship game. You could see Collins building his program.
This season featured notable non-conference wins over Texas and Dayton, as well as some of those "quality" losses that always show up on NCAA tournament resumes to the likes of Notre Dame and Butler. Northwestern went on an impressive six-game winning streak during conference play that appeared the inverse of the long Big Ten losing streaks Collins' teams went through in his first few seasons in Evanston.
A bad stretch did strike. Lindsey came down with a case of mono, throwing a wrench into the Cats' flow, particularly on the offensive end. Northwestern lost five of seven, but one of the two wins came on the road against a ranked Wisconsin team, a monumental victory that seemed to punch the team's ticket to the tournament. As a few losses continued to pile up, plenty worried the Cats might've been floating to the wrong side of that tournament bubble. But a win against Michigan that ended in a court-length pass from Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon for a buzzer-beating basket — a play similar to the famed Grant Hill heave to Christian Laettner in the 1992 NCAA tournament — erased any doubts and signaled this would be the year.
You could tell Northwestern arrived when CBS showed up for the regular-season finale against Purdue and put a rollicking Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd on national TV, with play-by-play man Jim Nantz calling it one of the best atmospheres he's seen in his illustrious career. The Cats might have even boosted their tournament seed with back-to-back wins in this week's Big Ten Tournament, including a Friday-night victory over Maryland in front of a raucous pro-Terps crowd at the Verizon Center.
McIntosh and Lindsey earned All-Big Ten honors this season, and Law was named to the conference's all-defensive team. Pardon figures to get those kinds of accolades soon.
It's been a mighty long wait for fans of Chicago's Big Ten Team. But this is a drought-busting year in the Windy City, right, Cubs fans?
For those who thought they'd never see it, believe it. The Cats are going dancing.