EVANSTON — Northwestern will be in the field of 68 when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced on Selection Sunday.
That drama was put to an end in the most dramatic way possible in Wednesday night's win over Michigan, the Wildcats punching their NCAA tournament ticket with a last-second play for the ages, one the team edited into the top spot in its season-long countdown of the best moments in Welsh-Ryan Arena history on Sunday afternoon.
So no matter what happens in the Big Ten Tournament in Washington — where the Cats are the No. 6 seed — Chris Collins will be the first coach ever to take Northwestern to the Big Dance.
But there is that conference tournament to be played before the dancing shoes get all shined up for the Madness of March. And while there might not be anything for the Cats to lose in the nation's capital, there are things to be gained, chief among them a Big Ten championship.
It might have seemed unrealistic to think Northwestern could make a run at a conference-tournament title during a losing stretch that saw five defeats in seven games. But Sunday night at a rocking Welsh-Ryan, the Cats hung right with and were just barely edged by the Purdue Boilermakers, a team that heads to Washington as the favorite to win the championship, a trophy they can pair with their regular-season championship.
The Cats are just a week removed from a trip to Bloomington where they were beaten by a point in a heartbreaker against Indiana. Then came the epic win over Michigan and Sunday's strong effort against Purdue.
Though it hasn't been long, this Northwestern team is much different than it was just a week and a half ago, playing far better than it did in losses like the one at Illinois, where the Cats only mustered a season-low 50 points. Playing better and with a first-round bye to a late-Thursday game against the winner of the Wednesday-night bout between the Nos. 11 and 14 teams, there's reason to be optimistic and bullish on Northwestern's chances in D.C.
"I think we're confident," Collins said after Sunday's loss. "We're disappointed. We came here to win, not just to play close. Our guys believed we could win the game, and they showed it in their play. ... But I do think we're confident.
"I think we all feel like we're playing well again. We had a couple-week stretch where we weren't playing very well. We found a way to get a couple games during that stretch, but I didn't think we were playing very good basketball. I do think our level of play right now is in a good spot or else we wouldn't have played like that today and we wouldn't have beaten Michigan the other night and we wouldn't have had the lead at Indiana on the road.
"I like where we're at, I'm excited about where we're at. I feel like we're in a good place going into postseason, which is a good feeling as a coach."
Sunday was a far cry from perfect, of course, and the Cats are still trying to fully return Scottie Lindsey, whose illness-induced four-game absence threw a dream season into a couple weeks of disarray. Northwestern didn't shoot the ball very well against Purdue, just 37.9 percent from the field in the second half.
Bryant McIntosh was forced to do most of the heavy lifting with 25 points, while Lindsey and Vic Law scored a combined 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Lindsey is still working his way back from those three weeks without exercise, while Law has been extremely inconsistent: He scored a combined seven points in losses to Illinois and Indiana, then had 18 in the win over Michigan before his 2-for-13 shooting performance Sunday.
But Northwestern is at its best when its defense is playing well, and the Cats held the Boilers to just 42.3-percent shooting in the second half of Sunday's game. If not for the efforts of no-doubt Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan — he had 20 points and 14 rebounds, 11 and six of those in the second half — it could've been a much different result.
Remember, though, that Purdue is the league's top team, and Northwestern's losing to them by a mere four points in a nationally televised game with a raucous atmosphere is nothing to get overly upset about. The Cats were understandably disappointed, but they counted Sunday's game as a well-played one, giving them confidence heading toward the Big Ten Tournament.
"We viewed today as an amazing opportunity against a championship-level team," Collins said. "They're the champions of the conference for a reason: incredibly well coached, tough, the best player in the league. And for us to compete against them the way we did, to withstand their runs. We got down 59-50, we fought back. I was really proud of that."
So while all the attention will be paid to Northwestern for its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, don't discount the tournament that comes before it. In addition to continuing their late-season momentum toward the Big Dance, a few wins in Washington could dramatically change the Cats' seed, meaning a more favorable opponent, perhaps, in the first or second round.
A team that's done no looking ahead all season long likely won't be thinking about that when it hits the floor late Thursday night — it's a 9 p.m. start locally — but these games are important if for nothing more than the Cats wanting to head into the NCAA tournament a week from now playing as well as they are heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
"We don't tak anything for granted. We don't look at it like our ticket's punched until we see it on Sunday," McIntosh said. "Right now we just have to focus and go try to win a Big Ten championship. We get another crack at it, and this time it will be decided in a week rather than multiple months (in the regular season). It'll be a tremendous opportunity for us, and that's what our focus is right now.
"It's going to be a fun stretch coming up. It's almost a new season. You start 0-0."