WASHINGTON — You'll have to forgive Northwestern for not being all smiles 24 hours prior to the announcement of what will be the program's first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
The Wildcats were steamrolled Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament, hit by a Wisconsin Badger freight train that suffocated them on defense and scorched them on offense. Northwestern trailed by 17 at halftime. It trailed by as many as 33 in the second half. Wisconsin limited Northwestern to 21 points and 25.9-percent shooting in the first half. The Badgers shot 53.8 percent after halftime and splashed home 12 3-pointers on the afternoon.
It was a destruction in every sense.
"They had it going," Northwestern point guard Bryant McIntosh said. "They were hitting shots. I thought especially in the second half, when we were trying to make a push, we could never close the gap. Trying to expend that much energy after playing a couple games in a row in the past couple days is tough. They're a really good team. You can't dig that big of a hole in order to try to expend that much energy trying to get back into the game if you're wanting to win at this level."
But don't fret for these Cats, who were in the conference-tournament semifinals for the first time ever. And then there's what comes Sunday, another "first time ever," as Northwestern will be announced as part of the NCAA tournament field.
The Cats have a Selection Sunday watch party planned, and Evanston will be euphoric to see this drought snapped. The Chicagoland area might not light up like it did back in early November, when the Cubs snapped their 108-year World Series drought, but this will be a big f'in deal, to paraphrase our former vice president.
"If that happens tomorrow night, I think there will be a lot of happy people, which makes me happy," head coach Chris Collins said. "I love Northwestern. I love the people, the community, the fans. Everybody has really embraced us, embraced this team. I know it's a long time coming for a lot of people that followed the program for a lot of years. Hopefully there will be a lot of joy.
"I'll be most happy for the players, though. Those are the guys that have earned this right. They're the ones that have gone out there and performed night in and night out, losing key guys throughout the year, (Dererk) Pardon, (Scottie) Lindsey, for extended periods of time. Just finding a way to win, be effective in this league, get to the semifinals of the conference tournament. It will make me happy to see a lot of smiles and hopefully excitement on people's faces.
"For our guys, a lot of the guys came here because they wanted to be a part of 'the first.' Not just the first tournament, but a first of a lot of milestones that this team has been able to accomplish, which they deserve. They've been a great group to coach. I'm excited to continue the journey. I hope we can keep playing for a while, because this has been a really fun team to coach."
So now the attention turns to what Northwestern can do in the Big Dance. The Cats impressed in their two wins over Rutgers and Maryland, shooting 60 percent and 55.3 percent in those two games. By beating Maryland on Friday night, Northwestern showed it's arrived as a winning program in this conference.
Saturday wasn't quite as impressive — unless you're talking about the Badgers, of course — with the Northwestern offense struggling mightily and the defense getting bombed out by a Wisconsin team playing like it was expected to when it was pegged as the conference favorite during the preseason.
A Jekyll-and-Hyde showing might not provide a lot of material for predicting how this team will do in its first foray into the Madness of March, but the team is excited for what it was able to accomplish in D.C. Beating Maryland on Friday night, Northwestern grabbed a win over a tournament team. All in all, it's been a valuable learning experience for the Cats.
"The last two games are against teams that are probably going to be in the tournament," guard Scottie Lindsey said. "They've been there before, they have experience. Those are tournament-like games, we feel like. So just using those, knowing what the atmosphere will be like and learning from the mistakes we made in these games. And hopefully we won't make those mistakes if we're selected for the tournament."
"After this one, we'll definitely be fired up," forward Vic Law said. "Wherever we're playing, whatever tournament we're in — hopefully it's NCAA — we'll be fired up. Definitely something that we need to bounce back from."
Collins isn't sweating his team's Saturday performance. He thinks his team is still playing well, and certainly the first two games in D.C. showed that.
So next week, when the Cats are doing what they've never done before, Collins expects his team to keep racking up those firsts.
"I think we're going to be fine," Collins said. "We're going to be fine. We got beat today. I think sometimes psychologically we talk too much about all that kind of stuff. We had two great wins. We got beat today by a really good team. We get rested up. We dust ourselves off.
"Nothing's guaranteed. Hopefully tomorrow night, whenever that show is, we see our name called, and we figure out and start preparing for who we're going to play. But we're going to be fine. We got character in our locker room. We're going to be ready. We'll get rested, get prepared. We'll try to play our best next Thursday or Friday, if we get that chance."