SALT LAKE CITY — It was a moment nearly eight decades in the making: Northwestern took the court at the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats were still a day away from taking on the Vanderbilt Commodores in their first-ever NCAA tournament game, but there head coach Chris Collins was, monitoring both ends of Wednesday afternoon's open practice while pacing back and forth across the March Madness logo.
Northwestern ending its 78-year NCAA tournament drought is one of the biggest stories of this year's Big Dance, and certainly that Selection Sunday outburst of joy will remain unforgettable.
But for the Cats, being here is nowhere near enough, even if it might be for fans who have waited more than three quarters of a century for Northwestern to finally be on this stage. Collins and his players delivered a unanimous message Wednesday that one game is not nearly a long enough run in this NCAA tournament.
"Why would we come all this way and just go home?" Nathan Taphorn said.
The journey has been a long and well-chronicled one. Collins took over ahead of the 2013-14 season and in four years has taken the Big Ten's perennial basketball bottom-feeder and turned it into one of the conference's winning programs and an NCAA tournament particpant. Smashing through that program-specific barrier of getting to the tournament was terrific, monumental from an outsider's perspective. But inside the program, inside the locker room, just getting here is not how this team wants this story to end.
"I think we can't emphasize enough that this isn't the end goal. It's one of our goals to make the tournament, but we're not just satisfied to be here," Bryant McIntosh said. "We're going to go out and try and win a game and continue playing, playing for our lives, just to continue the season on. So it's been such a special year that you don't want to see it end. And that's why it's just a single goal and not the end goal."
"There's no question, the first time is special," Collins said. "The first selection show you watch when you see your name, it's special. And I want them to be excited. I want them to feel that they've done something really good. ... The thing I love about this group, though, is once kind of all that passed from Sunday into Monday, they've really locked into wanting to win here. They don't just want to be here and show up and go home. It's nice to be invited to the party. It's nice to be invited to the Dance. You want to stay a while. To do that you have to go out and win."
Collins is obviously a huge part of that mindset, and he can speak from experience.
Before coming to Northwestern, Collins spent a combined 17 years as a member of the Duke basketball program, four as a player and 13 as an assistant coach to Mike Krzyzewski. In that more than decade and a half of going to one NCAA tournament after another, Collins learned a thing or two about being on college basketball's biggest and brightest stage. He's trying to pass that down to his players.
"Obviously he’s been here before," Vic Law said. "He knows what the atmosphere’s like, he knows what the environment’s like. He’s really trying to prepare us mentally for that.
"(He's saying) that this isn’t going to be some regular, ordinary game. That our talk and our focus in these games is going to be really important. That you need to get your nerves out. We need to play confident and loose. This isn’t just some game. Obviously, we’ve never seen Vanderbilt play before, so we need to be even more locked in during film, during scouting."
So while this year's Northwestern group has already done the unthinkable, done something previously believed to be impossible, done more than every other Northwestern team ever combined to do, the question the Cats are asking themselves is a simple one: Why should they let it stop now?
"We all came here to be a part of a different Northwestern, and be a part of history. And we achieved that goal," Sanjay Lumpkin said. "And now that we are here we want to do everything we can to stay here. And this is not just the end goal for Northwestern basketball, we see this as the starting point, a new standard that can be set for our program.
"It's been a magical season, it's been awesome, none of us want to see the season end."