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SportsMonday: Now It's Northwestern's Turn

That probably did it.

Northwestern's 66-59 victory at Wisconsin on Sunday night means they will almost certainly go to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

The Wildcats are 19-6 overall and 8-4 in the B1G (I prefer this designation to the one that requires the writer to call a 14-team league the Big Ten). They have six more regular season games and at least one conference tournament game to score that magical 20th victory and make sure they at least finish at .500 in the conference (minimum nine wins). One more win during those last six regular-season games makes an invitation a probability. Two just about guarantees it.

And if it wasn't already official, it is now - we have entered some sort of sports history warp in which the most unlikely sporting outcomes happen season after season. And this is also happening in a ridiculous, almost year-long stretch in which all major college and professional championship finals have been amazingly competitive and dramatic (the hockey final wasn't that dramatic - Penguins in six - but I don't think of hockey as major).

So yeah, this past year has been a slightly good time to be a sports fan.

Northwestern making it to the NCAA tournament will potentially cap off a run that saw Leicester City win its first Premier League soccer title last spring after more than 130 years of existence. And then some local baseball team ended a paltry 108-year drought. Oh, and in between, the Cleveland Cavaliers brought home their city's first title in any major sport in over 50 years.

To tell the truth, in order to truly add an equivocal chapter to this run, Northwestern would have to not only qualify for the tournament, it would have to win it. So go get 'em Wildcats!

The fact that Northwestern hasn't made it to the NCAA men's basketball Division I tournament (it was officially established in 1948-49) is mind-bogglingly bad. In the past 20 years, Gary Barnett, Randy Walker and Pat Fitzgerald have established and kept going a Wildcat football program that has at least been respectable year after year.

Successful football programs are much, much more difficult to establish than successful basketball programs. When DePaul charged into national prominence in 1979, making the Final Four for the first time in Ray Meyer's 37 years at the helm, the Blue D-men (they were originally called the D-men due to the varsity letters the university gives out and D-men is much cooler than Demons), it essentially did so on the back of one great recruit.

Yes that team also had plenty of skill and veteran leadership, but the main thing it had was superstar freshman Mark Aguirre. He averaged 24 points a game in his first year playing at good old Alumni Hall in Lincoln Park.

The bottom line is, Northwestern has never been able to recruit even one true star like Aguirre. As Duke has found a way to bring in star after star after star the last three decades despite similar academic restrictions on admissions, Northwestern has put together a remarkable run of failure. There are a variety of reasons why, but in the past 40 years or so the biggest problem has been the acceptance of mediocrity.

Actually, mediocrity would have been an improvement. Northwestern accepted not being an embarrassment. Bill Foster was given eight years at the helm despite coming up short year after year, and Bill Carmody had the head coaching job for 13 years (!) while doing the same. Fortunately the university finally got it right when it put Chris Collins in charge in 2013.

Collins has delivered in his fourth season despite his team suffering several big-time injuries the past few years. In fact, when leading scorer Scott Lindsey was diagnosed with mono a few weeks ago, it started to feel as though this program was - yeah, I'm going to say it - cursed.

All of that went away with last night's win. Lindsey is expected back in the next week and the team is on its way.

And the best part of all this? Northwestern can distract us from the Bulls for at least the next month.


Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 22, 2021