Two-thousand and forty six days.
That’s how long it took Sanjay Lumpkin to go from committing to Northwestern to co-captaining it into history. That’s how long it took Sanjay Lumpkin to turn from a clean-shaved, wide-eyed 175-pound freshman under the wing of Drew Crawford to a bearded, 220-pound, history-making fifth-year senior team leader. That’s over five-and-a-half years. It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely worth it. Because on his 2046th day, Sanjay Lumpkin finally achieved what he came here to do over a half decade ago: He’s at the NCAA tournament.
“This is what we all signed up for; we all believed, we all wanted to make history and be a part of that first team, and it’s been a really special year,” he said Sunday night immediately after the Selection Show. “To see our name up on the screen and make that all become a reality was surreal. Being there with the players and the fans — and our families there — it was awesome and something we will all remember for the rest of our life.”
He had been confident when he woke up — “I knew we were gonna be in” — and kept that confidence, even after three-fourths of the bracket had been revealed. And he knew the thousands of fans that filled the rows behind the players wouldn’t leave disappointed.
“So many people have always been there for us. The fans have always stood by us. Welsh-Ryan’s been unbelievable this year. It’s just been unbelievable. I’ll never forget it. Walking out and seeing the fans, the coaches, the players the families — they’re all part of it too. Seeing our name up on the screen is amazing. Just happy to be here and share it with everyone.”
Lumpkin’s been a part of this program through two coaches, 31 different teammates, 135 games and 124 starts. He’s played in over 3400 minutes of game time. He’s lost in blowouts, in heartbreakers and in every negative outcome in between. He’s won in blowouts, in buzzer beaters and in every positive outcome in between, too.
Most numbers do not and cannot possibly do his impact and role in this program justice. But the number one — the one NCAA tournament he made — can.
“Sanjay is our rock,” Chris Collins said at his press conference on Wednesday in Salt Lake City. “And he's such a selfless guy. You look at our stats, he's never going to be the leading scorer, the stats aren't going to jump off the page, but he's an indispensable part of our team. He brings his effort, his heart, his emotion, every time he steps on the floor.”
Exactly five years to the day after he committed to Northwestern, Lumpkin became a captain of the team that would go on to make history. And on that day, he first sensed that year number five in Evanston would be different.
“I said to the guys, ‘This is the best summer that I’ve ever had with a team and that this is different from every year,’” he said Sunday. ‘This is the best group I’ve been a part of. And I let them know that we could really do something special this year.”
And Lumpkin has been part of that difference. His stats, though they hardly tell the whole story, tell part of it: He’s shooting a career-high 56.5 percent from the field and finishing at a very high rate — a team-best 75.3 percent — around the rim, which is where the majority of his shots come from. He’s also posted a career-high in rebounds at 5.6 per contest. But his real impact has been as a leader and a team defender. With Vic Law Jr. often matched up with the opposition’s best individual offensive perimeter player, Lumpkin has played the role as a true team defender, taking on guards and centers alike, equally willing and able to double big men in the post and take charges against players driving into the lane.
“He's put his individual agenda aside in order for us to win, to be a stopper, to be a rebounder, to be a glue guy,” Collins said on Wednesday. “I'm just so proud of him. I love him. And it's been a great five years having him on my side.”
But his last game is nearing closer and closer. It could be Thursday against Vanderbilt in the Round of 64. It could be two days later. It could be a month from now. One thing that won’t change is the way the Wayzata, Minnesota native prepares and the effort he brings.
“You know, knowing it could be my final game doesn't really change anything for me,” he said Wednesday. “I prepare the same as I would for any game... You can't do anything crazy because it could be my last game, just stay in my role and leave it all out there. If I know I left it all out there and did whatever I can do, I've got to live with that. And whatever the result may be, just enjoy it. Just enjoy it.”
It hasn’t been an easy five-and-a-half years. But being able to cap off a career with his team in a place this program has never been in before has, as he put it Wednesday afternoon, “made everything that was put into it so worth it.”
“To be able to look back and know that we did it and we got here is huge, but none of us want the story to end here. It’s been an awesome year.”