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With an opportunity unlike any it’s ever had, Northwestern isn’t just happy to be here

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This team doesn’t want to go home just yet.

NCAA Basketball: Selection Sunday-Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - How do you act like you’ve been there before if you never truly have?

That’s the question Northwestern basketball will have to answer as it prepares for its first round matchup with Vanderbilt on Thursday. But this isn’t just the case of young players or inexperienced coaches, it’s a whole program and university entering uncharted territory.

“It's special. I said it on Sunday afterwards, for all of us, I mean how many times in any of our lives do you get a chance to do something historical that has never, ever been done?” head coach Chris Collins said. “And these guys have. This group has. They were the first ones.”

A moment like this comes with immense emotion, and now that they’re finally here, now that the seemingly unreachable goal has been reached, the task at hand begins to set in.

On Wednesday there was a lot of talk about “locking in” and making sure Northwestern does more than just show up, but there was still some room for that child-like wonder as well.

“I was actually just talking to Nate [Taphorn] last night, we were laying in bed about to go to sleep and I was just like ‘do you realize we’re about to play in March Madness right now?” Barret Benson said. “I said it but it still hasn’t even, I don’t really think it’s hit me yet.”

For now, that’s what this is all about for Northwestern. For the young guys it’s the ability to say they’re playing in an NCAA Tournament as freshmen, for the veterans like Bryant McIntosh it’s an opportunity to see how the team has grown.

“When I look back on my freshman year, it’s not exactly something I enjoy looking back on, the ten straight losses in big ten play, only 14 or 15 wins,” McIntosh said. “But just the building of the program, where we are at here and now, I can take a lot of pride in that and be satisfied that all the hard work is paying off.”

From 14-19 to 23-11 and an NCAA berth in just four years.

Sanjay Lumpkin, one of only two players on the team who was here for that 14-19 season in 2013-14, naturally should be one of the most emotional players on the team, and on Sunday he was. But now the redshirt senior has moved past the first step, and is ready to make history for the second time in the same week.

“We all came here to be a part of a different Northwestern, and be a part of history, and we achieved that goal,” Lumpkin said. “And now that we are here, we want to do everything we can to stay here. This is not just the angle for Northwestern basketball, we see this as the starting point, a new standard that can be set for our program.”

As much as this week has been focused on all the suffering Northwestern has gone through to get to this point, don’t think the players are still focused on just enjoying the achievement. No one would look down on Northwestern for losing to Vanderbilt; the Wildcats made the tournament, they finally accomplished the impossible task — no one would fault them for gracefully bowing out early. But that’s not how this Northwestern rolls.

The phrase “business trip” was used by multiple players on Wednesday and that’s what they’ll treat it as. It may be impossible to treat this as “any other game,” but Northwestern isn’t just here to take a team picture and head home.

“Coach Collins has really said the time for being so awe-struck is over, we have to start preparing for the game and we don’t have time to be so starry-eyed anymore,” Vic Law said. “The teams that go in starry-eyed and just happy to be there are the teams that lose.”

Perhaps the real mood around the program right now can be summed up in one moment. As Sanjay Lumpkin was being interviewed in the locker room, assistant coach Armon Gates walked over, leaned his head in and yelled, “just tell him this is what we do!”

And that’s the point of all this, isn’t it? Northwestern finally ended the curse. After 78 years of coming up short, it is going to play in an NCAA tournament game.

But Northwestern didn’t break that curse because it shied away from big moments. February 12th in Madison, March 1st in Evanston and March 12th in Washington D.C. are a few times this team rose to the occasion in big moments. Now they’ll have the opportunity to do so again on March 16th in Salt Lake City.

How do you act like you’ve been there before if you never truly have?

You don’t change a thing.