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Gonzaga was the end of the line for Northwestern, but it was also a beginning

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The Wildcats return a ton of talent from the program’s most successful roster.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

SALT LAKE CITY -- “Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.” - J.R.R Tolkien, Return of the King

Endings are hard; goodbyes are even harder.

As the clock ticked down to zero, it finally began to dawn on everyone in purple that it was really over. There was no more magic left in the tank. It had gotten them to the NCAA tournament, it had gotten them a win over Vanderbilt, and it had almost brought them all the way back against Gonzaga, but it ran out just a few minutes too soon.

First the disbelief, then the tears, then a raucous cheer from the purple mob that had taken over Salt Lake City for the past four days.

It was over, but it had happened.

At risk of being even more incredibly cliché, the only thing an ending leads to is a new beginning. The beauty of sports is that there’s always next year, and even if this year was finally “The Year” for Northwestern, next year has a very chance of being even better.

“I see a bright, bright future,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “The experiences they had this year are going to do nothing but propel them forward. It's going to give them that hunger to get back to this event again. And they're going to be a really, really tough out.”

Northwestern brings back four starters and only loses two players overall. The Wildcats return 85.5 percent of their scoring, 81.1 percent of their rebounding and 80.2 percent of their minutes played. In addition, Aaron Falzon will be back from knee surgery, and Rapolas Ivanauskas will finally be able to play after a shoulder surgery cot him his freshman season. The building blocks are not just there, they’ve already begun to make a house.

There was a constant feeling toward the end of this season of declaring something the biggest moment in Northwestern basketball history, only to have something else top it just days later. Well, this is the best Northwestern basketball team in school history, but in a couple years? Who knows.

The important fact is that Northwestern made the tournament, and next year it will absolutely have the skill and potential to do so again.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Gonzaga vs Northwestern Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

“I have never found any 'good' in goodbye.” - anonymous

The greatest season in Northwestern basketball season is really over. That’s the simple fact that we have to deal with now. It’s over. Even all the hope for the future won’t diminish the hurt, the missed calls, the definitive ending.

Still the way it ended, not in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament like 2015, or the second round of the NIT like 2012, but in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, pushing a one seed to its limit, shows there’s some good to be found.

It’s hard to truly appreciate the accomplishment right now, but suddenly Northwestern is normal. Next year there’s no drought, there’s no questions about if Northwestern can finally make the Tournament. The only question is if the Wildcats can go to back to back.

“I feel like the sky’s the limit for this program. You saw what we were capable of today,” Sanjay Lumpkin said. “I’m just so proud to be a part of this team and be a captain of these guys, I’m really going to miss playing with them. I expect big things out of this program in the future.”

There’s a shot Northwestern may be ranked to start the season and there will be talk for the Wildcats as real Big Ten championship contenders. That’s what there is to look forward to. Northwestern basketball is no longer just a quaint story to mention during March. The program has arrived and looks like it’s here for better seasons ahead.

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

“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.” - William Shakespeare

Even while looking towards the future, we have to accept the fact that for some, this really is the end. Lumpkin suited up every night for Northwestern for four years. He played through 10-game losing streaks, 20-plus-point losses and disappointing after disappointing season.

Then he got to end his career playing in the NCAA tournament.

It’s impossible to talk about how good Northwestern might be next year without acknowledging the work Lumpkin and fellow senior Nathan Taphorn did to make this year a special one.

“I just can't thank the seniors enough for building this foundation. It's unfortunate that they can't be with us next year because I think the foundation that they set has put us in a position to be really special again next year,” Bryant McIntosh said. “They started the ride and now it's just our job to carry it on. And we're going to miss them like crazy.”

Lumpkin and Taphorn, the relics of a Northwestern past, won’t be here to see the accomplishments of the future, but they were here to see the first. Two players who were sold on Northwestern by the dream of being the first group to take the Wildcats to the promised land, managed to be the first group to do just that.

Now they move on and pass the baton to next year’s senior class of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly and a brand new Northwestern team takes the court with huge aspirations.

First we have to say goodbye to the 2016-17 Northwestern Wildcats, one of the most fun basketball teams to ever wear the Wildcat purple and white, a team that climbed the mountain, and took all of us along for the ride.

Then Northwestern turns towards the future, a future that is brighter than its ever been.