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The Outliers: A history of Northwestern’s basketball woes, and the team that ended them all

Were the Wildcats cursed? Or was it just really, really bad luck?

Sports Illustrated

Two blocks west of Northwestern University’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, lies a house colloquially referred to as the Frisbee House. All eleven inhabitants are current undergraduate students at Northwestern and all of them play for Northwestern’s club ultimate frisbee team. Like most houses rented to college students in Evanston, the Frisbee House is a little run down, or as my father put it, “well lived-in.” The front door knob occasionally falls off, the first-floor toilet sometimes flushes weird, there are holes in the wall nobody can explain… it’s far from perfect, but for those eleven students, it’s home.

It’s been home to a lot more than eleven students. Members of Northwestern’s club ultimate frisbee team have lived in the house for the last twenty years. And while a lot of things have changed since then, the decor has remained almost entirely unchanged since I first set foot in the Frisbee House during my freshman year. There’s a stolen sign or two, flags and banners, paintings and murals on the walls, and just over the television, held in by four thumbtacks, there are two browning front pages of The Daily Northwestern. They are dated March 2 and March 13, 2017, respectively. The one on top has the headline Madness, showing the final score of a basketball game versus Michigan. The second one is a little more striking. It is a full-cover photograph of Northwestern basketball forward Vic Law, Jr. The photograph has been edited so that everything but Law is blurred in black and white. Law is walking away from the camera, fists raised triumphantly in the air. The headline, printed just above his outstretched arms, reads only one word: Finally.

In 1891, James Naismith invented what we now call basketball in the gymnasium of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. By 1896, colleges had already begun playing against each other, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association was up and running by 1910. In 1939, the NCAA championship tournament, the one we call March Madness, was founded. The organizers selected Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium to be the host of the finals. It made sense — Northwestern was a pretty solid basketball school, with a retrospective national championship from 1930 and a Big Ten title in 1933. Plus, its location just north of Chicago meant it was easy to get to no matter which schools were invited.

The first NCAA championship was played in Patten Gymnasium on March 27, 1939. Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33. That was the closest the Northwestern Wildcats would come to the NCAA tournament in over 70 years. The very next year, Patten Gym was demolished to make room for the Technological Institute. Arthur Lonborg, the head coach at the time, is still the only men’s basketball coach at Northwestern with a winning record.

The first team to come close to breaking the curse was the Wildcats of 1958-59. That’s right, we could have avoided this whole curse thing early on. Northwestern posted a 15-7 record (8-6 Big Ten) with the highlight of the season being a 118-109 win in double overtime versus No. 5 West Virginia. The ‘Cats were ranked sixth in the AP poll the following week. But a three-game losing streak in January dropped them from the poll, and with Michigan State going 12-2 in Big Ten play that year, the Wildcats never had a chance. Until 1975, only one team from each conference could make the Big Dance. No dice.

The next opportunity was another decade away. After dropping their opener to Stanford, the 1968-69 Wildcats won nine straight games, ranking as high as 12th in the AP Poll. This was the last time they’d be in the poll for 41 years. Upon being ranked, the ‘Cats lost to No. 4 Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State. A win over Michigan only led to another four-game skid. So, they tried getting rid of head coach Larry Glass. His replacement, Brad Snyder, finished out the season 4-2. The losses meant that Northwestern finished with a record of 6-8 in conference play, good for fifth. Brad Snyder didn’t have another winning season.

It took more than a decade this time. The ‘Cats next winning season came with Rich Falk’s 1982-83 Wildcats, who finished with a record of 18-12. It wasn’t enough for the Big Dance (which by now had removed the silly one-team-per-conference rule) but it was sufficient for everyone’s favorite consolation prize, the NIT. In their first-ever postseason appearance, the Wildcats beat Notre Dame in round one and then lost to DePaul. The next year, they went exactly .500, invalidating them for the NIT, and it would take them yet another decade to get back to relevance.

In 1993, Northwestern hired head coach Ricky Byrdsong, who, as any new head coach does, wanted to change the culture of the team. So he stripped star point guard Pat Baldwin (yes, father of Golden State Warriors player Patrick Baldwin, Jr.) of his captaincy, then asked junior guard Dion Lee to change his number from 24 to 10. And also to change his name from Dion to Kenneth. Naturally, the Wildcats won their first nine games. Then, as if the past month and a half had meant nothing to them, they turned around and lost nine straight.

During this stretch, Byrdsong decided that the players were being too hard on themselves and were getting distracted, bringing down their level of play. To solve that problem, Byrdsong chose to break from the long-established tradition of coaches, you know, actively coaching. Instead, he would heckle the players during practice by pretending to be an annoying fan or a member of the press. While NU was in Minneapolis playing the Golden Gophers, Byrdsong took a stroll around the arena and chatted with opposing fans and the Minnesota mascot. I’m hesitant to say that his strategy worked since Northwestern did lose that game, but the ‘Cats did finish the season one game above .500 (thanks to a close overtime win at home vs. Michigan). It was enough for the second NIT bid in program history, where the Wildcats took revenge on DePaul in the first round (albeit, revenge from 11 years earlier) and then lost in overtime to Xavier. Byrdsong never won more than seven games in a season after his first year, and was tragically murdered in a hate crime two years after he stopped coaching.

The next year Northwestern made a postseason tournament was 1999. Led by senior center Evan Eschmeyer, the ‘Cats actually had a pretty solid season going by early February, with a record of 14-6 and a 6-4 record in conference play. Then they lost their last six games, barely making it over .500 at 14-12 heading into the conference tournament, where they lost in the second round, finishing with a 15-13 record. Luckily, it was good enough to earn a third NIT bid, but this time, DePaul would get the better of them. Eschmeyer graduated to the NBA and head coach Kevin O’Neill went winless in Big Ten play the following year.

After Kevin O’Neill, it gets a bit better. Head coach Bill Carmody was never going to finish first in the Big Ten, but he was going to put together a vaguely respectable team. John Shurna led the Wildcats to four consecutive NIT bids, and in December of 2009, even got the team ranked No. 25 in the nation. The ‘Cats immediately dropped their next two games to Illinois in overtime and No. 11 Michigan State to appease the basketball gods. Once Shurna graduated, it was a regression to the mean. In Carmody’s last season as head coach, the ‘Cats slid from 13-10 on February 2, 2013 to 13-19 at the end of the season.

So that brings us to one Christopher Ryan Collins, who looked at the team that went 13-19, and went, “I can work with that,” and led them to a 14-19 record. Then, a 15-17 record. Then, in 2016, a 20-12 record. Yes, 2016, not 2017. NU actually had a decent chance in 2016, but they lost in overtime to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament and blew it.

And now, let’s talk about the year.

The Wildcats actually started off pretty strong. They picked up a good win over No. 22 Texas and by the end of December, the ‘Cats were 12-3. They lost just once in January, bringing their record to 18-4 and another No. 25 ranking. In an effort to hold with tradition, they immediately lost their next two games. They did at least attempt to right the ship, beating No. 7 Wisconsin in Madison before losing to No. 23 Maryland at home. With five games left in the season, the Wildcats needed to win at least one, probably two, to guarantee a spot in the tournament.

Their schedule:

Feb 18, 2017 vs. Rutgers

Feb 21, 2017 at Illinois

Feb 25, 2017 at Indiana

Mar 1, 2017 vs. Michigan

Mar 5, 2017 vs. No. 16 Purdue

The basketball gods were not making it easy. Well, mostly. Rutgers was a pretty bad team, but it didn’t stop the ‘Cats from letting the Scarlet Knights keep it close. The four-point win moved their record to 20-7 with four games left to go.

Next up, Illinois in Champaign — a blowout loss because the Wildcats horrifically choked in the 2nd half (sound familiar?), putting up just 18 points in the last 20 minutes. 20-8, three games left.

Third, Indiana in Bloomington: Northwestern went up 26-14, and then let the Hoosiers score 22 straight to end the first half, including this nice backcourt shot.

No worries, Northwestern went on another great run for all of 19 minutes. With under a minute left, the trailing Hoosiers found an open three, cutting Northwestern’s lead to two. Then, Bryant McIntosh drove the ball to the hoop and… missed the jumper. Oof. With about ten seconds left, IU was able to get under the bucket for an easy layup. Even worse, the Hoosiers drew a foul on the shot, giving them a potential three-point play. After a bouncy free throw that eventually found home, McIntosh’s half-court heave got close but not close enough. It was 63-62 Indiana, 20-9 record for the ‘Cats, two games left.

Okay, listen. You know how the Michigan game goes. It would have been a lot cooler if this was the last game rather than the second-to-last game, but I’ve got to work with what the basketball gods have given me. And in every other way, they really did deliver. Michigan had knocked the ‘Cats out of contention the year prior. The other time Northwestern had played Michigan close in a do-or-die game was the last game of Ricky Byrdsong’s first season, starring none other than Pat Baldwin, who was now an assistant coach for the Wildcats.

The other key player in the Michigan game, Nathan Taphorn, was in his last year at Northwestern. As a high school senior, he had watched Bill Carmody lose his job, and for whatever reason, decided to try his luck under Chris Collins. It didn’t exactly pay off, as Taphorn started exactly three games in his collegiate career. He was good at taking threes — he shot .470 his senior year — but that was most of his role on the team. He never saw more than 23 minutes in a game and averaged just 12. Versus Michigan, Taphorn played 13 minutes . However, as a bench player, he was just as important.

And in the last minutes of a back-and-forth game, it was Taphorn who played the most important minute (1.7 seconds, really) of his life.

That’s the first of the two Daily pages.

The Wildcats lost the next game to Purdue by four, but the damage was done. They were dancing. For the first time in 78 years, the Northwestern Wildcats were playing in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament.

That’s the second Daily page, the one with the headline reading Finally.

The first Northwestern game in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was played in Salt Lake City, Utah, vs. the Vanderbilt Commodores. Collins chose to employ the standard Northwestern gameplan of “build a big lead and hope it’s enough.” This time, it worked, barely. The ‘Cats let a 15-point lead slip late and traded the advantage in the last few minutes before finally securing the win on a strange play where a Vanderbilt player mistakenly fouled McIntosh while the Commodores were leading by one.

The win gifted the Wildcats a date with Gonzaga, which gave us the crying Northwestern kid. Gonzaga at one point led by 22, and was up by 18 at the half. But Northwestern scored 53 (yes, 53) points in the second half to make it close. I have no comment on one of the most egregious missed goaltending calls I’ve ever seen. Northwestern fell to Gonzaga 79-73, giving the ‘Cats an official 1-1 record in the NCAA tourney. Not bad for a first outing.

It should have been up from there. It really should have. Almost everyone on that team was returning the next year. But the three people who departed NUMBB after that season? Sanjay Lumpkin, who was the team captain, as well as the last holdover from Bill Carmody’s tenure as head coach. Lumpkin had a great career at Northwestern and was an incredibly important player for the 2017 team. The team was going to take a small step back without him regardless. But the other two were so much bigger. Nathan Taphorn graduated, and Pat Baldwin, one of the only Northwestern alums who had ever played in any kind of postseason tournament before, took the head coaching job at the University of Milwaukee.

The basketball gods have not been kind to Northwestern. But just maybe, the fortunes are about to change. There’s been a new addition to the wall in the Frisbee House recently—a third front page of the Daily Northwestern, with the headline reading History Made. The photo shows Boo Buie shooting a basketball over a Purdue defender’s outstretched hand.

Good luck, Boise State. We’ve got a lot of demons.

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