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Revisiting the history between Northwestern and UCLA basketball

It’s not 2013 anymore. Chris Collins isn’t a new coach and Northwestern has gone dancing.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Sacramento Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The year is 2013. Chris Collins is in his first season at Northwestern, and with the new reign comes an invitation to the most competitive non-conference tournament the Wildcats have ever played in. The Las Vegas Invitational brings a level of talent that is objectively out of Northwestern’s league, but matchups against UCLA and Missouri provide the type of exposure a team still awaiting its first dance would like.

A decade later, the 2013 team is long gone except for Chris Collins, whose job was being called for a few months ago, still at the helm. But now, Northwestern has two March Madness appearances and two wins with a victory in 2017 against Vanderbilt and another over Boise State on Thursday night. Hoping for a third win — and a bit of a miracle too — Northwestern gears up to play No. 2 seed UCLA on Saturday. Much like it was back in November 2013, UCLA is a solid team capable of a deep run into March, and Northwestern is the underdog, grateful for the opportunity to compete.

The ‘Cats and Bruins have faced off four total times, with the most recent being in the Las Vegas Invitational. They previously battled in 1969, 1962 and 1949, and NU was only victorious in the first matchup by a margin of six points. The Bruins eclipsed the ‘Cats by 14 points in ’69 and 13 in ’62. I would enlighten you with the details, but seeing as the historical archives can only give me the scores, I’ll leave that storytelling to a generation of sportswriters who didn’t have Twitter. Having done the math, you’ve probably figured out that no member of the modern era of Wildcat basketball will recall the start of the disadvantaged history between Northwestern and its soon-to-be Big Ten foe. But the Wildcats’ dancing history doesn’t begin in those years anyway, it begins with Collins taking over this program.

With the start of the new era, the basketball team became almost revived by the type of publicity coming out of Evanston, and the Las Vegas Invitational was a marquee signal of that. As for the results, you can probably imagine how it went.

It was a four-round round-robin, where Northwestern beat IUPUI and Gardner-Webb, but lost to Missouri before facing UCLA in the championship round. Out of the field, UCLA was the only nationally ranked team, possessing a 5-0 record and sitting at No. 22 in the AP Polls. The Bruins squad featured Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, two offensive stars that had just helped lead UCLA to a conference win, and then, to a sound win over the ‘Cats.

The offensive onslaught started early: UCLA made its first five shots while Northwestern missed its first five. Northwestern was down 14-1 before the offense was able to work its way a little bit closer at 18-10. At one point, the ‘Cats managed to get within six points, but the Bruins would not miss. At halftime, the Bruins were up 51-38 and had shot 76% from the field.

In the second half, NU matched UCLA a little better, posting 41 to its 44 points. However, there was no answer for the Bruins’ offense that made 13 of its 17 three-point attempts. In the 95-79 victory, Adams, Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford each put up 18 points, while Anderson notched 16.

JerShon Cobb, who was hired by Collins as Director of Player Development in 2018, led the ‘Cats with 22 points and was named to the all-tournament team, and Kale Abrahamson also added 19.

As a whole, the game meant little for the ‘Cats. To have a win over a reputable team would have been huge for Collins and a reborn program, but its own relatively strong shooting night, occurring without its leading scorer Drew Crawford at the time, was overshadowed by a triumphant showing by UCLA. The team went on to finish the season 14-19 and tie for 10th in the Big Ten. Yet, the contest itself perhaps foreshadowed what was to come. Ten years is a long time, and it certainly has not been seasons of the ‘Cats coming out on top, but like it was written for Inside NU back then, Collins has brought a sense of a culture change to the program.

The Wildcats will take on the Bruins for just the fifth time in program history tonight, tipping off at 7:40 p.m. CT on TNT. The odds may be stacked against Northwestern, but it’s March, and anything can happen.