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As season comes to a close, Northwestern is a team to be proud of

The ‘Cats gave it their all.

Northwestern v UCLA Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I’ve written a lot of words about Northwestern basketball since I’ve been at Inside NU. For the first time on Saturday night, I found myself speechless.

Long after the final buzzer sounded, sending UCLA to the Sweet 16 and ending Northwestern’s season, I sat in the empty seats on the South side of the Golden 1 Center, thinking of what to write. I watched as arena staffers rolled up extension cords and cleaned cluttered tables, as team equipment managers pretended to shoot imaginary threes on an empty court and as the stadium held an eerie silence that hadn’t occupied it in days.

What more can you say about a team who defied expectations?

It was a team that no one expected to be good. After losing two of its best players to North Carolina and Duke, Northwestern was picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten, and not a single Inside NU staff writer even predicted the ‘Cats to finish above .500.

It had everything you’d expect from a team ready to crash and burn. Northwestern was led by a coach whose job was publicly called for if improvements weren’t made. The team’s leading returning scorer was an inconsistent point guard who had more “No!” moments than “Yes!” The Wildcats brought in a single recruit, a three-star ranked No. 204 in his class, and one transfer who averaged less than seven points per game at UTEP. It was a recipe for disaster.

And yet, after the lights had gone down, after I sat in the empty stands for an additional 20 minutes, after I walked the night streets of Sacramento, I felt a range of emotions I’d never felt toward a sports team. It was a reminiscence that combined disappointment with fulfillment, and frustration with thankfulness, but above all else, I was proud.

College is a unique place because, as a student, you are so close to the action. You take the same classes the athletes do. You see them at the same parties you go to. They understand the struggle of the quarter system and difficulty in finding a late-night food option in Evanston all the same as you do. But beyond that, you are connected to the team in a way no professional sport could ever touch.

As a journalist, I enjoyed covering this team more than I’ve enjoyed any other part of my college experience. As a student, I watched an entire campus rally around a team of 13 individuals that not only elevated themselves to new heights on the court, but represented the entire school of Northwestern in a way that made everyone proud to be a Wildcat.

I saw the inconsistent scorer turn into a top five point guard in the country. I saw his backcourt running mate earn the mark of one of the best defenders in all of college basketball. I saw the presumed lame duck head coach become recognized as the best in the Big Ten, after his position was practically put on LinkedIn last March.

I watched as the student section came alive, turning Welsh-Ryan from a beehive of opposing fans into an echo chamber of Wildcat roars. From the stands to the press box, I experienced the feeling that Northwestern basketball gave its fans. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were present, but the passion surrounding the program from the start of the year to the final buzzer never wavered.

It was an impossible season, to say the least. In what other world would someone have predicted that Northwestern would knock off the number one team in the country, much less that it would be a part of four ranked wins in 2022-23? Where else was the team expected to end its losing streak to its in-state rivals, to break records for conference wins in a season, to win an NCAA Tournament game and to go down to the wire with the No. 7 team in the country?

There aren’t a lot of words out there that can outdo the word “proud.” To go out there with your back against the wall, when no one believed in you, and to put up arguably the greatest season in Northwestern history, it really speaks to the amount of hard work and dedication that the players and coaches put in to make this year special. After entering the year with tons of uncertainty, the Wildcats bought into an identity that helped push this team over the top, and it could not have been done without that conscious decision to get better.

So sitting here hours after a crushing season-ending loss, sure, I feel heartbroken. How else can you describe the feeling of watching your favorite college basketball team nearly pull off a massive comeback against a national championship contender, only to shoot 2-of-14 from the field in the final eight minutes, if not heartbroken? But it’s a different kind of heartbroken, where I can’t help but feel at peace because the Wildcats gave it their all and battled right down to the very end on the biggest stage in college basketball.

The emotions have run rampant. If you had told me a year ago that I’d feel this way about Northwestern basketball, I would’ve called you crazy. Now, I feel a weird sense of hope. Regardless of whether Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Robbie Beran return in 2024, or if Chris Lowery finds a major coaching job elsewhere, I feel optimistic because this team has found its identity. A decade into head coaching, Chris Collins has finally figured out the team that he wants to build, and with the transfer portal becoming as big as it is, he can do exactly that to plug the All-Big Ten-sized holes and try to make this magical season a trend, rather than another one-stop shop.

I don’t know what the future holds. I’m not sure how many wins the team will have next year, who will be on the roster or even how many more opportunities I’ll get to cover this basketball team as a student journalist. One thing, though, is for certain, and that’s that the 2022-23 Northwestern Wildcats will truly never be forgotten.