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An Oral History of Northwestern basketball's first NCAA Tourney bid

I was really blown away by Rohan Nadkarni's oral history of Northwestern football, culminating in Northwestern's first bowl win since 1949. So I decided to give my preferred sport the treatment it deserves, by telling the story of NU's first NCAA Tournament bid. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet, so we had to look into the crystal ball to tell the story.

Part One: Things start to perk up

Alex Little, Chicago Ebune: I really thought it was never going to happen. I remember, after that 2068 season, I thought Northwestern was finally going to get double-relegated.

Jamiell Flaherty, Tebowcorp Chicago: 2068 was a bad year for NU hoops. I think their only conference win that year was against Texas Tech.

Igor Barnes, SB Nation: You have to remember, this isn't the spry, young Bill Carmody we're used to seeing in the 2030's and 2040's. After his first hip replacement, I thought I'd never see him coach again. But he kept pushing. And pushing. And other coaches are out there mindgramming recruits left and right, and Carmody didn't even know how to turn on an inner-eye unit. He had his assistants do it for him.

Little: Obviously there used to be calls to fire him, but at this point, the guy's a legend. With the tournament expanded to 128, you didn't see many coaches survive a single season without getting fired if they missed out, let alone 65. Then again, you didn't see many coaches survive The Plague back in the 50's, in general.

Goron Williams, Northwestern president, 2055-present: People asked me if I thought about firing him, especially after football was outlawed. But you try firing a guy who has been coaching longer than you've been alive. You try firing a 120-year-old man.

Rodger Sherman, Sector 9 Dictator and Sex President (Medill '12): I remember watching one of the games the '38 team played on my platinum-encrusted Gigantovision while hopping out of my hot tub on a meeting with (former Undersecretary of Dictator Services) Kate UptonClone 6, I think they were playing Illinois. They just didn't have anybody worth a lick. If I hadn't angered the populace by using my dictatorial powers to rig the NBA back in the early 30's, I would've had Carmody incinerated, just like I did with (deceased Purdue coach Chris) Kramer.

Gregor O'Neal, NU point guard, 2067-2071: We weren't too good my first few years. I remember when I was a freshman we only won two games in Big Ten Times Five play.

Barnes: But then the wheels started turning. I don't know how he landed that '69 class. Clayborn Jackson was an absolute stud.

Pinkerton Crinsberry, NU small forward, 2069-2073: I wanted to get them to their first tournament, and well, the education. And I'd played against J-Kwon in high school, so when I heard a player of his caliber would be at Northwestern, it really increased my desire to go there.

Flaherty: Crinsberry was a really prototypical NU player, 6-foot-7, scrawny, great shooter, no defense. Actually, I think he was genetically engineered via NU prototype, so its no surprise he was so successful for them.

Olaf Smyzmar, NU center, 2069-2073: I knew little about US sports, but I knew Northwestern. The ones who always lose. Even in my little village in Polkraine, I knew Northwestern. When Carmody mindgram me offer, my family say, "why you must play for the worst?" But I thought I could make better.

J-Kwon Barrett, NU shooting guard, 2069-2072: Why not Northwestern, you know? I didn't just want to be the next guy in line at Ohio State or Indiana, you know? I mean, they were also my only offer.

Flaherty: You could tell, as soon as those four guys got on campus, things started clicking.

Crinsberry: We weren't great that first year together, but you could tell things were building. I think we went a game under .500 in Big 10 Times 5 play and made the NIT.

Little: The Soylent NIT was a bit of a joke - teams would chant N-I-T, N-I-T, or, SOYYYYYY-LEEEENT at bad teams, but having not made any postseason tournament since the '54 season, you could tell the guys took pride in it.

Barrett: I still have a picture of me at the NIT Third Round banner raising ceremony in my office. It wasn't much, but it was good memories. We were young, and we were all there. When you think about what happened later, that's what was most important - it was a happy time.

Part Two: Close calls

Barnes: So obviously, there was a little bit of momentum going into the 69-70 season. Crinsberry, Barrett, Jackson, and Smyzmar were all developing, you still had O'Neal from the dark days, but he was a solid point.

O'Neal: I wanted to go out on top. And by on top, I mean, well, one of the top 128 teams, obviously.

Smyzmar: We say "this year, tourney". For Greg.

Flaherty: I think those five guys ran Carmody's crazy old-fashioned offense - the, uh, the Prince... the Pincer better than any team I've ever seen. I forget the name of the offense to be honest - it was named after some place destroyed in the New Jersey Purge Sex President Sherman ordered.

Little: About halfway through the season, this team has all these quality wins - they beat UCLA, North Carolina, and Indiana on the road - and you're really seeing the place filled up. I don't think Welsh-Ryan had been filled once since the massive facility upgrades back in the 30's to shut up internet commenters, but it you'd see 20, 21,000 people there a night down the stretch.

Williams: You could tell people were excited. The students, even people around Chicago who had never been Northwestern fans before. The team had never been that good.

Sherman: Basically, they were at this point where wins in any of their last three games would have gotten them into the tourney.

Crinsberry: I guess we took our foot off the break a bit down the stretch that year.

Barnes: First the loss to Guadalaraja Tech. It wasn't devastating, but it was unexpected. They were 3-42 at that point in the year, but Sancho Johnson - a dude most teams probably didn't even put on the scouting report - really lit them up from downtown.

Sherman: Then that last regular season game against Illinois, I think they were up 25 at the half? I turned off the game early - which is something you never do with Northwestern - before my meeting with the Sexbassador from Sweden.

O'Neal: We're in the locker room, and Carmody says: have fun, boys. You just have to hold this lead. It's what you've all been waiting for. I remember he tapped me on the head with his cane and said: this is for you, Gregor.

Barrett: And we come out on the court, we're hyped, we're amped, and... we played well. I mean, we played well, but there was nothing we could've done.

Barnes: Three after three after three after three after three.

Flaherty: It was a new college hoops record. 38 threes in one half of basketball. I don't think I've ever seen a team go from up 25 to down 10 in one half.

Crinsberry: I remember, I had a hand up in (Wisconsin guard Emile) Jones' face. I was playing great defense on him. But he finished with 42. What can you do?

Little: And then there was the Ohio State game in the Big Ten Times Five tourney. I guess you could say you saw it coming, but... you didn't see that coming.

Williams: A lot of people went to Oklahoma City for the conference tournament. It was exciting. People really thought something good was going to happen, but, of course... the shot happened.

O'Neal: Look, it was a (expletive) fluke. A fluke. That shouldn't have knocked us out of the (expletive) tourney. That rule shouldn't even be in the books!

Barrett: I guess we should've contested the inbounds a little better, but, you're up five with one second left, you figure you've got it.

Crinsberry: I remember, Clay hit those two free throws with a second left, and I'm thinking: we're done here. I got back to play a little defense but I was jumping up and down excited about the win.

Little: Sex President Sherman forced the NCAA to add the six-pointer to the rule book back in '58 with the idea of making late game situations more exciting. Everyone knew it was in there, but I think like one or two had been made in the history of the sport. Some teams didn't even try - they figured you'd have a better chance of going the length of the court, hitting the three, and getting a steal and another three than they did of nailing a shot from inside the opposing free throw line.

Sherman: In retrospect, that rule was a bad idea.

Smyzmar: We don't even have six-pointer in Polkranian league.

Crinsberry: You saw him release this wild heave, and you're just thinking, no way, no way, no way, and then... oh, (expletive).

Jared Sullinger IV, Ohio State power forward, 2070-present: Hahahahah! I had no idea that shot was going to go in, but I guess I'm just I'm the best! I'm so great! LOL!

O'Neal: I just collapsed. Everything went dark for a few hours there.

Barnes: And because O'Neal concussed his head on the floor at the buzzer, he couldn't play in the NIT, but, that wasn't the story. I've never seen a fanbase so depressed.

Flaherty: You don't come back from that. They got blown out in their first NIT game, and it's better luck next year. But there was still hope for 71-72, thanks to landing Jamar McClendon to replace O'Neal at point and of course, the big rule change.

Little: It was long past due that the league let clones of all-time great play, but the issue was going to be how to implement it. Do you let each team clone as many guys as they want? Is North Carolina going to run out there with a team of five Michael Jordans? But I think one every four years was a really reasonable conclusion.

Barnes: But if anything, the clone rule put Northwestern at a disadvantage. I mean, you have teams bringing in these absolute legends - titans of the sport. Michigan State brings in Magic JohnsonClone, Indiana brings back Isiah ThomasClone, Michigan was able to pair up the real Glenn Robinson VI with the clone of Glenn Robinson V, which was pretty unstoppable. Nothing against John Shurna, but he's not on their level. The bad history of Northwestern basketball came back to bite them again.

John ShurnaClone, NU power forward, 2071-present: I mean, it's just an honor to be brought up next to those guys. I don't consider myself a great - sure, the original John Shurna won all those French League titles but it's an honor to be spoken of in that way.

Barnes: They weren't the worst off. I mean, Penn State had to bring in Calvin BoothClone, and Iowa made that really, really awful decision that the player they wanted to bring back was Brennan CougillClone, but it was a nice promotion for the Sector 9 Needs FarmerClones campaign, I guess.

Sherman: ShurnaClone was different than the original John Shurna. The real one was this super-nice guy, great player, but he'd giggle on the court. ShurnaClone was vicious. Bowling balls for biceps with a huge mean streak. The same, nice friendly guy off the court, but once he was on it, he was a killer.

Flaherty: It's like ShurnaClone knew his purpose on earth was to get Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament. From the time he was cloned, he was pumping iron or shooting jumpers. Come to think of it, his purpose on earth was to get Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

Part Three: Tragedy

Flaherty: So you have the freshman McClendon running the point, Barrett at the two, Crinsberry at the three, Jackson at the four, and Smyzmar at the five, with ShurnaClone sort of a do-everything guy off the bench.

Jamar McClendon, NU point guard, 2071-present: I sort of came there to play with Clay. He was a mentor of mine growing up. He recruited me.

Williams: They were all good, but Jackson was the star of that team. He was great.

Barnes: Jackson was averaging like 22 and nine, and Barrett was also having the best year of his career. If none of that stuff happened, that team would've made the tourney. Heck, they could've been Big Ten Times Five Champions, or at least made the fifth or sixth round of the conference tourney.

Barrett: We could've gone far. We could've gone far.

Crinsberry: Losing J-Kwon really hurt. He'd been there for three years, and to have him taken in the middle of the year like that... We really didn't see the overstudying issue coming. J-Kwon had kept it secret from us all those years.

Flaherty: Everybody knew overstudying was an issue, but you only saw players get caught doing it at really messed up institutions.

Little: Overstudying was put on the books to keep schools from getting a recruiting advantage. Considering the fact that a college degree was necessary for even the most menial jobs since about the 2040's due to all the outsourcing and whatnot, guys were using college basketball as a stepping stone to grad school, and if you could offer a guy a stronger opportunity that other schools, they'd take it. It had been on the books for a while, but people kind of forgot about it.

Williams: J-Kwon was a triple major in biochemistry, electrical engineering, and stats. We had no idea he was doing that behind everybody's backs. It really put a huge stain on our program.

Flaherty: Apparently, he'd been telling compliance staff he was a music major - trombone, I believe. But with about a month to go in the season a campus reporter on the way to the bathroom bumped into him in a Tech basement in a full lab coat and goggles. That's when suspicions started to rise, and when the dust cleared, he was ruled ineligible for the rest of the year.

Barrett: I put myself ahead of the team. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I hid it from my teammates and hoped the NCAA would never find out. I regret it to this day.

Barnes: And then, the Clay thing.

Crinsberry: Clay was like a brother to me. That's more important than anything we ever could have accomplished on court.

O'Neal: Coach Carmody always used to say weird stuff. Sometimes we didn't understand what he was talking about, but, you know, he's 120 years old. Literally. So if he would ramble for a few minutes about what life was like before the Dictatorship or how the Big Ten used to be - ha, I remember, he used to talk about making phone calls. Phone calls! In 2070! He'd make us do these weird drills we didn't understand sometimes, but that was coach. I can see why nobody thought twice when he asked them to suspend those anvils from the ceiling. People would give him the benefit of the doubt about crazy stuff like that.

Barnes: Just when you think everything that can go wrong went wrong - the decades of failure, the close calls, the 6-point play, the overstudying incident - your team's best player literally gets crushed to death by a falling anvil during practice.

Sherman: You see that stuff happening in cartoons, but you don't expect to see it happen in real life.

Smyzmar: I had relative crushed by falling anvil in Polkranian Revolt. I thought I would never see again.

ShurnaClone: I still think could've saved him. I could've pushed him out of the way. I probably could've caught that anvil if I really wanted to. When I was first cloned I used to train my hand-eye by juggling small safes.

Williams: Our school really came together over the loss of Clay. I think the whole student body was at the memorial service.

Barnes: They shouldn't have played again that year. Not just because they lost their best player - there were just too much emotions.

Crinsberry: We all said "we'll play for Clay", but our hearts weren't in it. It's tough to lose a friend. Especially in such brutal, violent fashion. Right in front of my eyes. It... it still haunts me.

Little: They were supposed to have a string of home games coming up, too, but thanks to the giant anvil-sized hole in the hardwood, they had to close down Welsh-Ryan for the year. The rest of their games were neutral sites or road games.

McClendon: It was disappointing to say the least. I go from being all excited to be in college to talking tourney to Clay getting smashed to all of a sudden we're playing in these weird arenas in games we didn't even want to be playing. I don't think I handled it well as a freshman.

Flaherty: There was a petition to pull ShurnaClone from the roster so the team could clone Clay and put him on the court, but I think that would have really given some of the players on the roster the jibblies to have to play with their cloned dead friend. Plus, the NCAA rule indicates you could only have one clone per season.

Barnes: They lost out, and then everybody's eyes turned to next year.

McClendon: But I knew we'd do it my sophomore year.

Smyzmar: I wanted to do tourney in last year.

Williams: You could tell 2073 was going to be the year.

O'Neal: I never made it to the tourney as a player. But I knew the guys who got to keep playing after I graduated would do it.

Sherman: I thought they had a shot at finally making it the year after that. Us Northwestern fans have been through a lot. Hell, I'm 80 years old. My ruthless path to supreme power has allowed me to experience all the finest, most pleasurable things in life. I've been around the world. I've conquered billions. Rumor has it I have 400,000 offspring - and that's the legitimate ones. But there's not much I wouldn't give to see that team make the tourney, and it felt like things were finally getting close.

Crinsberry: I knew right then and there that next year would be the year. It would be my last year. Some even said it would be Carmody's last year.For me, for us, for Clay. That year - that year - 2073, it was tournament or bust.

Part 4: 2073, the golden year of NU basketball

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