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The Seven-Decade Itch

Consider for a moment the esteemed alumni of Northwestern, whose ranks include 20 Pulitzer Prize winners, five Academy Award recipients, four Nobel Prize laureates and a Supreme Court justice. Still missing, however, is that far more common specimen: a men's basketball player who has made an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

That's right: 70 years of the Big Dance and not one invitation for the Wildcats. During that time some 300 teams have made the tournament, including all the other schools currently in the six major conferences. Big Ten rival Indiana has gone 35 times. Even Tufts has had its moment of March Madness—you know, the Jumbos, who now play in Division III.

It's the type of streak that defies analogy. Sure, the Clippers are epic failures, but at least they have tasted the NBA playoffs. And yeah, pulling for the Pirates the last 17 years has been like rooting for mold, but there are fans who can still recall the glory days of the Lumber Company. For the Wildcats' faithful—and faith certainly is the operative word—what is there to fall back on? Hey, remember 26 years ago, when we started 9--0! (And then dropped nine straight in conference play.) How about those two trips we made to the NIT in the last 10 years! (And lost both times in the first round.)

No, theirs is a history pockmarked with scandal (point shaving in 1998), ignominy (an 0--16 conference record in 2000) and even tragedy (the murder of former coach Ricky Byrdsong by a white supremacist in '99). The Cats have never had a 20-win season and have finished higher than fourth in the Big Ten only twice since World War II. You follow them at your own peril. One alum, New York Times Magazine writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis, describes being a Northwestern hoops fan as "masochism without the company" because "there are so few of us and we are so used to disappointment."

Which is why this season is so exciting. Despite losing their best player, 6'8" Kevin Coble, to a season-ending foot injury, the Wildcats started 10--1 and on Dec. 28 were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since the Johnson Administration. (That's Lyndon, not Magic.) This feat becomes more impressive after you've seen them play. Their leapers aren't tall guys, and their tall guys can't leap. When their leading scorer, lanky sophomore forward John Shurna, launches a three, his motion is so ungainly—he holds the ball at arm's length, as if hoping to deposit it in the nearest trash can—that it's amazing he can even draw iron. Coach Bill Carmody is only half-joking when he says of assistant Mitch Henderson, a former Princeton guard who scrimmages with the players, "I don't mind that Mitch is cagier and smarter than all those guys on the court. The thing that bothers me is that he's faster than all of them."

And yet the Wildcats are a blast to watch. They launch flotillas of threes (47 in one game), scramble around in a 1-3-1 zone and warm the hearts of CYO coaches with backdoor layups. Give credit to Carmody, who only two years ago went 1--17 in conference play, leading one Chicago Sun-Times columnist to write, "It's almost insulting to Northwestern to keep him around." Carmody has refined a variation of the high-post, dribble-handoff offense he helped develop as Pete Carril's assistant and successor at Princeton, then recruited city kids to go with Northwestern's normal array of pale 'n' wiry suburban gunners. What's more, in a weird way, all those decades of losing actually helped his pitch. Who doesn't want to go down in history? "Part of why I came here is so I could be on that first team to make the tourney," says junior point guard Michael (Juice) Thompson, one of only two Chicago Public League players to sign with Northwestern in the last 30 years. "I embrace the challenge."

The good news, Michael, is that it embraces you back—and, man, does it have a grip. Take last Saturday, when 11th-ranked Michigan State visited Evanston. Despite a frigid breeze off Lake Michigan and a student body still on winter break, Northwestern hosted its first sellout of the season. This prompted Daily Northwestern beat writer Danny Daly to gaze in wonder around a raucous, 8,117-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena and declare, "It's almost like I go to an actual basketball school!" Unfortunately for the Wildcats, there was an actual basketball school on the other bench. A half-dozen emphatic jams later, including one surreal alley-oop from half court, and the Spartans had dropped Northwestern to 10--3 with a 91--70 blowout.

The Cats' tournament prospects remain good: Split the remainder of their Big Ten games and a berth is likely. Sure, the schedule is front-loaded with tough teams (hello, Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State). And granted, there's the glare of the national media, which have begun to descend for articles like, well, this one. Mike Wilbon (class of '80) opened PTI with a shout-out recently, and Denizet-Lewis has started a weekly feature on called So You Think NU Can Dance. There are also the hopes and dreams of Northwestern grads the world over to fulfill. It's all Carmody can do to keep the advice straight. "I'm getting e-mails from trustees, coaching suggestions from alumni," he says. "Some of these guys are really anxious to win."

I can't for the life of me imagine why.

Northwestern is the only major-conference school never to earn an NCAA bid. Sure, the Clippers are epic failures, but at least they've tasted the playoffs.

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