CHICAGO — One day, March will be finally different for the Northwestern Wildcats. One day could be sooner than some might think.
But not yet.
We interrupt all the NCAA Tournament talk to request a moment of commiseration for the Frustrated Five — Northwestern, Army, William & Mary, The Citadel and St. Francis Brooklyn. The only original Division I members to never darken the bracket of the NCAA Tournament.
One more time, they will all have their noses pressed to the window, looking at the party going on inside.
The Wildcats were overpowered by Indiana 71-56 in the Big Ten tournament Thursday, and that made it official. The Five will stay Five in 2015. No one will flee the club for at least another year. But they’re trying.
“Everybody wants it,” Northwestern freshman Vic Law was saying Thursday night after the Wildcats lost. “Ev-er-ybody wants. As we’re getting closer to it, that makes us hungrier.’’
— Chris Collins
Consider their sense of being left out. Through last March, 312 different schools had played in the tournament, from Air Force to Yale, with Hardin-Simmons, Springfield and Tufts in between. But not this star-crossed quintet. One day, the waiting will end.
For St. Francis, close enough this week to smell the popcorn at the First Four. The Terriers marched to the Northeastern Conference tournament championship game as the No. 1 seed, but alas, lost 66-63 to Robert Mason, missing three free throws and a chance to tie with 2.4 seconds left.
For William & Mary. The Tribe just lost their fourth Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship game in eight years. “We wanted to put the dad-blame history stuff to rest, and we didn’t,’’ coach Tony Shaver said afterward. “We’ll live with that. I do believe if we keep knocking on the door, the door’s going to open.’’
For The Citadel. The Bulldogs played one game in the 2009 CIT, and that is the beginning and end so far of their postseason history.
For Army, and one winning season in the past 30 years. It gets worse. The Black Knights lost three times this season … to Navy.
And, finally, for Northwestern, the most prominent face in the Frustrated Five. The current Wildcats finished 15-17, so the 77th NCAA Tournament will be as Northwestern-less as the previous 76. They remain the only Power 5 conference team without a bid. Certainly, fate must smile upon them one day.
But not this year. They lost 10 games in a row earlier this winter, and five consecutive January games that had a one-possession difference in the last two seconds of regulation. They went eight minutes without scoring in the first half against Indiana, and gave up 20 offensive rebounds.
“Indiana kind of showed us the physicality you have to have in the Big Ten. It goes up a notch in the Big Ten tournament, and we weren’t ready for it,’’ freshman Bryant McIntosh said. “It was a welcoming to the Big Ten that we had talked about, and wondered whether it would happen for us freshman. This is one experience tonight.’’
But now hear this. Northwestern revived itself from that 10-game losing streak to win five of its last eight. “We lost 10 games in a row, and that forces you to grow up,’’ McIntosh said. “And we did.’’
The hottest hand the last month was Tre Demps, a junior coming back. “We have a lot to build on. We’re learning how to win games,’’ he said.
Junior Alex Olah is already Northwestern’s all-time shot blocker. The next two highest scorers after Demps and Olah are freshmen McIntosh and Law.
The Wildcats showed considerable gumption in making lemonade out of their January lemons. “It was a step forward,’’ coach Chris Collins said of the season. “And I don’t know that I would have said that when we were sitting at 1-10 [in the Big Ten] a month ago.
“If everybody doesn’t see that the arrow is moving up with our program, then I don’t know what they’re watching.’’
So what’s next for Northwestern?
“It’s time for us to make a jump,” Collins said.
There is a beacon out there for the Wildcats to chase, and a goal to drive them. One day, Selection Sunday will be for them, too. That was Collins’ intention two years ago, when he came from Duke for his first head coaching job.
“It’s not what we talk about daily, but yeah, in the back of our minds, that’s why a lot of these young guys came here. That’s why I came here, to elevate the program to that level. Like I said, it’s not about going once, it’s about being a program that goes consistently.
“But there has to be that first time.’’
“I think we’re closer today than we’ve been.’’
It’s easy to think of four other places hoping the same thing.