March Madness is one of the sports world’s most beloved traditions/productivity drains, a chance to fill out brackets and ignore responsibility while overdosing on dozens of basketball games, some unmemorable and some very good. College graduates across the country can remember their alma maters with pride, seeing where they’ve been slotted into the tournament, whether as a championship contender or a just-happy-to-be-there lower seed.
For graduates of Northwestern University, this is an alien experience. Despite hosting the first ever NCAA tournament in 1939, the Northwestern Wildcats have never made it. Northwestern has gone 46 years without finishing above .500 in Big Ten conference play, and they’ve hit .500 just once. In fact, they’ve had just 16 overall winning records since the tournament began. There are a few other Division I schools that haven’t made the tournament, but Northwestern stands alone as the only power conference team—they play in the vaunted Big Ten, which is filled with elite athletic schools like Ohio State and Michigan—without an appearance. The difficulty of doing this can’t be understated. “If you look at bad schools in other conferences, they make the tournament every seven or eight years just by dumb luck,” says Ken Pomeroy, creator of the heralded KenPom college basketball rankings.
"It seems like we keep getting close and something happens. Someone will get hurt, or someone will transfer when they get too good for Northwestern. It’s hard to be too optimistic."
Under coach Bill Carmody, who was fired in 2013, the Wildcats went to the National Invitation Tournament (for teams not quite good enough to qualify for the Big Dance) four times—more than they had in their entire history—and had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11. (For one beautiful, shining week in 2009, they were even ranked in the Associated Press poll—a first in 40 years.) But ultimately, Northwestern’s merely above-average records were undermined by a lack of strong conference play, and other teams were selected for the tournament. “By the time of selection you end up with 10 teams that are almost identical in terms of quality,” Pomeroy says. “It’s really important to have something on your resume, otherwise it’s a crap-shoot—and I think Northwestern needs to probably do that.” More importantly, he says, the NCAA selection committee isn’t necessarily interested in a good story. “I think they don’t really want the reputation for playing favorites. They want to have a reputation for picking the best.”
Northwestern’s rarely put together a team that could be called “the best” even by its own anemic standards. There’s a history of prospects either disappointing or failing to come altogether. “They’ve had some very good players but they don’t seem to get them all together at one time, if that makes sense,” says Dave Eanet, who calls the team’s games for WGN. “It’s very rare that we get a recruit comes in that everyone says, This guy can’t miss,” says Kenn Ruby, an alum who wrote a piece about the program’s highlights that was decidedly low on highlights. In the '90s, a highly touted player named Evan Eschmeyer put up astonishing numbers ... when he was healthy enough to stay on the court. In recent years, the team paired high-scoring John Shurna with star player Kevin Coble ... but only for the 2008-09 season, when Shurna was still developing, because Coble got injured and later decided to leave the team because of a dispute.
“They’ve had some decent seasons,” Eanet says. “But they haven’t had the tradition, and I think that recruits want to go to a winning team. They know they’re going to play in the postseason every year.” Joe Ruklick, an alum who eventually played with Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA, says the problem is that too many players don’t academically qualify to be recruited by Northwestern, while those who do would rather play for schools with proven programs, such as Stanford and Duke. “He’s going to go to the best school that offers him challenges and opportunities,” Ruklick says of a hypothetical prospect, someone like Duke’s Jabari Parker who had outstanding skills and grades. “Winners tend to attract winners.” They’re also attracted by stadiums nicer than Welsh-Ryan, where the Wildcats play and which resembles a high school gymnasium more than a professional arena. (Alas, try getting a school trustee to justify the hundreds of millions it would cost to build a better one.)
I graduated from Northwestern in 2010. The team flirted with the bubble in my last two years, but for my memory, the most excited my friends and I ever got was when a then-titillating Greg Oden came to our dinky little arena in 2007, and promptly killed us. Blame us for being fair weather, but at some point, cheering only goes so far. At this point, I’d take a weak team doomed to get bounced in the first round over no team at all. The goal in any sport is to win a championship, but it’s nice to know your team is still relevant. You’d rather be the Buffalo Bills of the early '90s, who made four straight Super Bowls only to lose all of them, than be the Buffalo Bills of the 21st century, who play like a sentient tire fire.
The agony and ecstasy of sports is putting enough of yourself in a team so that you live and die by their successes and failures, but a basketball team like Northwestern is perfectly anodyne. The disappointing seasons stockpile year after year with little difference; the bubble is in sight, until it isn’t. The often silly yet undeniably self-affirming optimism of watching a sports team compete slides into pessimism. All of these things come together—high academic standards and sub-par talent, lack of success and lacking facilities, no against-the-odds underdogs and little sustained fan interest—and reinforce each other. Even though its numbers might not affirm them as the worst team in the country, that’s when a team becomes ... The Worst.
WHY IS THIS, EXACTLY? Luck was brought up by everyone I spoke to. “I don’t think they’ve always been very lucky,” Eanet says. “You would think that at one point in the last 75 years we would’ve lucked into it,” Ruby says. But Northwestern has not only been improbably and historically unlucky—often times, they’ve simply been that bad. The school is just north of Chicago, and many of its students hail from Illinois. Like the nearby Chicago Cubs, who famously haven’t won the World Series in over a century, Northwestern has only fielded a team that was on the tournament bubble maybe a half-dozen times, mostly under Carmody, who was fired because he couldn’t get the team to the tournament after 13 years. It’s a cycle that never seems to end.
But not everything must remain so bad. First year coach Chris Collins, who was brought in from Duke, secured a top recruit named Victor Law, who was ranked as one of the 100 best high school players in the country. Collins’ first season didn’t produce a winning record, but there were signs of improvement: The team beat number 14 Wisconsin on the road, and pulled enough upsets in the Big Ten that Pomeroy called them “a colossal pain in the ass.” “In a season where not a ton was expected of them, I think that’s an indication that the players bought in,” Eanet says. “Those are all significant developments, so I think they definitely made major strides.” Even so, the school’s history has conditioned a sense of caution. “I felt good about [former coach] Ricky Birdsong and felt pretty good about Carmody when he first came in, too,” Ruby says. “It seems like we keep getting close and something happens. Someone will get hurt, or someone will transfer when they get too good for Northwestern. It’s hard to be too optimistic.”
In other words, we’ll believe it when we see it.