The Big Dance. Bracketology. March Madness.
For many sports fans, these terms are annually tied to one event: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
But for me, the madness has always been a little muted. You see, I’m an alum of Northwestern University, otherwise known for years as the only school from a major conference to never make the Big Dance.
That fact was ever more infuriating because my alma mater just outside of Chicago was the host of the first NCAA tournament in 1939.
Here’s a little perspective as to why it’s been difficult to go wild for my Wildcats.
In the four years I attended the school (1989-1993), the Mildcats were a combined 31-80, including 1990-91 when they went 0-18 in the Big Ten Conference. There was even a point-shaving scandal in the 1990s where two players were accused of trying to lose by an even larger margin than the Las Vegas betting lines.
The team didn’t win 20 games in a season until 2009-10, and while Northwestern has qualified for the second-tier National Invitational Tournament seven times, the Wildcats had never taken a step onto the main dance floor of the NCAA tournament. In fact, they had never even been close.
So while keeping a casual eye on my alma mater while they would provide one or two upsets a year, I was forced to channel my madness into rooting for Philadelphia schools like Villanova or Temple, or New Jersey schools like Seton Hall.
But a glimmer of hope appeared when Northwestern hired former Duke player Chris Collins as its new head coach in 2013.
The son of former 76ers player Doug Collins had never been the head coach of a college team before, but some of that Duke winning had to rub off on my Wildcats, right?
Well it took some time, but after winning 20 games in 2015-16, raising my hopes a little, it started to look like this season might be the year.
And I was all-in on going along for the ride.
Every game was must-see TV, including the good (a 66-59 win at No. 5 Wisconsin) and the bad (two losses to rival Illinois).
I became obsessed with obscure statistical rankings like Kenpom and RPI — although I still don’t really know what either of them mean or how they are calculated.
I became an expert in the emerging scientific field of “bracketology” and its leading proponent, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who became my favorite person to follow on Twitter. I became very familiar with phrases like “on the bubble,” “first four in” and “last four out” when reading about the tournament.
I scoured Northwestern’s schedule to see if they were coming to the East Coast, and contemplated late-night drives to New York and Washington to watch them in person. Finally, I convinced a friend and die-hard Rutgers fan, Staff Writer Nicholas Huba, to drive two-plus hours to Piscataway for a 9 p.m. tipoff on a Thursday night to watch them beat the Scarlet Knights.
I even pulled my family in. I made sure everyone had updated Northwestern gear for Christmas, including hats, T-shirts and sweatshirts.
Would I mind driving my two girls, Emma and Kathryn, to Philadelphia for a concert? Nope, as long as I could sit in a nearby bar and watch my Wildcats play. (By the way, that was on March 1 when they defeated Michigan on a hail-mary, last-second pass and basket. If you want some entertainment, check out my Twitter feed, @ACPress Sports, in the moments after that game!)
My co-workers couldn’t escape either. I repeatedly forced them to watch the Wildcats on TV, subjecting them to my gasps, groans, cheers and complaints about officials.
But it was all worth it to hear Northwestern’s name called on Selection Sunday to receive their first-ever bid to the tournament.
My long national nightmare was over. Northwestern was finally going dancing.
And my excitement didn’t subside as my team won its first-ever tournament game over fellow “smart school” Vanderbilt. Did you know that for nearly two days, Northwestern had the best record (1-0) of any school in NCAA tournament history?
The final dance came Saturday as the Wildcats’ valiant comeback over No. 1 seed Gonzaga fell just short — I still can’t believe the refs missed that goaltending call!
And while I was disappointed the wild ride was over, I was also extremely thankful. I had witnessed history that I’ll never forget.
The Wildcats can’t be called the Mildcats anymore.
Northwestern isn’t the butt of every sports fan’s joke anymore.
My alma mater isn’t the doormat of the Big Ten — sorry Rutgers — anymore.
And I finally have a real reason to succumb to the madness of March.