EVANSTON, Ill. — For the better part of the hour, Northwestern kept its cool.
The Wildcats knew they were on the verge of history, the first Northwestern team ever to make the NCAA tournament. The only suspense was where and who they’d be playing.
So as first one, two and then three brackets were announced, the players calmly chatted and joked with each other, playing to the camera whenever the CBS Selection Show cut to them. When “Northwestern” finally flashed on the screen, the Wildcats abandoned all composure.
Screaming and shouting, they leaped out of their seats, not even bothering to wait for who they’d play as the No. 8 seed in the West Region. (It’s Vanderbilt, for the record, on Thursday in Salt Lake City.) Twirling and hopping up and down, they piled together in a group hug while giddy fans gave them a standing ovation.
“I don’t even remember anything for the 15, 30 seconds after,” admitted senior Nathan Taphorn, who has seen Northwestern transform from a Big Ten also-ran — at best — to one of the 68 best teams in the country.
“Someone described this as a dream and it’s really, really close,” Taphorn said. “You can almost paint a picture of what a dream looks like with that.”
A fitting analogy, given that’s about all coach Chris Collins had to sell his players when he arrived here four years ago.
Northwestern has been playing basketball since 1904 and until Sunday, no team had ever made the NCAA tournament. It was one of five original Division-I schools to never have made the tournament. Granted, the first tournament wasn’t played until 1939. And Northwestern was considered the best team in the country eight years earlier.
But there has to be some pretty bad basketball in your past to go this long without experiencing March Madness, and Northwestern’s year-by-year history might as well be labeled NSFW.
While this was just the fourth time the Wildcats cracked the 20-win mark, there were 14 years in which they lost 20 or more games. Most years, just hovering around .500 was an accomplishment.
As for the bruising Big Ten, conference play left the Wildcats looking like their school colors of purple and black more often than not. Their 10-8 record this year — which included a historic win at Ohio State — was the first time since 1967-68 they’d managed a winning record in the Big Ten.
“A lot of people told me not to come here. A lot of people told me this couldn’t be done. 'Why would you go there and be like all the other coaches and all the other teams?’ ” Collins recalled.
“That’s not the way I felt. I wanted to come here and I wanted to make this my home,” he said. “I believed in my heart that today, and many days like this to come, would happen.”
But it’s one thing to talk about history. It’s quite another to see it unfold before you.
Welsh-Ryan Arena is undergoing a $110 million renovation, and timetable is so tight to get it done before the 2018-19 season that workers began ripping out seats after the regular-season finale last weekend. The athletic department staff had to negotiate to keep the video boards so there’d actually be somewhere to have the watch party.
But it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d had to hold it in the parking lot, with temperatures dipping below freezing. There were about 2,000 people in what seats were left when the players arrived. Students. Alums. Donors. Neighbors. People who had no connection to Northwestern previously but have gotten caught up in the fairy-tale story this season.
All of them wearing purple and big grins.
“What a special day,” Collins said. “What a special day.”
For the better part of an hour, Collins, his team and their fans patiently waited. Collins occasionally fidgeted, rocking back and forth and rubbing a hand along his leg. There were groans every time another Big Ten team or No. 8 or 9 seed was revealed, the anticipation building.
But after the third bracket was announced, Collins leaned back and said, “We’re going west.”
Five minutes later, Greg Gumbel uttered “Nor” and pandemonium erupted.
The wait was over. Finally.