Is this the year? Northwestern and the search for the NCAA tournament

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Two months after the impossible happened and some nine miles north of the flagpole that proves it did, the W is flying.

The time is basketball season, the place is Northwestern, and placards of the iconic W are everywhere at Anderson Hall, home of the athletic department. Yes, it stands for "win," but it also stands for "Wildcats."

This mimicry of the world champion Chicago Cubs is not born just of proximity, nor it is presumptuous. ... OK, maybe it is, just a little.

But the Northwestern basketball team has a chance to do something it has never done before, so naturally, the Wildcats are drawing inspiration from the baseball team that did something it hadn't done for 108 years.

The Wildcats have never, ever been to the NCAA tournament, a wound made even deeper by the simple fact that Northwestern is the only Division I basketball school to miss out on a tournament that began in 1939. Just to twist the knife, the first Final Four 78 years ago was held at Patten Gymnasium on the Evanston campus, and the 1956 NCAA championship won by Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco occurred at McGaw Memorial Hall.

But as of today, Northwestern is 15-4 with a decent shot of making the tournament,according to Bracketology. It all depends on how the Cats fare in the 11 Big Ten games that remain on their schedule. So far, they are 4-2 in the conference and coming off an 89-54 win over a decent Iowa team.

"Why not us?" asked captain and junior point guard Bryant McIntosh, who sent a tweet with the hashtag #FlytheW and a GIF of the flag flying above Wrigley on Oct. 31, when the Cubs were down three games to two against the Indians. "We really started talking about it last summer, when it looked like the Cubs might finally win it all."

That dream scheme is not the only thing that draws the team together. At the workstation of Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips sit two objects.

"I see them every day every time I sit at the computer," Phillips said. "One is a Cubs crystal ball that reminds me not only how much I love the team but also of the way they went about rebuilding the franchise. The other is a stone with the Northwestern logo that symbolizes the motto of Coach [Chris] Collins and the basketball team: Pound the Rock. Just keep hammering away, and someday it will break."

Since he took over as AD in 2008, Phillips has forged a close relationship with the Cubs and his Wilmette neighbor, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts. Northwestern has played lacrosse, field hockey, football and baseball games at Wrigley, and the Cubs have used Northwestern facilities for offseason training. Theo Epstein has been known to take in a basketball game at Welsh-Ryan Arena with his son.

Phillips and his wife, Laura, rode in the Cubs' victory parade.

"Bus No. 6," he said. "For a Chicago kid who used to turn up the wooden seats at Wrigley for the sweepers so that I could get a free pass -- I parlayed one general admission ticket into 40 games one summer -- it was the thrill of a lifetime."

The highlight film that plays before every home game on the screen above the court at Welsh-Ryan even includes a baseball highlight: Chris Collins leading Cubs fans in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He has been afforded the honor of throwing out the first pitch three times.

"Three strikes," he said proudly. "After the second one, my 13-year-old son kidded me about my velocity, so the third time, I put a little zip on it. Once upon a time, I was a pitcher. I can do a pretty fair imitation of Rick Sutcliffe -- his high leg kick, the way he cupped the ball behind his back in the windup. He's a friend of my dad."

Chris' father is Doug Collins, the former Olympic and NBA star, a former coach of the Bulls and Michael Jordan for three years and currently an NBA analyst for ESPN.

"I actually became a Cubs fan before my dad took over the Bulls," Chris Collins said. "When we lived in Arizona, I fell in love with them listening to Harry Caray on WGN. Huge Andre Dawson fan."

Phillips didn't hire the 41-year-old Collins because they both love the Cubs. "I just knew he was the right man for the job," the AD said.

When Collins arrived in Evanston in 2013 to replace longtime coach Bill Carmody, he had been a fixture at Duke, first as a standout guard (1992-96) and then as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski from 2000 to 2013. His primary responsibility was the backcourt, so every Blue Devils guard from Jay Williams to J.J. Redick to Kyrie Irving had come under his tutelage. Now he has McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey to call his own.

It isn't easy to build a successful basketball program at the only private university in the Big Ten, which is the main reason the Wildcats have never been invited to the Big Dance. Realizing it might take some time, Collins borrowed the Pound the Rock slogan used by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and inspired by a passage written by journalist Jacob Riis at the end of the 19th century:

When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

The Wildcats were the ones who took a pounding the first two seasons under Collins, finishing 14-19 and 15-17. But Collins' coaching and recruiting paid off last season, with a 13-1 start and a school-record 20 victories (along with 12 losses). This season might be the one that sees that purple rock inside the locker room crack from the constant taps it gets as the players head to the court. Their only losses have been close ones to quality teams -- at Butler, vs. Notre Dame, at Michigan State and vs. Minnesota. As ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas tweeted Dec. 27, "Northwestern is a fun team to watch, and will play in the NCAA tournament."

That would please the Malnati family to no end.

The Cubs and Wildcats come together on, fittingly, the northwestern corner of University Place and Sherman Avenue at the edge of the campus in Evanston. That's where Lou Malnati's Pizzeria has one of its famous deep dish pizza franchises.

This one is sparkling clean, with nothing but Cubs decor: artwork, programs that trace the history of the team, and framed jerseys of Rick Sutcliffe (front) and Mark Grace (back). Ads for Lou Malnati's have been a regular feature of Cubs broadcasts for years, and though Lou passed away in 1978, his family still runs the enterprise. In fact, his son Marc issued a challenge to Antonio's Pizza in Cleveland before the World Series: winner gets to pour a vat of pizza sauce over the loser. Marc offered his nonagenarian mother, Jean, as the recipient.

Well, it just so happens that Tino Malnati,Lou's grandson, Marc's nephew and the son of Fenwick High basketball coach Rick Malnati, is a 6-foot-3 freshman walk-on guard for the Wildcats. A pass-first playmaker, Tino has yet to get in a game, but he can dish on the real Cubs fans on the team: "Doctor Phillips and Coach Collins, of course. Me, Bryant McIntosh, Jordan Ash, Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin, Barret Benson, Charlie Hall. Vic Law is a White Sox fan, but he was wearing a Javy Baez jersey during the Series."

"I have no problem using the Cubs as inspiration," said Law, whose emergence after a season lost to injury has been a major factor in the team's success. "Just know that come Opening Day, I'll be holding down the fort for the White Sox."

Northwestern also has two Indians fans in Ohioans Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly. But they were not made to suffer the same indignity as Vincent LoSchiavo, the representative from Antonio's who traveled to Chicago after the Series to take his sauce bath in an Indians jersey.

"Yes, the Cubs are big in my family," Tino said. "Grandma used to call all the time after a big play. I watched Game 7 at my house wearing a Jason Heyward jersey."

That would turn out to be a fortuitous choice. It was Heyward who rallied the Cubs with a stirring speech in the weight room during the short rain delay in Game 7 in Cleveland.

At about the time Heyward was telling his teammates that they were brothers fighting for one another, McIntosh was in Wrigleyville, moving his car so it wouldn't get ticketed.

"I almost missed the end of the game!" the native of Greensburg, Indiana, said. "But I got back to the apartment of one of our graduate assistants, Ollie Goss, just in time for the 10th. Poor Ollie is an Indians fan, so I gave it to him a little in my Kris Bryant jersey." It was Bryant whose throw from third to first baseman Anthony Rizzo ended the game with the Cubs on top 8-7.

Earlier that night, Phillips, watching at home with his wife and five kids, had broken a remote after the Indians tied the game in the eighth. "Comcast charged me $89 for a new one," he said.

When the last out was made, the Phillips family erupted in gleeful pandemonium. Fortunately, he hadn't broken his phone, which he used to film the scene. Phillips later sent Christmas cards of the family posing in front of the ivy at Wrigley with the World Series trophy and the message: "JOY TO THE WORLD ... SERIES."

Collins too saw Game 7 at home. "We had three generations there, which was kind of nice," he said. "Past, present and future. Besides joy, I felt this tremendous sense of admiration. For the way Theo Epstein had rebuilt the team with patience, for the way Joe Maddon kept his players in the moment and told them to embrace the pressure. And I thought, 'We can do that.' We can become something meaningful to this great city."

After McIntosh read about Heyward's speech, he thought the Wildcats might benefit from the same message. "We all got together at the start of the season and spoke about what he said. Trust in each other. Play for each other. Forget about the past."

It's a little difficult to forget the past in Welsh-Ryan Arena. First built as McGaw Memorial Hall in 1952, the home court has its charms, but it's also in need of another face-lift, which means the Wildcats will be practicing at Patten Gym (not the same as the original Final Four structure) next season and playing home games at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, some 40 minutes away with traffic. As such, it would be nice to give the old place a send-off.

On Jan. 5, the 12-3 Wildcats hosted 13-2 Minnesota in an heir battle, with Collins matching wits with Rick Pitino's son, Richard. Theo Epstein was not there, nor were Hall's parents (Northwestern alumni Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall), but a near-sellout crowd of 7,215 braved the cold to see if the Wildcats are for real.

They certainly looked like they were in the first half, riding the hot hands of Law (12 points) and McIntosh (14) to a 39-35 lead at the break. When the members of the football team marched onto the court just before the half with the Pinstripe Bowl trophy they won Dec. 28 by beating Pitt at Yankee Stadium, that W looked pretty big.

But in the second half, the shooters went as cold as the outside thermometers, and the Gophers went on a 10-0 run to take the lead. Still, the Wildcats had a shot when McIntosh hit a 3 with 13.2 seconds left to close to within 66-64. Alas, Minnesota ran out the clock at the line to win 70-66.

"A tale of two games," Collins said afterward. "Are we disappointed? Absolutely. But we also realize that if we lose at home, we just have to make up for it on the road."

Three days later, Northwestern did just that by beating 9-4 Nebraska 74-66 in Lincoln as Lindsey scored 19 and McIntosh moved into second place on the school's all-time assist list (456). The Wildcats trailed 37-33 at the half, but as the Cubs could tell them, you can always come from behind.

The team faced a different level of adversity the next week, when Jordan Hankins, a sophomore on the Northwestern women's basketball team, was found dead in her room, a victim of suicide. Because they share the same workspace and love of the game, the players on the men's and women's teams are close. Collins would always smile at the loud music Hankins played outside his office while she took shooting practice. The day after the news of the tragedy, the coach gave an emotional talk to the team. Two days later, in a road game at Rutgers, they fought through sadness and bewilderment to win 69-62.

They were back at Welsh-Ryan on Jan. 14 for the women's game against Indiana. The women wore No. 5 jerseys in warm-ups to honor Hankins, and the men sat in the student section to lead cheers and lift spirits. Northwestern won 80-67, and afterward, coach Joe McKeown thanked the men's team for their support. He also said that Collins was so into the game that McKeown was afraid he might get hit with a technical.

The next night, in the same place, the men dominated the 11-7 Hawkeyes before 7,732 cheering fans. The Wildcats scored the first eight points, and the 35-point margin was the largest in the 112-year history of the rivalry. McIntosh scored 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting with 10 assists, Lindsey had 22 points with eight rebounds, and Law helped hold Iowa's best scorer, Peter Jok, to four points.

"It was our best 40-minute performance of the year," Collins said after the game.

Then he pivoted to a different year: "When I took this thing over four years ago, I walked into Welsh-Ryan, and it was dark ... all of us are kind of dreamers at heart ... you kind of close your eyes, and you envision a night like tonight."

There was only one mild disappointment. Sunday night was the night the Cubs were supposed to bring the World Series trophy to center court. But it seems the trophy was needed for a celebration at the White House the next day.

Oh, well. There'll be time to show it off before the NCAA tournament starts.

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