The comparisons with the Cubs need to stop now.
Northwestern finally crashing the Big Dance is a great story on its own, maybe even the best one going as this college basketball season races helter-skelter toward the finish line. And like the Cubs, the Wildcats call Chicago home and will arrive for the playoffs with tabletop-sized chips on their shoulders and decades of crummy baggage in tow.
But seriously …
The Chicago team that won baseball’s World Series last fall and broke a century-and-counting championship drought was already a powerhouse and the heavy favorite. The program that bills itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” which has been playing basketball since 1904, couldn’t be much more of an underdog.
The Cubs are packed with MVP-caliber sluggers and Cy Young award winners and backed up by the best manager and front office in the game. They’d been serious contenders to win it all just the year before. So when they finally did, it was less a miracle than a matter of time.
The landscape looks a lot more daunting for a Northwestern. They’re headed to the West Region as a No. 8 seed to play No. 9 Vanderbilt with a young coach and no proven stars. Small wonder Northwestern vice president Jim Phillips immediately dubbed the Wildcats’ debut as the “Braniac Game.”
“We should match ACT and SAT scores at halftime,” Phillips joked, “and give whoever’s ahead an extra point in the game.”
Truth be told, if this was “College Bowl” instead of college basketball, the Wildcats alumni and fans would rate their chances of success a lot higher.
But over the course of a Sunday afternoon, a few thousand of the faithful took up coach Chris Collins’ mantra — “Believe,” is what he’s told anyone who would listen since he arrived in 2013 — and threw themselves a purple-themed party.
“You don’t get many chances in life in anything to be a part of something historical, things that have never ever been done,” Collins said. “So to be a part of this is something they can never take away from us.”
Collins’ fingerprints are all that “something.” The son of former star player and current NBA analyst, Doug Collins, Chris was a high school star at nearby Glenbrook North and then a player and long-time assistant in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s stellar Duke program.
Krzyzewski remains his North Star, so much so that Collins joked he should wear a bracelet with the letters “WWCKD” — What Would Coach K Do? — and check it before making big decisions.
But for all the lessons and tricks he’s learned from his mentor, Collins is very much his own man. He recalled going into recruits’ homes with “nothing tangible” like a storied past to sell and a pitch that began, “I can’t show you any banners. …”
What he sold them on, though, was himself and the promise that together they could build something different.
In a nice bit of serendipity, Vic Law, the first kid who committed to Collins’ first recruiting class, was alongside the coach to watch it unfold.
“I’m used to being part of all the ‘firsts’ here,” he laughed.
Yet all around him, there was mounting evidence that Northwestern, at long last, was finally beginning to take sports seriously. A new, gleaming, $270 million, 500,000-square-foot athletic facility is being readied along the lakefront on this posh suburban Chicago campus.
And Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the Wildcats have played basketball since 1952, is about to begin a $110 million floor-to-ceiling renovation. The upper-deck bleachers were torn out after the regular-season finale last weekend and the rest of the schedule is so tight that the university had to convince the wrecking crews set to return Monday to leave the video boards in place for the watch party.
Whether Collins had anything so grand in mind when he arrived is unlikely. But what was important then, as well as now, is that he believed Northwestern basketball could be someday, and he got enough talented kids to buy in.
“He’s pretty good at that,” Law chuckled. “He brought up the Cubs a lot, too … and that ‘Why Not Us? (rallying cry). He’s a big fan.”
But even Law had to acknowledge replicating that success, at least this season, is probably out of reach.
“On top of that,” he added with a smile, “I grew up on the South Side. I’m a White Sox fan myself.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org and https://Twitter.com/JimLitke