A weekly feature in which author Benoit Denizet-Lewis follows the fortunes of the only BCS school to have sucked so consistently and spectacularly that it has never made the NCAA tournament, Northwestern. Current record: 10-1. Tournament prospects: Good.
Welcome to the first installment of "So You Think NU Can Dance," my poorly named weekly column following the progress of the boys from Evanston, Ill., who are gamely undertaking the most unlikely task in the history of modern sports: getting Northwestern basketball to the Big Dance.
It hasn't happened since, well, ever. Northwestern hosted the first NCAA tournament back in 1939, and that's the closest the school has ever come. When I covered the Wildcats in the mid-'90s as a student for The Daily Northwestern, the team was interesting only to the extent that it failed so spectacularly. There were three 11th-place conference finishes, a point-shaving scandal, and a coach, Ricky Byrdsong, who once left the bench during a game at Minnesota to chat and exchange high-fives with fans in the stands. (He would later be gunned down by a white supremacist on a killing spree.) These were lean years.
Today, when you open up your newspaper (not that you actually do that), you will see that Northwestern is 10-1 and ranked (No. 25, AP) for the first time since the Nixon administration. NU — not NW, in case anyone cares — has won nine straight games, including victories over Iowa State, Notre Dame, North Carolina State, and Stanford. The Wildcats open up their conference slate tonight at Illinois on the Big Ten Network, your home for conference field hockey news and the still-frightening visage of Gene Keady. The way I figure it, they'll need to go at least 9-9 in the Big Ten to get to 21 wins and a tourney bid, at which point the streets of Evanston will swarm with smiling young men and women who, for one happy moment, will forget they didn't get into Harvard. (Forgive me for that one, fellow NU graduates. My Deadspin editor wants more "snark.")
A few introductions are in order. There's head coach Bill Carmody, master of both the Princeton offense and the pithy quote ("They're not good enough to be overconfident," he once said of his team). There's senior Kevin Coble, the team's best player and one of the conference's most potent offensive weapons, who is unfortunately out for the season with a Lisfranc fracture, a rare foot injury named after a French doctor, meaning you should say "Lisfranc" with a snooty French accent. Sans Coble (pronounced "CO-bull," in case any college basketball studio analysts would like to get that right), the Cats are doing everything they can to confirm the Ewing Theory. They're playing beautiful team basketball — backdoor cuts and bounce passes and deep threes and a suffocating 1-3-1 defense. There's sophomore forward John Shurna, who looks like he's 15 and has one of the uglier shots in college basketball, but whom you can't help but love, what with his aw-shucks smile and the way he claps for himself after he makes a nice play. There's junior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, who never leaves the court and seemingly never commits a turnover. There's an NBA ref's kid (Drew Crawford, son of Danny), who chose Northwestern over Wake Forest, which doesn't happen very often. There's a Serb who will surely be the subject of one of those soft-focus halftime features about how basketball in a war-torn nation offered an escape.
And who am I? I'm a Northwestern basketball fan, which is like being a Cubs fan, only lonelier. I'm also a writer with The New York Times Magazine and the author of two books, neither of which are as important as the possibility of Northwestern making the NCAA tournament, but both of which you should buy nonetheless.
Every Friday (except for this week, when I'm doing this today because you'll all be hung over on Friday), I will be here, pontificating and prognosticating about the most important sports story of the new decade. I suggest you come along for the ride. Can Northwestern, a school that has turned the corner in football (three Big Ten championships since 1995 and a solid 8-4 record this year and a bid to the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day), do the same on the hardcourt? Yes, as another Chicago-area underdog once said, they can.
The bandwagon is leaving the station …
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life. He can be reached at www.benoitdenizetlewis.com or on Twitter.