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: 11-3. Tournament prospects: Goodish.
Last week: @Illinois, L, 89-83 (OT); Michigan State, L, 91-70; Texas-Pan American, W, 53-44
Upcoming: @Michigan, Wisconsin
Thank God for Texas-Pan American. The Broncs (what kind of ridiculous name is that, anyway?), who are 1-16 and significantly worse than that record might suggest, came north last night and did their best Washington Generals impression, thus ending one of the most depressing stretches of my pathetic, Northwestern-loving life.
It all started in the conference opener last Thursday, when the Wildcats, ranked for the first time since Dick Vitale was scaring high school kids as a coach in New Jersey, lost a thriller in overtime at Illinois. Baby-faced NU sophomore John Shurna, who is quickly becoming the Big Ten's most lovable new star, scored 27 points en route to his second Big Ten Player of the Week honor, but the Wildcats couldn't stop Illinois center Mike Tisdale, who scored 31 points and seemed to talk shit after every one. Note to Mike: You're an average, skinny, blindingly white Big Ten center who looks like he should be answering the Addams family's door. Shut the hell up.
Bright and early on New Year's Day, only a few hours after Kathy Griffin asked Anderson Cooper for his "safe word" on CNN, Northwestern's football team lost a wild, heartbreaking overtime game against Auburn, which followed last year's wild, heartbreaking overtime game against Missouri. Sure, the Auburn game made for great television, and Pat Fitzgerald's ballsy decision to go for a fake field goal to win in OT earned him some props, but none of that changes the fact that Northwestern still hasn't won a bowl game since 1949. And next year, when the Wildcats make another bowl despite being discounted by everyone who somehow forgets that we've won more Big Ten championships in the last 15 years than Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, we will have to hear about the bowl drought all over again, complete with those damn grainy black-and-white highlights.
But back to basketball. The week from hell continued on Saturday, when NU's hoopsters got crushed at home by Michigan State on the night that Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard came to check them out. Shurna had another brilliant game (29 points, six rebounds, four assists), but the Cats, who shocked the Spartans last year in East Lansing, got demolished down low and fell behind big in the second half.
NU has a big problem with its big men. The starter, Serb Luka Mirkovic, shows promise but too often is a marshmallow around the basket, and sometimes I wish the student section would yell impolite things about his mother or his country, just to see if he can get angry. The same goes for the backup, Kyle Rowley, from Trinidad and Tobago, who is very big and very tall (7 feet, 280 pounds) but seems thoroughly uninterested in dunking a basketball.
Still, as dumbfounding and disheartening at this last week was, Northwestern's chances of making the tournament are still good. (And I'm not even on crack this week.) The Cats are 11-3 and must somehow survive the brutal first half of the conference slate (Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State) and then win more than they lose in the second half.
This will happen. This must happen. My therapist is currently on an inexcusable three-week vacation, meaning that if Northwestern loses to both Michigan and Wisconsin in the next week, someone will have to call Dr. Drew and tell him to cart me off to rehab.
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.