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. Record: 16-8. Tournament prospects: NIT prospects? Great!
Last two weeks: @Michigan State, L, 79-70; Michigan, W, 67-52; Indiana, W, 78-61; Iowa, L, 78-65
Upcoming: Minnesota, Penn State
What a long, strange, purple-laced trip it's been. This column, once a weekly affair so full of promise and hope and Obama-style yes-we-can-ness (not to mention dazzling prose, side-splitting humor, and shout-outs in Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune), has, in the last month, lost a significant share of its mojo.
For one thing, the column is no longer weekly. Life intervenes, as they say, and consequently I've been writing it bi-weekly, which sounds like it should mean twice a week but actually means every other week. (Consider that your English language usage tip of the bi-week.) My diminishing productivity has, sadly, coincided with Northwestern's diminishing chances of going dancing for the first time in school history.
And that's a real shame, because things were looking up before Northwestern laid a gigantic (it sounds even bigger in French: gigantesque!) egg in its loss to Iowa (Iowa!) on Wednesday. The Wildcats had just demolished Michigan and Indiana at home, looking very much like a tournament-worthy team in the process, and it appeared that America's Team was headed for a nice little run and a potential 10-8 record in conference play.
Beating the Hawkeyes in Iowa City (which Northwestern's football team has done in three straight
years trips, much to the consternation of my Iowa-bred friends) was a critical part of the hoops plan, but the Hawkeyes, who are not a good basketball team, sure looked like one against Northwestern, shooting 50 percent from three-point range and never letting the Wildcats in the game. The loss dropped NU to 16-8 overall (but with only one win against a team with an RPI under 50) and 5-7 in conference play and prompted an Illinois fan — likely emboldened by a binge-drinking episode and his school's surprisingly stellar play in recent weeks — to drop by a Northwestern message board and talk shit: "NCAA Tournament is something you will never see… Sleep well, ladies."
Speaking of ladies, actress Scarlett Johansson was evoked by ESPN's Joe Lunardi in his recent description of Northwestern's tourney prospects: "This is as nicely as I can say it. I have a better chance of getting a date with Scarlett Johansson than Northwestern does of making the NCAA tournament."
It was a mean-spirited little quote from a man whose sole contribution to the world appears to be his invention of the term "bracketology." In reality, Northwestern still has a significantly better chance of going dancing than Lunardi does of scoring a date with anyone, particularly Johansson, who already has a hot husband and who — should she meander off in search of a diversion — would not so much as glance at Lunardi anyway. So there.
Though it's likely NU is headed to the NIT, all hope is not lost. To get back on the bubble, Northwestern must beat Minnesota and Penn State at home, which I'm predicting will happen, and then must somehow upset Wisconsin on the road, which I'm predicting won't but could if the Badgers eat some expired Limburger before the game.
Whatever happens, Northwestern is still poised to have its best season ever. That's not saying much, of course, because a win Sunday against Minnesota would tie the school's all-time record with 17 wins. As my friend over at Northwestern's best sports blog put it before the Iowa loss: "Let me repeat that. A win tonight would tie the all-time Northwestern record for most regular season wins at 17. Folks, NU has played 104 seasons. There is no way to tread lightly on this topic."
He's right. So let's move on. The future is bright for Northwestern. Next year, the Wildcats will see the return of their best player, All-Big Ten forward Kevin Coble, who sat out this season with an ankle injury. They lose only one member of a terrific starting five that this season has featured two sophomores (including All-Big Ten candidate John Shurna) and freshman Drew Crawford (likely the conference's freshman of the year).
When I traveled to Evanston 10 days ago for Northwestern's dismantling of Michigan, I asked NU coach Bill Carmody if he was excited about the program's progress this season. Carmody isn't one for hyperbole (or even excitement, really), but he nodded in agreement. "We have players who can play," he told me at a practice the day before the Michigan game. "We haven't always had that."
I informed him I was writing a weekly column about the team for Deadspin. "That's your job?" he asked, looking concerned.
"Well, that's not all I do," I stammered. "Mostly I write for The New York Times Magazine, and I write books!"
"Oh, good," he said. "I was worried there for a second."
And with that, Carmody was off to suck on some cough drops (on which he's always sucking) and to yell at Serbian sophomore center Luka Mirkovic (at whom he's always yelling).
I stayed and watched practice, promising not to divulge any of the top-secret new plays Carmody was installing for the Michigan game. Let's hope Carmody has some tricks up his sleeve Sunday against Minnesota. Stay classy everyone, and I'll be back in a week (or two) with an update on Northwestern's pursuit of its first NCAA Tourney bid (or second straight NIT bid!) — and, if we're really lucky, a complete report on Joe Lunardi's other celebrity crushes.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine. His first book, America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life, is now out in paperback. He can be reached at www.benoitdenizetlewis.com or on Twitter.