Even in defeat, on that January night, Northwestern left with a moral victory. Overmatched and undermanned, the Cats managed to terrify the eventual Big Ten champion. Already at 3-6 in conference play heading into the game, they had little hope of reaching the 2011 NCAA Tournament. But there was nothing to lose, and they played like it.
Fast forward to yesterday, when the team learned of the unfortunate news that Drew Crawford—having surgery to repair a torn labrum—will miss the rest of the season. Without its best player, NU might struggle to compete in a stacked conference. Immediately and naturally, conversation jumped to the promising 2013-14 season—assuming Crawford is granted a medical redshirt.
Northwestern basketball lives with the lack of tournament appearance hanging over its head. More so than perhaps any other school, the goal of dancing into March defines its sense of success. Every year, tournament chatter surrounds the team. After NU held off Baylor on Dec. 4, analysts and fans began to compare non-conference résumés from 2011 and 2012. The obsession makes sense.
Without Crawford, the tournament drought will most likely continue, but the perspective needs to change. The rest of the season provides an opportunity for everyone involved with this program to prove himself. From Bill Carmody to the depths of his bench, it is time for NU to embrace an underdog role and rebuilding mode – and do it well. Lost season, my ass.
And as that 2011 Ohio State game would show, you can't predict basketball. Buckle up.
The narratives still run deep. Jared Swopshire, inconsistent of late, can finally embrace his starring role. After being tossed around the Louisville bench for four years, he arrived at NU and quickly drew admiration from his teammates. When he erupted for 22 points against Mississippi Valley State, players gushed about how happy they were for the senior. Although the results have never mirrored the expectations, Swopshire will help to lead a young team against some of the best competition in the country. Quite the sendoff for a player who earned this position.
The best press conference exchange of the early season occurred between Brad Stevens and a Butler beat reporter. Stevens explained how the Bulldogs focused on shutting down Crawford and Reggie Hearn as part of their defensive game plan. The writer asked if Stevens had even heard of Hearn, the Fort Wayne, Ind. native during his high school career. The answer? No. Out of virtually thin air, the former walk-on became an excellent player. He leads the team with 14.1 points per game on an impressive 52 percent clip from the field. If Northwestern made a tournament run, it might not even qualify as the team's best success story.
Dave Sobolewski entered the offseason after some uncharacteristic frightful performances. In the last three games of his freshman year, he went a combined 0-for-12, and was criticized for below-average defensive performances. He returned with a chip on his shoulder. His improvement on both ends of the floor has been stunning, but most impressive has been his leadership. Just a sophomore, Sobolewski provides an emotional spark. If you expect a team with Sobolewski at point guard to fade against tougher opponents, think again.
Many believe that regardless of this year's results, Bill Carmody will be judged on next season. The rebuilding process starts now. Even with Crawford and Jershon Cobb rejoining the team next year, this team needs to develop its young core. Alex Olah – already the most polarizing player in recent NU basketball history – has a high ceiling but can improve his defense. Kale Abrahamson and Tre Demps look to emerge as reliable and consistent scoring threats. Sanjay Lumpkin will see significant playing time, as will Nikola Cerina when he returns from an ankle injury. Depth is a vital ingredient to tournament runs. Time to lay that foundation early.
Without Drew, the tournament chances look dim.
But there is much more to this team than waiting for next year, or for that selection show to one day call its name.
There is still a season to play, and here's betting this cast refuses to go down quietly.
How will they respond with nothing to lose?
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline