Friday, March 9, 2012

You Don't Know How It Feels: How The Other Half Lives

Another year has come and gone, and the Northwestern Wildcats will not be a part of the tournament field once again. The Wildcats fell in their first round matchup with the Gophers yesterday, a game went to overtime and was quite possibly a microcosm of the entire season and even the entire history of Northwestern basketball. Of course it took overtime for Northwestern to eventually be put down. Instead of zooming off screen right before putting down the horse with the broken leg, Northwestern's demise is always as gruesome as possible and they always make you watch...oh they make you watch.

In the waning seconds of regulation with the game tied at 61, Minnesota's Andre Hollins took a step back jumper that clanged off of the rim, resulting in a long rebound that hit the floor with approximately 3 seconds left. An eternity. Civilizations rose and fell, and many an outlook straddled the increasingly stark line of demarcation between hope and nihilism.

JerShon Cobb grabbed the rebound on the bounce and tossed it to Sobolewski, a step or two ahead of him. Sobolewski made it just past the three point line, shooting off of one foot, almost like a long range tear drop shot. The tear drop streaked across the air, pulled along ever so slightly by the invisible gravitational pull of each eye present tracking the ball in its ascent and descent. It clanged off the heel of the rim: could there have been any other outcome?

Northwestern will once again miss the tournament, and this season will have served as arguably the most painful campaign in a long series of seasons ending in ennui and all five known stages of grief. The Wildcats faced 11 RPI Top 50 opponents and came away victorious only once, but it's the unbearable closeness of many of those losses that makes any of this relevant. In and of themselves, they are simply good efforts met by slightly better efforts from significantly more talented squads, but together they accrue into a legitimately cosmic gripe: why me? The Powerball machine of life has spat out wrong number after number in Evanston's direction, the accompanying losing tickets providing enough loose paper to build a flammable, ironic monument that gets close to piercing the upper crust of Earth's atmosphere but doesn't quite get to peek its head out amongst the stars.

It wasn't too long ago that this was the case for our very own Wolverines. Under Amaker, the Wolverines on two occasions missed out on the tournament only to go on to win the NIT once and lose in the title game the other time, as well as the 2002-03 season, which could have possibly ended in a tournament berth if not for the self-imposed post-season ban (Michigan was a 3-seed in that Big Ten Tournament). Amaker's final team needed to beat the top-seeded Buckeyes in order to potentially win a tourney berth, but at least it was there for the taking. Of course, the unmentioned years of that era were forgettable in the worst sense.

Michigan has come a long way since its attempt to move on via the Ellerbe hire and the Amaker Era, one of often tantalizing brilliance interspersed with mind-numbing incompetence and failure at the systemic level. Since Beilein's arrival in 2007, Michigan has made the tournament three times, won two tournament games, and likely has a 3-seed in the Big Dance locked up barring a loss today. I don't need to tell you that that we've been to the tournament in the Beilein Era more times than Northwestern has in the entirety of its basketball history; this is not meant as a dig but rather another impetus to sit back and truly appreciate what we have here.

A couple of years ago, during the Year of Unmet Expectations that was the 2009-10 season, I felt much like BYCTOM after Evan Turner hit that shot. I wondered if success was an attainable thing, and if the previous season was just a Coke machine in the desert. Turner's shot went in with as much metaphysical certainty in its trajectory as Sobolewski's heave lacked in certainty.

So, Northwestern fan that isn't Mike Wilbon or Mike Greenberg, I know how it feels. I've been there...well, close. I've stared into the abyss of the NIT and the paralyzing notion of a certain thing's seeming impossibility, and I lived to tell about it. While I cannot promise that it will get better--especially as Michigan at its worst is still privy to far greater resources and, probably, institutional "want to" vis-a-vis the basketball program--I can say with certainty that as much as you may or may not believe that a deficit of luck had something to do with this year's failures (and past failures), a surplus of luck, in turn, is in fact decidedly not what would be the driving force behind any future success. When you lose close game after close game, luck is no longer a reasonable explanation. Leave the superstition to the Cubs fans, please.

Michigan went from losing close games to winning them, not because they "learned how to win" or an attitude of winning--whatever that means--was installed. Michigan did it by hiring a brilliant tactician with an eye for talent. I know what you're thinking, and no, I'm not saying that Northwestern needs to fire Bill Carmody, although I will say I was a little surprised when I recently discovered that he has been at Northwestern since 2000 (in this era of "" sites, it's kind of impressive that he's still hanging around despite not having taken them to one tournament appearance). I think a little more alumni support and perhaps the decline of the Illinois basketball program (hypothetical, of course), would do wonders for the Wildcats' ability to compete, but the thing that bridges the gap between a continuous series of close encounters and the other side, the land of the other half--the winners--is not luck but something that is obvious even to the layman. Northwestern's last field goal in regulation came with just under five minutes remaining, and, additionally, only one field goal was scored in overtime. Somehow, I don't imagine Beilein's 12th Michigan team looking so unequal to the task of vanquishing the apparition of superstition, that luck has a regular hand in our affairs.

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