Northwestern is taking strides to make the impossible seem likely, if not expected.
Five years after making their maiden NCAA appearance, the seventh-seeded Wildcats are back in the NCAA Tournament and they will face 10th-seeded Boise State on Thursday evening at Sacramento, Calif.
“It was unbelievable to go in 2017 but then when you stamp it and go again, it’s not some one-hit wonder or a flash in the pan,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “To do it again in the Big Ten and at our place, it’s pretty impressive in my opinion.”
Northwestern defeated Vanderbilt in its first foray in 2017 and also put up a strong fight while falling 79-73 to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round. The unbeaten Zags advanced to the title game before losing to North Carolina.
But instead of that magical 24-12 season becoming the norm, the Wildcats slid downward with five consecutive losing seasons before re-emerging this season with a 21-11 record.
“We let our (2017) momentum slip,” Collins said. “We kind of had to start from scratch again. So to build it twice at a place that has no history for basketball is pretty special. It’s something that means a lot to me, because you can’t do it alone.”
Boise State (24-9) has a deep trend of ineptitude on the March Madness stage. The Broncos have a 0-8 record, including a 64-53 first-round loss to Memphis in last season’s tournament.
Guard Max Rice knows the history — he is the son of coach Leon Rice — and is banking on the Broncos being ready to break through.
“I think it’s becoming the norm in this program that we expect to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Max Rice said. “Obviously, we expect to win a game in the tournament. We expect to win multiple games in the tournament.”
Boise State was the No. 2 seed in the Mountain West tournament and lost in the semifinals to Utah State.
Forward Tyson Degenhart leads the Broncos in scoring at 14.3 points per game with Rice (13.9) and guard Marcus Shaver Jr. (13.5) close behind.
The Wildcats were the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tourney but were eliminated by Penn State in the quarterfinals.
Degenhart is aware that being a high seed in the Big Ten is an impressive feat.
“They’re a good team,” Degenhart said of Northwestern. “The Big Ten is a really good league and they’ve played a lot of good teams this year. It should be a good challenge for us.”
Boo Buie makes Northwestern go with team-best averages of 17.1 points and 4.5 assists. Fellow guard Chase Audige chips in 13.8 points per game as well as a team-high 76 steals.
The Wildcats stumbled down the stretch with four setbacks in five games. But earlier in the season, Northwestern knocked off Purdue (a No. 1 seed) and Indiana (a 4 seed) in back-to-back games.
Leon Rice sees nothing but a major challenge for his Broncos.
“They look like one of the best-coached teams in the country and they have great players,” Leon Rice said. “What they did was really, really impressive in one of the best leagues in the country.”
Boise State is eager to get that zero out of its NCAA tournament win-loss column. At the same time, Northwestern strongly craves NCAA win No. 2.
“We’re still hungry,” Audige said. “We’re not one of those teams happy to be here and happy to get our name called. We’re trying to get out there and make some noise and make things shake.”
–Field Level Media