Thursday, March 2, 2017

Let's buy some goddamn dancing shoes.

The most important forums for civil discussion and the advancement of society -- the internet and Twitter specifically -- were turned upside down this past Sunday night when the Oscars ended in the quizibuck to end all quizibucks, an announcement of the wrong film as Best Picture of the year. This televised conflagration of all we hold dear came to pass when "La La Land" producer and Northwestern alum Jordan Horowitz, whom I have on good authority once went on a date with my friend Amy, accepted the Oscar for Best Picture after a bizarre and confused envelope opening by non-matriculated Northwestern alum Warren Beatty, whom I have on good authority once hit on my sister's best friend Lily in an elevator, only to be informed moments later while making his acceptance speech that "Moonlight" had in fact won the award and Beatty's envelope mistakenly contained a card declaring "La La Land's" Emma Stone as Best Actress.

Naturally, the shared bond between these two Wildcats, albeit some five decades apart, has been examined ad nauseum by the purple community with one of the more peculiar perspectives being that the Northwestern connections to Sunday night's Oscar flub portends the end result of the eternal struggle that is NU's hunt for its first ever elusive NCAA Tournament bid.

This seems on the surface to be a crazy notion. How on Earth could these two disparate events be linked or at the very least correlative? The most logical response is that they aren't, and if you want to get all Occam's Razor on me, well, sure. But if we take a broader view we may be on to something. After all, La La Land was a heavy favorite to win Best Picture as it tied the record for most overall nominations with 14. Things, largely appeared to go smoothly including that Best Picture win, until the confusion and chaos ensued. Ultimately, though, the rightful victor was awarded and Horowitz's grace under fire left him smelling like roses despite having his dream snatched away from him. You might say, in a strange way, the course corrected and everybody won.

Northwestern, meanwhile, was expected to, at the very least, be on the tournament bubble this season with talk of a first-ever berth dominating discussion among alums and hangers on. At first everything seemed to be going according to plan. Northwestern had a strong non-conference run against a not unimpressive schedule and bulldozed through the first half of its Big Ten slate.

Then the wheels fell off.

The Wildcats appeared tourney-bound until a recent hard luck run of five losses in seven games pulled them firmly out of the field of bracket locks and precariously onto the bubble. One of those two wins was a road victory against No. 7 Wisconsin, which seemed to put the Cats perhaps just one win away from punching their ticket, but the stumbles continued against Illinois and Indiana and the quizibuck remained.

With just two games remaining before the conference tournament, and one of them against a powerful Purdue squad, Northwestern was up against the wall with, perhaps, its best chance for sealing an at large bid being a home matchup last night against a Michigan team also looking to burnish its resume.

What ensued was a wild back-and-forth second half that culminated in a moment I, and probably the restaurant patrons who heard my screams as I watched the final seconds on my phone, won't soon forget.

Dererk Pardon's buzzer-beating game-winner off a home-run inbounds pass is, without question, the most important shot in the history of Northwestern basketball. There is broad consensus, as everyone involved knew there would be prior to the game, that Northwestern can write its name in ink in the 2017 NCAA Tournament field. After a 78-year wait, the only tournament drought in the five power conferences and one of only a handful in Division I is set to end. Northwestern's 21 wins are the most in program history. Its 10 conference wins are its most since 1933. The buzzer-beater was Northwestern's first at home since walk-on Michael Jenkins drained a three to beat Iowa in 2005 -- a game I attended as a sophomore in college. For those of us in the alumni community who have had our hopes raised and dashed on multiple occasions in recent years this was the singular moment that showed you the program has finally turned the corner.

What's more is not simply the event, but how it happened. This was a punctuated emotional highlight to open up the month that thrives on punctuated emotional highlights. It is a highlight that will be replayed on Sportscenter all of this week and again when Northwestern's name is announced on selection Sunday. It is the kind of victory and visual that raises a program's profile in the eyes of couches and, perhaps more importantly, recruits. Northwestern will reach the NCAA Tournament this season for the first time, but the ripple effect from one layup will have a far-reaching impact for Northwestern hoops, particularly when one takes into account the renovated arena and training facilities NU will be rolling out in a few seasons.

Change has been building, but, barring an unlikely deep run in the tournament, this is the fulcrum on which this program hinges.

So where does that leave us fans, so prone to Wildcat-driven heartbreak? We are trying to be rational and contain ourselves, but that is, obviously, difficult for us right now. I have spent much of my waking time since last night mapping out the possibilities of plane flights to various opening-round sites, and, of course, watching the above YouTube video in a loop. It will take a while to come down from that high. To a certain degree, however, it feels like vindication for years of disappointment and anxiety. The road was bumpy, but much like the Oscars flub, even if it did not presage this moment exactly, we ended up with a just outcome.

For those of you who did not attend Northwestern, naturally you know the potential obnoxiousness that abounds. Last night's game would likely not have received the coverage it did on ESPN if the company were not littered with Wildcats. Several other sports media outlets have a shade of purple on their company directories. There is an obvious question to ask, that of whether or not we Wildcats will talk will talk about this incessantly until our inevitable tournament ouster. Well, to you fine folks I cannot calm your fears. Instead, I will say this:

We've been waiting 78 years to do it. You're goddamn right we will. I mean, unless they open up the wrong bracket.

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