Northwestern shouldn’t let one unfortunate moment define a season

Before we get to the bigger picture — the one of Northwestern finally kicking down the NCAA tournament door — let’s look at a smaller one that people naturally have made into the size of an IMAX screen.

The Wildcats were the victims of a terrible non-call Saturday by officials who missed an obvious goaltending violation on a shot by center Dererk Pardon. The NCAA later acknowledged what everybody saw live and on replay: Gonzaga’s Zach Collins had put his hand through the rim to block that shot.

I don’t know if it cost NU a chance to win the second-round game, and neither does anyone else. But if that play is how Cats fans are going to remember this season, then welcome to the big time, folks. You’ll be like every other fan base that thinks it got jobbed somehow.

‘‘In my heart, do I think if Dererk gets that call and we cut [the deficit] to three, we have a great chance to win? Yes,’’ NU coach Chris Collins said.

Gonzaga's Zach Collins sticks his hand through the hoop to block a shot by Northwestern center Dererk Pardon on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. Collins was not called for goaltending on the play. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

But you can make the argument that Collins’ ensuing technical cost NU just as dearly as the missed call. If the coach didn’t lose his cool after the error, didn’t give the Zags two made technical free throws, perhaps the Cats would have made another defensive stand against Gonzaga. If so, wouldn’t NU have been in the exact same spot it was before the blown call, trailing 63-58 with a chance to cut the lead to three points and a great chance to win? Yes. With the technical, though, the Cats were down seven.

It’s too bad the game has been reduced to this controversy. The officiating shouldn’t have been the story. The Cats put themselves in a huge hole and, instead of completely caving in, valiantly fought back and made a game of it. What an amazing response from a school that never had tasted March Madness before.

Think about it. NU, which hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament, wins its first game and then scares the bejabbers out of a No. 1 seed rather than dying the quick death most everyone thought it would. You can’t teach that sort of resolve, and it’s the most impressive thing about the Cats. For the longest time, theirs was a downtrodden program. A history like that doesn’t just go away because they happened to find some good players, for a change.

NU’s lot in life had been compared to the Cubs’, which wasn’t completely fair because the Cubs were the Michelangelos of losing before they won the World Series last season. There were seasons when the North Siders had the talent to win it all but didn’t, often because of a pervasive feeling that they had no business doing so. That wafted throughout the clubhouse and Wrigley Field. So when some poor soul reached out for a foul ball during a playoff game, the team reacted as though a nerve agent had been released upon the populace.

These Cats saw no reason why they shouldn’t win. They expected to win, even when history seemed to be snickering at them. The players believed, and Collins believed. The students started believing, then a bunch of J-school grads got their diplomas framed.

Maybe Illinois grads soon can follow suit. Over the weekend, the Illini hired Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood as their coach. From a distance, it looks like an inspired move. He was hugely successful at Stephen F. Austin, got Oklahoma State to the NCAA tournament in his one season in Stillwater and comes to Champaign hoping to put some life in a decidedly beige program. He was a longtime assistant at Western Illinois. Does that mean he can recruit the Chicago area? I don’t know. A skeptical everyone waits to find out.

NU should be very good next season. Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Pardon will be back. There are two ways to win in the NCAA tournament: have one or more gifted players who will go to the NBA after their freshman seasons or have talented, but not too talented, players who can grow together to the point where they are very dangerous by the time they’re juniors and seniors. The Cats are in the latter camp, a good camp to be in.

Illinois is in neither camp, but perhaps Underwood will find the answer that has been missing for too long in Champaign. Lots of people are excited about his hire. Lots of Illini fans are excited every time a new coach is hired. Winning will tell the only story that matters.

Nobody knows that better than NU now.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com