Former Northwestern stars are all aboard the March Madness train

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Collins doesn’t want to hear talk of Northwestern’s first-ever NCAA tourney berth yet, but, well, we can’t shut up about it. (AP/Nati Harnik)

Add Ohio State coach Thad Matta to the ever-growing list of people who see something different — something special — in Northwestern this season.

“I think this is honestly the best Northwestern team that I’ve coached against,” said Matta, in his 13th season.

Strong words, though not surprising in light of the Wildcats’ 74-72 victory Sunday on the Buckeyes’ home court. It was momentous for Northwestern, which had lost 12 straight to Ohio State and 19 of 20 in the series since Matta’s arrival — and hadn’t won in Columbus since 1977.

Forty years is a long time. Forever is even longer. Northwestern’s latest victory — which raised its record to 16-4 (5-2 in Big Ten play) — cranked up the volume on talk of the first NCAA tournament in program history.

Coach Chris Collins would kindly ask that we turn it down a little.

“March is an eternity away,” he said. “We’ve still got 11 games. It’s not even relevant to be talking about that right now.”

Ah, but we beg to differ. What could be more relevant than a reason for people in the Chicago area and beyond to become interested in Northwestern basketball? That’s what this march for March is.

Good luck finding a long-suffering Wildcats fan who isn’t counting down the victories needed (five more? six?) to lock up a magical bid. That goes for former players, too.

“The way it’s gone so far, I think we’re going to get there,” said Kevin Rankin, a four-year starter at center and three-time team MVP in the early 1990s.

As a player, the only sniff Rankin got of the postseason was a pair of NIT games his senior season. Now 45 and living in Western Springs, Rankin — who played a decade of pro ball in Europe — is a season-ticket holder watching perhaps the best Northwestern team of ’em all.

If this tournament thing happens, he’ll be in the stands wherever the Wildcats are. And he’ll be expecting to take similar trips in ensuing years.

“This is going to be the first of many,” he said. “We’ve always just needed to get over this [tournament] hurdle. What this team has is depth. It’s a platform that’s sustainable. It’s a school people are going to want to go to. Once these guys are able to break through, it’s going to be a great story.”

Evan Eschmeyer was the program’s next outstanding post man after Rankin, leading the team in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons in the late ’90s. He also got to the NIT as a senior, his only postseason experience. That Wildcats team believed it needed two wins in the Big Ten tournament to make it to the Big Dance. It won one game before dropping a heartbreaker to Michigan State in the second.

“I have to live with the fact that we never made it,” said Eschmeyer, 41, who lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Like Rankin, Eschmeyer has been impressed with the building job led by Collins. He has watched a majority of the team’s games on television and has been back to Evanston this season. He’s keeping his calendar wide open for March.

“I think if they play it one game at a time and continue doing what they’re doing, there’s no reason they can’t contend for the Big Ten championship,” he said. “I fully expect this team [to] do well and build on this, and Chicago will embrace them.”

Just imagine it — a city of millions turning its collective sports eye, even for only a blip in time, to Northwestern basketball. Wouldn’t that be something?

“They’re a lock to make the tournament,’ said Tim Doyle, 34, a Wildcats guard from 2004-07 who lives in Glen Ellyn and is a host for the sports video network 120 Sports. “I actually think they’re going to win the league, and I’m not just saying that.

“I think they have to win one [tournament] game to really captivate the town. One win, and all eyes will be on you. If you get to the Sweet 16, the city will be in such a buzz. It would legit be a huge deal.”

Bracket experts have the Wildcats in a strong position, solidly in the field if the regular season were to end today. Which, of course, it won’t, to Collins’ earlier point.

But the media aren’t waiting to write this story. Several national outlets have published stories within the last couple of weeks on this purple progress toward the Big Dance.

Certain folks at the Big Ten Network, which televises many of Northwestern’s games, are all over it, too. Like analyst Shon Morris, who was a three-time Wildcats MVP in the 1980s, and lead studio host Dave Revsine, who might have an extra ounce or two of giddy-up in his voice these days when describing his alma mater’s game highlights.

“Unfortunately, having seen Northwestern through the years, you’re always a little concerned about Lucy pulling out the football at the last second,” Revsine said. “But certainly, they’re good enough to make the tournament.”

According to Morris, 50, the Wildcats are in “unless the bottom completely falls out.” Boy, those media types sure do like to paint dark pictures. No, not really.

“If this team gets in,” Morris said, “it’ll be like the 1995 [football] team making the Rose Bowl.”

Go ahead — crank up that volume.

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No. 8 UCLA at USC

10 p.m. Wednesday, FS1: The Bruins are coming off only their second defeat of the season, an 11-point decision at home against Arizona — the first time Steve Alford’s team has clearly been outplayed. The Trojans are 17-4, but all four of those losses have come in Pac-12 play.

No. 24 Xavier at No. 19 Cincinnati

6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2: The Musketeers — still recovering from a wicked stretch in which they lost three straight to higher-ranked Big East foes Villanova, Butler and Creighton — need a crosstown win in th worst way. As always, the Bearcats are a tough bunch. There’s bad blood and then some in this rivalry.

No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky

5:15 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Perhaps you’ve heard of these programs? One, or maybe both, of these teams is going to end up in the Final Four, you just know it. Let’s see what Jayhawks senior point guard Frank Mason III can get done against the Wildcats’ sensational young backcourt.

No. 12 Virginia at No. 1 Villanova

Noon Sunday, Fox-32: Same old Virginia, beating everybody it should and nesting toward the very top of the ACC standings. Can Tony Bennett’s team hit the road and hang with the best of the best, though? Such a good nonconference matchup in late January? A real treat.

No. 17 Duke at No. 14 Notre Dame

6 p.m. Monday, ESPN: The Irish have been terrific in recent seasons against the blue bloods of the ACC. Surprisingly, this is a chance for them to really bury the Blue Devils deep in the standings. Also: What will controversial Blue Devils junior Grayson Allen do next?


Up: Cincinnati. Speaking of the Bearcats, they’ve won 10 in a row and are off to a 7-0 start in the American conference. Think: March sleeper.

Down: Texas. Even coming off a buzzer-beating victory, the Longhorns are under .500 overall and tied for last place in the Big 12. Maybe Shaka Smart would’ve fared better at Illinois.

Up: Illinois State. Still chugging down the line at 8-0 in Missouri Valley play. Catch a Redbirds game if you can.

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