Northwestern’s basketball team arrived in New York for the Big Ten tournament with some exciting plans.
To stage an epic, stunning, out-of-nowhere run to a championship at Madison Square Garden? Well, not exactly. Before anything else, the Wildcats were going to gather and watch ESPN’s brilliant ‘‘30 for 30’’ documentary about North Carolina State’s monumental march to a national title in 1983.
Jim Valvano’s squad entered the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that year needing to cut down the nets just to have a chance to play in the Big Dance. The rest was history.
‘‘So it can be done,’’ Wildcats senior guard Bryant McIntosh told reporters Tuesday before one final practice in Evanston. ‘‘Anything can be done. We’ve just got to continue to battle.’’
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Such a grueling battle it has been for a team that entered the season with high hopes coming off the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. McIntosh, the straw that stirs the drink, has a right (shooting) shoulder that won’t stop screaming in pain. Junior Vic Law, as talented a player as Northwestern has, is unavailable with a toe injury. Reserve guard Jordan Ash has been shut down, too.
Yet that merely scratches the surface of what has gone wrong for a 10th-seeded Wildcats team — 15-16 overall, 6-12 in Big Ten play — that will face seventh-seeded Penn State for a chance to take on No. 2 seed Ohio State in the quarterfinals Friday. As coach Chris Collins and his players have admitted, the season was off the rails before it even started. The Wildcats, unaccustomed to major expectations, failed in their preparation for a vital follow-up act in the building of the program.
‘‘From the beginning of the season, no team has taken us lightly at all,’’ senior swingman and leading scorer Scottie Lindsey said. ‘‘They’ve all marked us on their calendar, and we had a target on our back. And that wasn’t something we were really used to.’’
Maybe Jimmy V would’ve had the answers. Collins didn’t pretend to when he said of his team, which has lost six games in a row: ‘‘Our confidence is low right now.’’
So where do the Wildcats go from here? To the Garden and what might be their one-and-done demise. Then again, maybe it won’t be. There’s only one way to find out.
‘‘The regular season is over, so it’s a fresh approach,’’ Collins said. ‘‘We’re playing Penn State Thursday night. I think the guys know if we win, we get to play [Friday]; if we lose, the season’s over. So let’s just go out there, let’s play our hearts out, let’s play tough, let’s play together and try to see if we can find a way to win a game.’’
McIntosh has some words of his own he’s planning to share with his teammates before the opening tip against the Nittany Lions.
‘‘Just lay it on the line each and every night,’’ he said, ‘‘and if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out swinging. That’s how we’ve always done it here. But that’ll definitely be my message to everybody. If we’re going to get beat, they’re going to have to take our heart out. That’s my idea of it.’’
It’s as good an idea as any.
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