OK, I’ll say it for you: “Who’s there?”
“Northwestern basketball who?”
What in the wild world of sports has happened to the Wildcats?
Some of us are old enough to remember when Chris Collins’ Cats were actually pretty good. It was way back in March 2017, when they lit the world — or at least the school’s fawning alumni in sports media — on fire with a first-ever run to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats earned their first Big Dance victory, against Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City, and nearly took down No. 1-seeded Gonzaga for another. Displaying the guts and guile that had defined their season, they fought back from an 18-point halftime deficit against the Zags and might’ve advanced to the Sweet 16 if not for a horrendous bit of officiating that seems, upon reflection, almost beside the point.
Because the point is: Northwestern has been a sorry shell of its former self ever since.
Despite returning the heart of their roster last season, the Wildcats went old school — old Northwestern, that is — finishing below .500 and out of the postseason mix altogether. Along the way, Collins admitted that his team had lost its mojo.
“We went from everybody’s lovable losers to, all of the sudden, everywhere guys went, we’re getting praised, we’re being told everybody’s coming back, we’re going to be great again, we’re going to be even better,” he said. “We just fell into all the human-nature things that are normal.”
Speaking of normal, this season’s Wildcats are in the Big Ten cellar. Losers of eight straight games, they’re 12-15 overall and 3-13 in conference play — which feels a whole lot like their entire existence before a special season that perhaps must now be remembered as a fluke.
Athletic director Jim Phillips didn’t think it was a fluke when, on the heels of March Madness two years ago, he signed Collins to an extension through the 2024-25 season. But the picture looks different now, doesn’t it? These Wildcats — the lowest-scoring team in the league — shoot like they forgot to take off their winter mittens, rebound like they don’t need it to graduate and fall apart down the stretch like (gratuitous jab alert) a bunch of Medill School of Journalism alums on deadline.
In short: Northwestern is back to being, well, Northwestern.
It’s hard enough for a good college team to capture this pro-minded sports market’s attention. The Wildcats — their coach’s reputation fading, and their renovated home arena a disaster area — might as well have disappeared.
Knock-knock? Nobody’s home.
I’M JUST SAYIN’
Could 2019 be a worse year on our sports scene to this point?
It started with Bears kicker Cody Parkey pulling a Cody Parkey against the Eagles in the playoffs. The Blackhawks, losers of back-to-back home games against teams they really needed to beat, might soon need to hit the “eject” button if their postseason quest nosedives. The suddenly lukewarm Bulls — how dare they stop embarrassing themselves nightly! — are blowing the tank job for Duke’s Zion Williamson.
The White Sox, meanwhile, failed to corral free agent superstar Manny Machado. Perhaps you’ve heard about that.
College basketball is no better. On the heels of its bedazzling Final Four run, Loyola has returned to a more modest existence. DePaul is flirting with a third straight last-place Big East finish. Illinois continues to make a mockery of what loyalists keep insisting is a winning tradition. And Northwestern has vanished inside its tiny Evanston bubble.
Oh, and Robbie Gould — to whom the 49ers handed their franchise tag Tuesday — isn’t coming home to solve the Bears’ kicking problems after all.
Other than that, we’re killing it.
• If it won’t be Gould or Parkey kicking for the Bears next season, who’s got next? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know for sure is Anthony “Spice” Adams should post a “tryout” video ASAP.
• Corey Crawford has been cleared for takeoff after recovering from another concussion, and all the Hawks goalie has to do now is play flawlessly (rust? what rust?) so his team can survive a battle royale against a host of desperate competitors and emerge with a wild-card berth.
No pressure, pal.
• If Taylor Hall of the last-place Devils could win the Hart Trophy last season, then Patrick Kane of the last-place Hawks can win it this season. Right?
Wrong. An MVP never should come from a last-place team. Where would the Hawks be without Kane? I’m no hockey analytics expert, but I’m going to say last place.
Then again, if the Hawks climb all the way up to, say, next-to-last place, we might have something here.
• Not to pick on Chicago State basketball, but some cursory digging revealed that the Cougars have lost a rather amazing 53 of their last 55 Western Athletic Conference games. A few questions about that:
Chicago State’s in the WAC?
Was the Mars Athletic Conference all filled up?
Would Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot start for the Cougs?
• All the consternation from here to Mesa, Ariz., regarding Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections begs the question: Are the Cubs more likely to win 79 games this season, as PECOTA portends, or the reverse of that — a robust 97?
If I had to bet my house on one or the other, heck, I’d go with 97. Then again, I’m currently renting.