Anything madder than a March Madness involving Northwestern?

The best time of the year is almost upon us, with one of the best stories of the decade as an extra reward. Northwestern’s inclusion in the NCAA tournament will give new meaning to the basketball term ‘‘bonus.’’

March Madness unofficially starts Sunday, when the tournament brackets are announced. It’s appointment TV for anyone with an allegiance to a school or a love of office pools. And it’s appointment TV for long-suffering Northwestern hoops fans, as though there’s any other kind of Northwestern hoops fan.

The Wildcats are going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since it began in 1939. Stunning, on so many levels. OK, it’s not akin to winning a Nobel Prize, something Northwestern has done 11 times. And if you really think about it, we’re rolling our eyes at all the years of bad basketball as much as we’re celebrating the fact that Northwestern finally will be one of the 68 teams selected to the tournament.

You’d think just by chance two or three guys with basketball skills would have matriculated to Northwestern at the same time, enough to push the school into the Big Dance. But it didn’t happen, not even once. And, really, it hasn’t even been particularly close. But finally, through the efforts of athletic director Jim Phillips, coach Chris Collins and some gifted basketball players, Northwestern has come up with a tournament-worthy team.

Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh (30) and Vic Law (4) celebrate during the Wildcats' victory Thursday in the Big Ten tournament. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

This won’t be a let’s-let-the-poor-slobs-in sympathy selection, something the committee wouldn’t be above doing. The Wildcats will get in because they’re legitimately good — the best way to get in. They aren’t sitting nervously on the bubble. There is no debate about whether they’re an NCAA tournament team or a National Invitation Tournament team.

They’ll be in the real tournament.

Illinois, on the other hand, won’t be in the real tournament. That doesn’t qualify as breaking news, which is the biggest indictment of coach John Groce and why he was canned Saturday. From 1981 to 2011, the Illini made the NCAA tournament 24 times. Since then, they have made it just once (2013). The only way this makes sense is if you believe a once-proud program somehow can collapse on itself so badly as to render it inconsequential. It’s why athletic director Josh Whitman is looking for a new coach now.

Did you ever envision a world in which Northwestern was a basketball have and Illinois a have-not?

Stories such as Northwestern’s are the reason so many people love the NCAA tournament. We love the Bucknells, the Middle Tennessees and the Florida Gulf Coasts. We love the underdog, though I’m not sure how much of an underdog the Cats will be in their first game, if at all. I think they could skip the feisty underdog stage and win a couple of games in the tournament. Again, what a strange, new world this is.

People who don’t like college basketball will spend the next three weeks bemoaning the low talent level across the board, missing the point like an Andre Drummond free-throw attempt. Yes, we know the NBA has drained the college ranks of top players. We know we’re watching a lesser product. We know Northwestern wouldn’t be competitive in the D-League. But it’s hard to beat the NCAA tournament for sheer entertainment value, even if peripheral things such as office pools and gambling are huge components of that entertainment.

It doesn’t matter why there’s so much interest in the tournament, only that there is. The NBA clearly is the superior game in terms of athleticism. But I can stop this debate with two words: the Bulls. The NBA is much more interesting because it’s a man’s game? The Bulls. The NBA is better because you don’t have to watch a game featuring some unathletic kid from a small town in Wyoming? The Bulls.

The Bulls could put a skydiver to sleep at 20,000 feet.

Let’s just enjoy this. For three weeks, college basketball will grip the nation and not let go until a national champion is crowned.

I mentioned that Northwestern has the ability to win a game or two in the tournament. And the Cats do, as long as they leave behind the version of themselves that lost five of seven games in a late-season stretch.

Northwestern in the Sweet 16? At a time of the year when crazy sports stories get written routinely, what a story that would be.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.